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Sophie's Story
By Leslie Grabowski

I adopted Molly in 1989 from the Humane Society.  She was my only dog until the fall of 1993, when I decided that she needed a “sister”.  A local animal sanctuary was holding an adoption fair at a pet store, and there I found a photo of an overweight, plain-looking beige dog in an album of available dogs.  I saw her inner beauty and knew she was the one for me, and a week later she entered our lives. 

Sophie (formerly Sugar) was about six years old, a true “mutt” with unidentifiable forbears.  She had belonged to an elderly woman who also had a male dog; the woman died and her heirs decided to take both dogs to the sanctuary.  Sophie had been there almost a year, and had terrible calluses on her elbows from sleeping on the concrete.  She also seemed slightly arthritic, but her eyes were bright and the vet pronounced her healthy.

While Molly had always been a sweet, even-tempered dog with a willingness to please, Sophie was …rougher.  She snarled at Molly near the food bowl, disobeyed with impudence, and never overlooked a chance to escape our fenced back yard.  Still I loved her, and over the next two years she softened and became better behaved.

When we moved to Virginia in early 1996, though, our new yard was unfenced. Due to the topography of the land, my husband and I decided that an electronic or “invisible” fence was the best way to keep both dogs safe.  I arranged for four different companies to come out and give us bids on installation. As an RN, I knew the effects of electricity on the heart, and I asked each salesman in turn if the fence had ever been known to cause a dog to cardiovert (alter the electrical pattern that controls the heartbeat).  All four of them assured me that the voltage was low enough to avoid harming the dog. 

I was also told of a safety feature that prevented a dog from receiving repeated jolts of electricity.  Supposedly, if one of the dogs ran into the electrical field and became “trapped” or was unable to leave the field, the system would shut off and the shocks would stop.  This was to insure that a dog who became disoriented by the shocks and who could not remember how to make the shocking stop would not repeatedly receive the electrical stimulation.

We settled on a system, and it was installed just days before the Blizzard of ’96 hit the eastern seaboard and effectively obliterated the white flags which were to be used to visually train the dogs to avoid the field boundaries.  When the snow melted enough for the flags to again be visible we began training again.  Both dogs soon found, though, that if they ran quickly through the electrical field the unpleasant shocks would be only momentary, and we realized that training was going to be a long process.

One evening when I was at work, my husband Joe came home and put the transmitter collars on the dogs before taking them out in the back yard.  When he opened the door, however, a neighborhood cat was outside, and Molly and Sophie took out after the cat at top speed.  Apparently, Molly ran through the electrical field, but Sophie, who was not as fast, stopped when she began to get shocked.  Unfortunately, she stopped within the field, and began to run from side to side, barking at the cat.  My husband, assuming she was outside the electrical field, became concerned only when her barks turned to sharp yelps.  He ran out, picked Sophie up and moved her back, then did the same with Molly.  Sophie turned from where he had put her down, walked back about 20 feet, and laid down.

Meanwhile, a neighbor had come out to find out what was happening, and Joe spent a minute talking to him.  When he next looked at Sophie, she was on her side, unmoving and not breathing.  Unsure of how to perform CPR on a dog, he tried anyway, and immediately drove her to the animal emergency hospital, where she was pronounced dead.  That was one of the worst nights of both his and my lives, and it was made worse by the guilt we felt that the fence we had installed to keep her safe had killed her.

Needless to say, we demanded, and got, a full refund for the fence, but that did not bring my Sophie back.  The salesman for that company insisted that Sophie must have been ill and that she was the first dog in history to have been harmed by an invisible fence.  While it is true that Sophie was older and had never had an EKG, she had had regular veterinary care and had been healthy.  We also found some interesting things when Joe, an electrical engineer, ran some tests on the fence before it was removed. 

First of all, that fence delivered 660 volts of electricity in pulse bursts.  That is a whopping amount of electricity surging through the body of a 25 lb. dog.  Second, that safety feature which was supposed to turn off the shocks only worked if the dog stood ABSOLUTELY STILL.  So when Sophie paced back and forth she received repeated jolts of electricity for several minutes, which undoubtedly caused disorientation and more pacing, leading to more shocks.

Since that time I have become a vocal opponent of electronic fence systems, and I don’t hesitate to share my story when I see the telltale white flags appear on the perimeter of a neighbor’s lawn.  Although these systems are sometimes the best way to keep dogs safe, I think that prospective owners should be aware of the dangers.  Had I been told that older dogs were at risk because of their learning curve I would not have chosen that method of containment.

Molly is still with us.  She occasionally runs off into the woods behind our house in pursuit of a squirrel, but she comes back when called, and seems disinclined to run into the street.  Sophie is buried in our yard by the magnolia, and the fence wiring remains underground, never to be used again.

Update 6/11/2000: My beloved Molly died in my arms this morning, after a courageous battle against lymphoma. She is buried near Sophie in our yard.

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