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Fencing and Northern Dogs

By: Gary Wynn Kelly

Beginning with Happiness

The best containment system in the world is the simplest, and yet the hardest for owners to manage to do. It is a matter of exercising your dog sufficiently. A tired dog is a good dog. Many inferior containment systems will work well with a dog that is happy, healthy, and tired from being stimulated and exercised well each day. The dog will only challenge the containment system when it is insufficiently stimulated and exercised.

Northern breed dogs are genetically motivated to roam. For their own safety, they must be properly contained in a fenced yard, or confined to a trolley line. Some do well as house dogs–especially eskies, or American Eskimo dogs, but even such a small dog should only be released from a leash in a fenced yard. Larger dogs may have a greater need for outdoor containment, though they too, can be successfully managed as house dogs. People who do this are well aware of the implications of the opening paragraph.

Fencing needs will vary with the type and temperament of dog. Huskies are perhaps the most difficult to contain of the northern breeds, but all northern breeds have their famous escape artists, and the world is replete with a myriad of accounts about the dog that got away. In most instances a good fence will confine a northern dog adequately, but sometimes additional measures are necessary. This is one guide to help northern dog owners confine their dogs with a greater degree of success than many manage to do.

Starting with the Basics

If you have a northern dog that is escaping on a regular basis, it is best to begin with a physical examination of the fence you now have. If you are contemplating acquiring a northern dog, first check your fencing and yard to be certain that you can contain it safely and with as little frustration to yourself as possible.

Huskies require a fence of at least 6 feet in height, as do Malamutes. Many other northern breeds may do with less, but as 6 feet privacy fencing is a usual fencing style used widely in America. We suggest it as an initial appropriate enclosure for northern breeds.

Chain link and other fencing may be considered, but it should not be less than 6 feet, and greater if possible. Chain link can often be climbed by dogs, and can be easier for the dog to climb over than a wooden privacy fence.

If a fence of less than 6 feet is chosen of any type, make certain you first determine that the dog you are adopting will respect the fence. Some do, but it is best to assume that they do not unless they have demonstrated that they will do so over a long period of time.

If you are acquiring a puppy, do not assume that it will grow up respecting your fence. This is one of the best reasons we give for adopting a mature dog. With mature dogs, we usually know their habits, and can give some guidance that is more effective than for a puppy.

Mostly, dogs “learn” to escape. A properly handled and trained dog will be far less likely to escape, but any dog left with no stimulation and exercise for too long is too likely to become an escape artist. If you cannot provide adequate stimulation and exercise for your dog, or the one you are thinking of getting, then reconsider getting a dog, or consider getting two dogs so they can provide companionship to one another.

A physical examination of your fence should include checking posts, fence structure, the ground at the base of the fence, and points where the fence meets other structures, such as the garage, side of the house or another fence. Make sure that posts are solidly set in the ground, not rotten, and are in solid ground that is not too sandy, loamy or mushy. Check the ground area carefully, and think about the possibility that your dog might dig out.

Boredom is the biggest reason for a dog to attempt an escape. If the dog has had sufficient exercise, good training, and gets adequate stimulation, it is less likely to escape. Even that is no guarantee, as many a husky owner can assert. Some dogs just have a stronger tendency to roam.

Spay and Neuter Those Northern Dogs

A male dog will be more likely to roam if it is intact. Neutering your male dog early will reduce the tendency to roam.

Some people believe that female dogs don’t roam. They roam less, but are most likely to roam when they are in heat, and can get pregnant. As one text relates, the female dog in heat will even use her rabies tag to pick the lock and escape to find a male. That may be an exaggeration, but northern dog owners will assure anyone who will listen that they had a female once that.

Northern dogs have a strong roaming tendency, and selective hearing as they roam. They inevitably forget their names as they run or wander off, and do not remember them again until they are returned to home. Their expensive training is usually in the same category.

When a northern dog is in heat,or is looking for that female in heat, the dog will act as though the blood flow to the brain is restricted. It fails to heed any attempt to impair its roaming. It will crete new opportunities to escape confinement faster than the frustrated owner can fix the last escape attempt. The first step to getting your dog to respond is to spay or neuter the dog. With the blood flow restored to the brain, it will likely be a far more congenial companion, and far more responsive to your efforts to provide stimulation and exercise.

While this is written humorously, it is also meant seriously. With the reproductive instinct damped down, even northern dogs can be far more responsive to their owners. These dogs have a high independence quotient. Any owner can do their family a favor by spaying or neutering their dog. Unless one is a hobby breeder, and breeding to improve the breed after apprenticing with a knowledgeable breeder, one should not be breeding.

The Family Pack

Northern dogs are pack dogs. In the absence of another dog, the family becomes the pack. If the dog is getting plenty of quality pack time, exercise, games, and time spent in stimulation with the family pack, it is less inclined to escape. If this quality of life is lacking, even a second dog may not stop escape behaviors. The result can be 2 dogs escaping together. This is why northern dogs do not make good “back yard” dogs. They often start with destructive behaviors, and then escalate to escape behaviors.

Fencing Considerations

If your home has the typical redwood privacy fence, it is best to be sure that it is a solid fence, in good repair. Siberians especially, can go right through a wooden fence. A Malamute can demolish a fence in one lumbering rush. If the posts are not secure, a Malamute can remove them with relatively little effort. The average Malamute has a power equaled only by small tractors, young elephants, or an unhappy buffalo.

This being said, even the largest and strongest Malamutes can be convinced to stay at home happily in a healthy pack environment–one that offers stimulation, exercise, and good training. Often owners think of training as what they do with the dog when it is out of the yard, as when it is in the house, or out on leash. This is a mistake. Your dog spends much time in the yard, too. It should be taught limits, and expectations.

In nature, animals are taught environmental limits and expectations by natural elements and other animals. A hive of bees can teach many mammals to respect their territory quickly, as can a hill of determined ants. Bushes can form a barrier that can be a nasty barrier to prevent a dog from chasing other animals that choose to use the thickets to avoid capture. Your dog is well equipped to understand barriers and limits. Nature has evolved the dog’s brain with a conceptual understanding of barriers and limits.

Dogs typically escape from fenced areas in 3 ways:
1. They jump the fence.
2. They climb the fence, and scramble over the top to escape.
3. They bulldoze through the fence–generally at the weakest point, which is often the unrepaired gate area.
4. They find a hole, which is most likely at the gate posts, under the gate, or at a point where the gate transitions to the house wall, or a retaining wall.
5. The dog digs under the fence, which might be anywhere, but is often at the gate area. Sometimes a dog will dig a hole behind a bush or shrub, where the soil is easy to dig, and where you will not guess the hole to be hidden.

Over the Top–the Olympic Jumper

If you happen to own an Olympic Jumper, who can jump a 6 foot fence in a single bound, then you have work to do. I have seen a Siberian jump 8 foot fences, and known one that could do a 10 foot fence. That is not very usual. Most learn to jump.

Your dog learns to jump by being put into unsatisfactory containment areas, and escaping from them successfully. Each time your dog escapes, the dog wins, and learns a lesson that it does not forget. You can avoid having a jumper by never teaching jumping classes while the dog is young.

Putting a young dog in a 3 foot fence, and expecting the dog to stay there is often the first way that such lessons begin. Unless the dog is an American Eskimo, it is not likely to respect a 3 foot fence. For Siberians of more than 4 months, even a 4 foot fence is too low, unless other modifications have been done first.

Good behavior in fenced areas begins with solid containment in an area that intimidates the dog when young, so the dog will always assume it cannot escape. If the dog has already learned, then modifications must be made to the area to convince the dog that the fence is no longer an open door, or a challenge for future ingenuity

One solution is to add an addition in height. Often the addition of an arbor style open lattice to the top of the fence adds enough height to intimidate jumpers. This can look attractive, be easily installed, and still let in light and air that a higher fence might not.

If this is not a possible solution, then adding a second fence often is. If one has an outer wooden fence of 5 feet, and an inner fence of 6 feet that is set back 3 to 4 feet from the wooden fence, the dog will often not jump the first fence, as it is not sure of the clearance beyond that first fence. A shorter fence can be used if the top is angled inward–slanted back toward the dog. When the dog looks up, it perceives the fence as being vastly taller than it actually may be. Such an addition to a fence often works well, especially on chain link style fences.

A fence of 5 feet might be sufficient if there are tall plants, as in a thick hedge, in front of that fence. Some hedge plants can grow easily to 10 feet, and planted along the fence, present a barrier to jumpers, who cannot get enough space to jump the shorter fence behind the barricading plants. This is not an immediate solution, but over a short time, it can become an attractive one.

Climbers and Scramblers

Jumpers are actually rare. They do exist, and are troublesome, but mostly, even when people think their dog is a jumper, it is often not. Most dogs learn to climb and scramble.

I call such dogs climbers and scramblers, as they learn to go to a corner of the fence, stand up on their rear legs, and give a short jump and scramble. They get their front feet hooked over the top of the fence, and use their rear feet in the corner area to scramble up and over the fence. Chain link and open fences are the easiest to climb and scramble over, but even wooden fences of up to 6 feet can be climbed and scrambled over by a dog that has learned how. A gate area is often a good place for a climber and scrambler, as the dog will learn to use the gate hinges or latch for footing, and many gates are lower than the nearby fence.

Climbers and scramblers are far more easily frustrated than jumpers. Again,it is best to not teach them how to do such things, by always putting the young dog into a secure area, where such behaviors do not work, or have been made impossible by modifications.

One simple modification is to put a barrier across any such corner. The barrier need only be 4 feet tall, but space out from the corner by a foot or so. The dog cannot easily jump or scramble over the barrier, and have room to climb the fence, too. If a plant is put in between–especially a thick plant that has either an odor or thorns the dog prefers to avoid, then the dog will likely avoid that area.

Our favorite solution for climbers and scramblers is the hot wire fence. These units are inexpensive, averaging about $40 a unit, easily installed in an afternoon, and easily maintained. They are available through many pet stores, feed stores, and online at such sites as www.fishock.com. In time, there should be an article just about hot wire fencing in this library. CCNDR used this technique to contain dogs, and it worked for well over 300 rescued dogs. ADRTC has equipped its fencing with such a unit, as new fosters may well have bad habits.

Dogs can be “taught” to not climb over if an electric fence wire is run around the top perimeter. This usually teaches climbers to avoid climbing the fence after they receive a moderate shock a couple of times. The shock is approximately as painful as a bee sting, or banging one’s funny bone, and is more surprising than painful. A properly designed electric fence has a low current flow, and will not hurt the dog physically, but it does effectively teach the dog to respect the fence. The shock is designed to be memorable, and not painful-again, -much like banging one’s funny bone.

If there is only one corner area, and it is an out of the way spot, a piece of mesh cut into a triangle, and fastened to the fences at an angle will prevent a scrambler from escaping. Lattices added to the fence will often stop a climber, too. With a chain link or open fence, adding an upper section that slants inward can completely stop climbing.

Bulldozing Dogs

Dogs that have learned to bulldoze a fence can best be stopped by a much better fence. It may take installing new fencing. Reinforcement can work, but it may be easier to replace fencing, and wiser in the long run. A hot wire is one of the best ways to stop a bulldozing dog. The dog will quickly learn to not touch the wire at any point. If the wire is installed properly, it can completely discourage such bad behavior.

Dogs That Snake

Dogs that snake their way through any hole big enough to admit a rabbit are common. A Siberian can get through a4 inch opening. This should be impossible, but it often happens. Usually a faulty gate area is the favored point of escape. It is vital to be sure that no more than 1 to 2 inches is available at the gate on either side, and underneath it. Dogs will try to dig, chew,or otherwise increase the size of any opening, so measures should be taken to be sure this is not possible.

ADRTC uses the hot wire along gates, too. It is good for dogs to respect gates fully as much as fences, and the connection can be made from the gate hinge side. Using a flexible multistrand wire can insure that you can use the gate, but the connection remains in effect. At CCNDR, we taught entire packs to come through a gate one dog at a time, by using a hot wire on the gates. We have equipped the gates at ADRTC using this prior knowledge.

Metal strips, such as angle aluminum, can be put along edges to stop chewing. Concrete block can be buried under the gate, or concrete poured in the gate area to be certain that no dog can dig under the gate. A combination of gravel or rock with field or chicken wire under it can work, too. The dog cannot dig easily through the gravel or rock, and if it does, it encounters the mesh of the wire underneath. AT ADRTC, we buried concrete block and rock under gate areas. We also have the gates hotwired to discourage any interest in gates that we ourselves are not opening.

At transition points of fences to house walls, or fences to retaining walls, it is best to either add additional wood, wire fencing, or a combination to discourage a dog from considering that alternative. A hot wire works nicely here, too.

The Digging Dog

There are many solutions for digging dogs. Those dogs can be particularly difficult to stop, as they may attack the fence line anywhere along the perimeter. They can often be harder than jumpers to stop. A Malamute can dig a hole nearly 4 feet deep in just over 15 minutes if it is motivated. They should never be trusted in a yard with soft soil, unless one knows they do not dig, or has taken precautions. At ADRTC, we have gone to the expense of putting some 12 tons of large rock along the fence line–on both sides of the fence.

This is rock from 6-12 inches in size, so it is not easily moved. There is more than 100 pounds of rock per linear foot along our fences. This also works around the bottoms of trees to protect them while they are growing.

Northern dogs are diggers by nature. They all have the tendency while young especially. Many out grow it, but some do not. Even the American Eskimo dog can learn this behavior, and be hard to stop, as it does not need much of a hole to escape.

Here are some possible solutions to stopping dogs that dig out:

1. A few rolls of inexpensive fencing–like chicken wire, rolled out with a few rocks/blocks to keep it in place. If the fence line is clear of other obstructions, this works reasonably well, and prevents digging along the fence line. The fence can be cut in places to install plants that grow through it, or just plant grass through it. It cannot be mowed by a power mower safely, but can be kept trimmed with a weed eater.

2. If digging is confined to specific locations, and repeated there most often, then burying large rocks in the holes stops the digging. We had to do this to keep dogs from digging under a deck where we once lived.

3. Again, where digging is more limited, simply pouring concrete along the fence line, and mixing it with dirt, then watering it down to let it set can stop digging. Sure, the result is grossly inferior to concrete, but usually quite hard enough when it sets up to stop digging.

4. Bordering the yard with larger rocks–I used large flat pieces of AZ red slate, can stop digging. Make the rock large enough to prevent dogs from readily moving it with their feet/noses–usually meaning 25 pounds or more for Siberians.

5. Yes, the hot wire again. This is excellent for large areas as it can be strung out to 2500 feet or more. It can protect against jumping over, as well as digging. Simply run the wire from stake to stake about 4-6 inches above the ground around the perimeter you wish to protect. A dog touching the wire gets zapped. Smart dogs learn very quickly to avoid the wire. It is important to keep the wire from shorting, so brush and grass must be kept trimmed to keep a low wire from shorting out. An installation along the fence itself is possible, and works best for higher up to stop scrambling over the fence.. At CCNDR and now at ADRTC, we have successfully used a wire one foot above the ground along the fence, and a second wire at 4 to 5 feet. Dogs digging get the instruction from the low wire, and dogs climbing or scrambling encounter the 4 foot level of instruction.

6. In the new home, consider digging a trench along the fence a few inches out–8-12 inches, and filling it with 4-5 inch river rock, dolomite, or similar rock. The trench should be 8-12 inches deep and 12 inches wide. This makes for excellent drainage, and can look attractive, too.

7. In new homes, but sometimes in retrofitting a home, consider using concrete around the home, or in a walk way along the fence, or a part of the fence. This works very well, and is easy to maintain, too.

8. If the above are not possible, then try using the type of “railroad” tie one uses for flower bed borders and boxes. This can work well when held in place by a few stakes for some areas. Other pressure treated wood can work, too, but redwood does not work well. It is too soft, and easily chewed apart.

9. Planting plentiful shrubbery–larger shrubs with thick root systems can stop digging. Choose plants wisely. Check the ADRTC Library or other such sites for a list of plants that are toxic to dogs. Those must be avoided, but that leaves many excellent choices. In New Mexico, desert types of plants often have strong and plentiful root systems that can hold soil well.

10. For a temporary solution, while others are being implemented, consider cutting the dogs nails so that they are very short. The dog will not think about digging with such poor tools. This should only be a temporary measure.

11. Some garden centers sell manure by the bag. Try burying some holes with it, and see if that discourages digging. In older dogs, this can be enough to change their behavior to give one time to have plants grow, or take other necessary steps to improve containment. Using manure in holes is great for teaching young dogs where not to dig. Using their own poop is often most effective, as they rarely will dig in a hole where their own poop is buried. They always keep providing a good supply, too, and it is all good for the soil.

12. Using a trolley line. A trolley line from the house out to a tree, or other structure can often help with diggers. The line can be adjusted to prevent the dog from getting tangled, or to sensitive areas of the property where it may do damage. The dog can have its digging confined only to areas where the trolley permits it to roam. This works well with one dog, but not well with more than one dog, unless one has a very large area. We recommend such a solution only for one dog use, as dogs cannot play safely with one another, when on lines. It is important to adjust the system so that the line cannot reach the fence, even when stretched. A dog may try to jump a fence, and get hung by a system that was installed too close to a fence. Likewise, it is important to keep the line from entangling around small trees, posts, or other obstructions that could cause the dog to panic and harm itself.

The Invisible Fence

These work well for some breeds, but not so well with Siberians or Malamutes. There are approximately 30% of Siberian owners who have had success when they tried these units, which means that there are 70% who failed to find them adequate. The Siberian or Malamute may just outsmart the fence unit, or just tough it out, and take the pain as they escape over the horizon. The worst feature of such units is that once the dog escapes, the dog cannot return as it will get zapped when returning. The units are costly, and do require maintenance. It is best to borrow such a unit before buying one, as it may not work for a given northern dog. If the determination is made to use such a unit, then it is best to choose a company that will support the unit, help with ideas for installing the invisible fence so it is most effective, and offer a guarantee.

Generally, we at ADRTC found that the hot wire units are far more successful at lower cost, and a low level of maintenance. Every circumstance and every dog is different, so there is always the possibility that invisible fences will work in many instances for many dogs. However that being said, ADRTC will not adopt a dog to a family that plans to use an invisible fence as the method of containment, or as a means of preventing escapes. There are dogs that never escape, but in Rescue, we know that most of ours did escape–at least once. Unless a person is highly trained in using such systems, it is less likely that there will be success with most foster dogs.

Flexible Fencing

Flexible fencing cannot be used to contain a dog by itself, but it has uses in many yards. Flexible fencing is a fence of a light weight wire mesh. Many garden fences are of light wire mesh with vinyl coatings. Also, there are X-pens that are sold in pet stores and through dog supply catalogs, that are of a more rigid wire and sectioned in 2 to 4 foot sections for easy bending around corners. These latter are for show and temporary containment purposes, but are also usable in the average yard.

The garden fences often use the common fiberglass poles for support. The poles or stakes, are inserted into the ground, and the fence is tided to them. The fence is nearly invisible at a distance, as it is designed for garden use, and not for containment of pets. It is useful for keeping dogs out of flower beds, out of garden areas, or away from a hedge, or privacy fence that may not be totally secure.

The concept is very simple. The fiberglass poles or stakes, bend easily if weight is applied against them. The fence also will bend if a dog puts feet on it, or pushes against it. Northern dogs seem to have a genetic predisposition to never trust a surface that moves under them. At CCNDR, we successfully used such fencing for years to keep dogs away from planting areas, and away from a large palm tree that began as a small tree of less than 3 feet. The dogs never have tried to jump over the 4 foot fencing to get to such areas, in our experience. Attempting to climb over moves the fence inward, and the dogs jump back. They can see through the fence, and there apparently is just nothing worth risking an uncertain and uncomfortable feeling to obtain.

If a dog is a jumper, we suggest keeping the distances too short for a safe landing. Space the garden fence just 3 feet from the larger privacy fence, and the dog will almost not certainly jump the garden fence, as there is not enough room fora safe landing on the opposite side. It may be necessary to be sure that the garden fence has enough stakes, in enough places, so that the dog cannot push it up from the bottom, and squirm under it. Old cross ties along the bottom of the garden fence can solve this problem nicely in most instances, especially if the bottom of the fence is tacked to the cross ties. If the fence needs to be in a particular area for a longer time, then plants can be planted along it, so that roots and branches can help secure it. A vine growing on the fence is one way to do this. A flowering vine might well benefit from the fence, look attractive, and offer improved security at keeping the northern dog on one side, and the plants or fence area being protected on the other.

A hotwire fence can also be used along with these flexible fences, or as a barrier in itself. There are “step-in” posts that are for temporary use. Multiple strands of polywire or polytape can be used to create a “fence” which dogs and other creatures will learn to avoid quite quickly. It requires maintenance to be sure it does not have vegetation shorting it out, but it is an excellent temporary method while plants grow, or other solutions are being implemented.

Copyright© 2005, 2007, by Gary Wynn Kelly. Please make all requests for redistribution to ADRTC.ORG.