"Keeping a pair of old boots outside the door can make the welcome mat a bit less welcoming to a would-be thief." (Photo by Donna Kallner)

Once upon a time my husband and I left the keys in every vehicle and kept the cash box for a retail business unlocked. We had a motion detector aimed at our driveway – not so much for security as to announce the arrival of customers if you went to the house to use the bathroom. Still, it was never quite as effective as my grandparents’ rural security system: Their farm was at the end of a gravel lane that had to be more than a half-mile long. About halfway down it, there was a big tree where a flock of guinea fowl perched. Any time a vehicle got that far those birds kicked up a ruckus. That gave my grandma time to slice a pie and put on a clean apron before a visitor reached the house. I suppose it also gave my grandpa time to grab a shotgun if he didn’t like the looks of you.

Last year when I worked the Census, I encountered a number of home security systems, including lots of signs that the property was protected by Smith & Wesson. The one person who actually greeted me with a firearm as I approached his home was not at all threatening, as the man clearly was bent on revenge against the red squirrel I heard chittering. I wouldn’t put much faith in those signs to deter break-ins where every other indicator makes the property appear attractive to thieves. In fact, there were times when I thought the signs just advertised that the place might be an easy mark for the theft of guns and more. 

So what makes an effective home security system in a rural area? Here are some things to consider.

Dogs. Personally, I would go with Beware of Dog signs and actual dogs. For years, we had Golden Retrievers. They were super friendly but also protective of me and a couple of times they placed themselves squarely between me and a perceived threat. I remembered that a bit late one day while working the Census: I pulled into a place where a big yellow lab ran toward my car with a ball in his mouth. I was ready to reach for the ball when he realized I wasn’t the right person and shifted roles from playmate to protector of the realm. At another place, the Rottweiler just wanted to be petted but I froze as instructed until the homeowner got her three Jack Russell terriers inside. My dad always said it’s the smaller dogs you have to watch out for. For home security, I’m not sure it matters that much whether the bark coming from inside is deep and gruff or high-pitched and frantic, if it makes someone think twice before entering. And I know of at least two house fires where the barking dog alerted the residents before the smoke alarms. What other security system’s features include unconditional love and hoovering up food spills?

Birds. When I was a kid, a neighbor kept peafowl. They made even more noise than my grandparents’ guineas. A peacock’s alarm call can be heard several miles away. If that’s not enough deterrent, I recall them having sharp spurs and a suspicious nature. While less showy, there’s a pampered pet rooster who alerts everyone to any car that turns onto a dead-end road near my home. I suspect he would use his spurs to protect his territory from any perceived threat, too.

Other critters. While working the Census, most of the animals I encountered were friendly, although a litter of kittens can present a significant trip hazard while they’re rubbing up against your legs. Most critters were more startled by my presence than I was by theirs, including several racoons living under porch steps. But the guard animal that really put my heart in my throat was a loud white horse. He had me backtracking at top speed before he could bust the gate to make his point. Also effective were goat pens arrayed in a defensive perimeter around a house. A city-bred thief might think goats are no deterrent, and they might be right most of the time. But some bucks will butt you from behind for sport. I don’t recall any Census training about that.

Security lights. Critters wild and domestic are notorious for setting off the motion-sensing outdoor lights that have largely replaced the dusk-to-dawn mercury-vapor security lights that were once ubiquitous in rural areas. Motion sensor lights may be better suited to homeowner convenience than to deterring would-be thieves when the nearest neighbor is a mile away from a home that’s unoccupied most of the time. But an old-school light on a timer inside is a simple but effective way to make a house look lived in. The relative who inherited a house near us has been using that system for years so the casual observer wouldn’t know they’re usually just up on weekends. Maybe by the time the next generation inherits that place our neighborhood will have better broadband and the kids can control lights and more remotely.

DIY smart home security. I saw maybe two Ring doorbells working the Census, and suspect those were fakes meant to deter porch pirates and people who leave mammoth zucchinis on their neighbors’ doorsteps. The problem with some DIY home security systems is they expect to use your existing home WiFi network. That’s fine where you have a home WiFi network, but it leaves out a lot of rural areas. You might instead consider a solar-powered cellular trail camera. Those need a data plan but they can transmit images through the cellular network from a wireless service provider to your cell phone. One day while I was looking for an address that no longer exists on a remote gravel road, the man whose trail cam caught me passing the end of his long driveway four times in two directions came out to make sure I wasn’t lost. He got the alert on his cell phone.

Alarm systems. Non-resident owners in rural areas sometimes opt for the same type of professionally installed and monitored electronic security systems they have at home. I know they work, because our rural volunteer fire department has responded to so many false alarms that originated from remote services. If the service can’t reach the resident or a key holder by phone to confirm that all is well, they call the sheriff’s department and the sheriff’s department dispatches us. We had such a call recently. It was in a spot with lousy voice service and the key holder was vacuuming so she didn’t hear the ping of frantic texts from the homeowner. That alarm was set off by steam from a faulty dryer vent and a load of wet towels. I suspect sheriff’s deputies respond to a fair number of cabins where intruder alerts are triggered by mice and bats. I understand the appeal of such services, but would caution against contracting one that solicits your business over the phone. I got a call like that a few years ago. It started with, “We’re offering you this special price because of recent burglaries in your area.” Having heard absolutely nothing about recent burglaries in my area, I told the telemarketer I was calling the sheriff about their scam, and I did. A few minutes later, I got a call from the president of that security company, who got to hear my views on using scare tactics to sell a service to elderly rural homeowners. They have not called back.

Don’t make it easy. Don’t respond to Facebook memes that make it easy for your neighbor’s deadbeat cousin to figure out the date you use as the entry code to your garage. Cover windows in garages and sheds where tools, chainsaws and other tempting items are stored. Park boats and trailers where they don’t look like an invitation to hook on and drive away. Remove keys from vehicles, lawn tractors and ATVs, and keep them where they can’t be seen through a door or window. Keep an up-to-date inventory of items on the property for insurance purposes, and make sure those items are clearly marked as yours by etching, engraving, branding or with metal ID plates. Don’t hide a house key under a rock or planter. Instead, consider installing a key lockbox or keyless entry so you can easily change the passcode after allowing someone to enter the house without you. And don’t announce on social media when and how long you plan to be away from home. Asking a neighbor to watch out for your place after you’ve done that is rude.

That lived-in look. Whatever else you use to protect your rural property, making it seem like someone might appear at any moment can be pretty effective at deterring thieves looking for an easy mark. Even if you don’t actually have a dog, you can put out a water dish, a toy or two, and maybe a cable tie-out tether heavy enough to suggest a big dog and long enough to suggest strangers stay in the car to await an invitation. Park a vehicle in the driveway. Leave a radio playing in the garage while you’re at work or off to town. If you plan to be away, arrange to have your driveway snowplowed or your yard mowed, and ask a neighbor to water porch plants and check your doors for things like a propane tank refill receipt. Even keeping a pair of old boots outside the door can make the welcome mat a bit less welcoming to a would-be thief.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin.