Should I get an Invisible Fence?

I want you to imagine that you’re hanging out in your front yard on a pleasant summer day. It’s a lovely day, and you’re feeling pretty content as you lounge on your lawn, relaxing. You notice your neighbor approaching, and as they walk towards your house you smile and get up to greet them, extending your hand to shake theirs. Just as you’re about to meet one another, you’re interrupted by a sharp pinch, like a bee or wasp stinging you. The sensation is unpleasant, and your thoughts of a pleasant interaction with your neighbor are derailed by the mild pain you’re experiencing. Your neighbor continues on their way, and you go back to relaxing.

A few minutes later, a friend walks by your house, and when you attempt to say hello to them the same thing happens. As you move towards them, a sharp sting interrupts you. Over the course of the day, this happens each time you attempt to greet someone.

How would you feel? If I walk by your home at the end of the day, are you likely to act very social towards me?

Even worse, how would you feel if this kept happening all week, month, or year? What would you do if you got stung every time someone approached your property? Would you start warning them away? Avoid them? What emotions would you experience when a stranger approached you in your yard? I know that, personally, I really hate being stung. I would dread visitors, and would feel anxious about what was going to happen when people approached me, even if I didn’t always get stung.

Sadly, this exact situation happens to many dogs every day. I work with dogs who have been living this nightmare every week, and get calls from families of dogs who have been dealing with this on a regular basis.

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

Photo by Ian Crowther (flickr)

I’m talking, of course, about dogs who are confined using an Invisible Fence or other electronic containment system. While these systems can provide the benefit of more freedom and a sightline unspoiled by physical fences, they aren’t without risks. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think every dog who uses an electronic containment system will demonstrate behavior problems. However, as someone who frequently deals with the fallout when these fences do cause issues, I think we need to be thoughtful about their use. I will not personally ever use an electronic fence for any of my dogs, and strongly encourage my clients not to use them either. Much like getting surgery in a third world country, electronic fences may save you some money – but they’re also much riskier than other options.

So, what can go wrong? Here are the most common issues caused by electronic fences, in order of the frequency with which my clients report them:

  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards visitors on the property. This is by far the most common problem owners of invisibly fenced dogs encounter. This is also absolutely predictable from a behavioral standpoint. In our human example at the start of this article, you saw how this problem could develop over time.Even dogs who have a very clear understanding of how these collars work and who know the boundaries of their yard will make mistakes from time to time. Remember that dogs have the cognitive capabilities of a 2-4 year old child. Would you expect a young child to always remember exactly how far they were allowed to venture?Dogs are most likely to make mistakes when they are excited, such as when people or other dogs walk past. At this point, classical conditioning (the Pavlov stuff) takes hold: the dog experiences a sting from the collar when he happens to be looking at that dog or person, and associates the unpleasant sensation with that dog or person. If this happens multiple times, dogs will naturally begin to react negatively when they are in their yard and they see a person or another dog. They do this not because they’re a bad dog, but because they have made negative associations with similar situations in the past. Some dogs will become fearful and tremble, hide, or shut down, but most respond aggressively in these situations, warning the person or dog away by barking. If that doesn’t work, they may escalate to lunging, snapping, or biting in their attempts to drive away the thing that they believe to be responsible for their pain.
  • Fearful or aggressive behavior towards people or animals off the property. Closely following the problem of unwanted behaviors on the home turf is the likelihood of these behaviors bleeding into all social interactions. The connection between a dog’s sudden behavioral change towards people on walks and his owner’s use of an electronic containment system isn’t always readily apparent, but some detailed history taking will usually reveal the relationship between the two. In fact, one of the questions on my intake questionnaire for every behavioral case includes which tools an owner has used for their dog. It’s so common for fear or aggression issues to develop 4-8 months after the installation of one of these systems that I find it necessary to screen for it.
  • Noise phobias. Just as a dog may associate the approach of people with being shocked, many dogs will become sensitive to the beeping sound that predicts this sensation. This becomes a problem when dogs generalize this connection to similar sounds. Think of all the beeping noises in your everyday environment: your microwave, your computer, your phone, your alarm… we live in a world of beeps. Now imagine that you expected to get stung every time you heard one of these noises. What a terrifying existence! This fear can cause dogs to become generally anxious, where they are always on edge, or can cause less obvious problems. If the dog associates a beeping sound with a certain behavior, he will often become reluctant to do that behavior again out of fear. If he associates it with a person, he may act nervous around that person in the future. Likewise, he may begin avoiding areas of the house in which he frequently hears beeping sounds because he doesn’t know where the boundaries in that area are, or he may freeze in fear upon hearing a beep, afraid to move lest he cross a boundary and receive a shock.
  • Fence darting. Some dogs may not ever display fearful or aggressive behaviors as a result of their confinement with an underground fencing system, but will push the boundaries of that confinement. Many predatory or excitable dogs are quite willing to take the shock in order to chase a bunny or squirrel or to rush a dog being walked past. Unfortunately, they’re usually not as willing to take a second shock in order to come back into their yard. Other tricksy dogs will test the fence, waiting until the collar no longer beeps. Once the battery dies (and there is no more beep at the edge of the property), the dog is free to roam at will. Speaking from experience (I worked at an open admission shelter that took in stray dogs picked up by animal control), electronic fences aren’t a reliable way to keep a determined dog in one place. Shelters and impound facilities are full of dogs wearing invisible fence collars.
  • Generalized fear issues. Young or sensitive dogs may react very badly to the introduction of an underground fence system. These dogs sometimes become fearful of their yard and are unwilling to go outside. Many of these fearful dogs will lose or backslide on their housetraining as they would rather soil the house than risk going outside, which they have associated with pain.
  • Safety concerns. Even if your dog doesn’t ever leave the yard and never experiences any unwanted behavioral fallout, it’s important to remember that the use of an electronic containment system doesn’t protect him from outside dangers.  Aggressive dogs, coyotes, or other dangerous wildlife can still enter your yard and attack your dog, whose ability to maneuver and avoid them is limited when he’s wearing his collar. People can also enter your property, either to willfully molest your dog (which is rare, but does happen, especially with groups of children) or not knowing that your dog is there. If your dog injures someone who has come onto your property, you could be liable. Unattended dogs may be stolen from their properties by people who remove the dog’s collar, then resell the stolen dog or use them as “bait” dogs.

If you do plan to use an invisible fence, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk. First of all, if your dog already shows fearful or aggressive behavior in any context, know that these behaviors may be exacerbated by the use of an invisible fence and seriously rethink your plan. Avoid using any sort of electronic containment for young dogs (under three years of age), and have the system introduced to your pet by a professional. Don’t cheap out on the system, either: the last thing you want is a faulty product malfunctioning and burning a hole in your dog’s neck (it’s happened) or shocking your dog every time you pull your car into the driveway over the wire (yes, it’s happened). Finally, if you start to see any of the behaviors detailed above, discontinue use of the fence and call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer immediately. The sooner you contact us, the better the chance that we can reverse or at least minimize the harm.

Sadly, cases caused by electronic containment systems continue to make up a sizeable chunk of my business. While I’m grateful for the income (hey, dog trainers have to eat too, and this isn’t exactly a lucrative profession!), it makes me incredibly sad when people and their dogs have to live with the fallout caused by these tools. It’s absolutely possible for dogs to live their whole lives with these fences and never experience a problem. However, the risk is there, and the use of these containment systems is significantly riskier than simply toileting your dog on leash or putting up a physical fence. Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict how any dog will react to electronic confinement. Your dog may be fine… but do you really want to bet his well-being on it?

[Edited to add: Great minds think alike, and when I saw this wonderful post on Notes from a Dog Walker that was eerily similar to this piece, I almost decided to pull this post lest people think I was copying it (I promise I wasn't, as I write most of the posts you see here several weeks before they actually show up on the blog). If you're still on the fence (ha!) about electronic containment systems, please go read her post as well. Experts agree: electronic containment is oftentimes bad news.]

29 responses to “Should I get an Invisible Fence?

  1. betsy wallace

    invisible fencing does not work for keeping other dogs out!!!!, I do not mind the electric component, I work with hunting dogs and find shock collars to be an excellent training tool when used correctly and with proper application, but the fencing application I do not feel is a proper application, as the dog is continually intimidated in the place where it should be the most secure.

  2. Pingback: Dog Walker’s Hair Goes Gray Overnight: Says Invisible Fences Are to Blame | notes from a dog walker

  3. Whoa. Looks like we had a mind meld, huh? Great post – I added a link to it in my blog so more folks can benefit from your trainer-smarts!

  4. I’ve had very mixed reviews from ‘The Invisible Fence’ installers/trainers from my training students. I used to suggest that they use that company if they had/wanted to get one, but after some of the horror stories I was told, I no longer can recommend them. Do you know of a decent company in the Twin Cities that I can refer them to? (and yes, I do tell them the pitfalls as noted above, as my preference is for a physical barrier).

  5. Excellent! I, too, am opposed to “invisible” fences. Mostly because they are pretty ineffective for stubborn dogs, but also because they do not protect the dog from outside threats.

  6. It’s a shame that so many homeowners associations do not allow someone to put up a regular fence.

  7. I have a regular fence and my invisible fence is right on my fence. I use the invisible fence only to keep my dog from jumping our fence. But he was also taught as a puppy to sit 3 feet from the fence and remain sitting till the visitor comes through the gate then to accept petting by quickly meeting them by rushing to sit on the porch. Or to bark twice and open the door and lead the visitor quickly to me or my daughter if we’re in trouble. I have a service dog. My dog was taught this early…but once in a blue moon something super exciting will come along and he’ll think of jumping the fence…as soon as he gets to the fence he is quickly reminded to sit as he gets into a position to jump it vibrates—My fence vibrates it doesn’t shock!!! It beeps then vibrates. I think not having an actual fence for the dog to see his boundaries is not fair…Not dumb flags to walk between, but a fence even a small fence made to go around flower beds will work—It needs to be continuous!!! If the dog doesn’t have to put all 4 feet over it in some way then it’s not a fence—Also before turning on any fence system train the dog to sit a safe distance behind the boundary and wait for guests to enter the gate and have a fun safe place for the dog to run and sit to welcome petting…Set your dog up to be rewarded by petting or you giving him/her a treat as soon as the door opens for the guest…Not going over the boundary should be rewarded…The goal is to reward with petting toys or treats so the dog never wants to jump the fence but would be delighted to patiently wait for a guest to enter your yard then rush to the safe spot for a reward. My dog rarely tries to jump the fence as waiting and going to his safe spot for a goodie is way better then that weird vibration when you get into jump fence position.

    Always remember set your dog up for success! Train the boundary first!!!

    • You might have used coyote rollers instead to prevent fence climbing. No shock involved. No “vibration” either.

    • R.P. Our newest dog digs under the chain link fence when she sees a rabbit or whatever. We have weaved in heavy, strong wire along the bottom, but she still digs or bends and gets out. She is very strong – she even bent the chain link! What vibrating fence do you use exactly? I tried googling invisible fences that only vibrate and do not shock, but its a hard find. Thanks!

  8. I have an electric fence installed by Invisible Fence.
    I live on 7 acres of land and my dogs are never left out unattended , or when I am not home. I have two dogs that are trained on the fence and a third that will never be able to use it because of her already fearful character. The first two dogs were not put on the fence until they were older than a year and I have owned then since puppies. The third dog is a rescue. We live in a very remote area and never have people or other dogs passing by.
    I agree with all the negative points regarding the electric fence. I am probably an exception to the average person because I am overly diligent. I would never recommend the invisible fence to any of my clients. In hind site I probably would have a hard time training any new dogs to it because of my knowledge and experience over the last 10 years. I know that having a large property makes it easier for the dog to live with an invisible fence. I also took a month to train the dogs on the fence. If you do it right it does not entail any shocks. My dogs only got shocked once in the initial training and only once after when chasing a fox out of bounds. Again I do not think I could do it now because I am not as ignorant as I was then. On the flip side we never could have afforded to fence in 7 acres. Our neighbors would not allow it either.
    Thanks for this information. I am going to have both my dogs collars put on vibration only. I will continue to be a responsible user of the invisible fence.

    • You wouldn’t have had to fence all 7 acres, you could fence a suitable dog run.

      The thing that drives me batty is when people say “they hardly got shocked at all” but now they know to stop when they hear the beep. You say you’re knowledgeable now. Well, think Pavlov’s bells: when the dog heard the bell, he salivates in anticipation of the treat that has been paired with the bell sound. The same principle works for shocks and beeps: the dog has associated the beep with the shock. So every time he hears that beep, he anticipates the shock–he gets to be stressed again anticipating pain.

  9. We don’t have an invisible fence, but my Oreo came from a house that did. He does get a bit barky and excited when visitors come over. Breck is always calm as we taught him to be so hopefully it will rub off on Oreo. He is getting better every day. We’ve taught him to sit and ‘wait’, he knows if he stays he’ll be able to get what he wants later. Ie. To say hello to the visitor. Thanks for the 411! I think it explains Oreos behavior.

  10. What if we already have an Invisible Fence? We have a puppy…the Fence is down now because we had to remove a few trees after the heavy snow of May. How do we proceed? We live in town and don’t have the money for a full fence?

    • Great question, Cheryl!

      If it were my dog, I would not use the Invisible Fence. I personally feel it is too risky, especially with a young dog.

      That said, you know your dog and your situation best, so only you can decide whether this is a risk you’d like to take. Some dogs certainly do just fine on these fences. It’s just hard to know which dogs will do well and which will end up with issues. If you’re looking for alternatives, please check out the post at Notes from a Dog Walker that I linked to for some ideas.

  11. Well… First, It’s more like being tapped than stung. I know – I tested it on myself before putting it on the dogs. Additionally, the collars make a sound before they administer the shock, so the dogs know the boundaries without getting a shock. Second, the dogs learn in the first fifteen minutes. Third, dogs – being territorial – appreciate knowing the bounds of their territory. Fourth, In urban situations where physical fencing is impractical, it’s invisible fencing, or the dogs are *never* out except on a leash.

    Fifth – I understand your intent in the desire to prevent discomfort for animals – and I appreciate that intent, but this article is misguided, judgemental, and plain wrong. Invisible fences are a kindness in communicating abstract boundaries to the dogs whom we have domesticated. Far kinder than letting them roam to be hurt on the roads, or taken by the animal control, or kept on leash or indoors for their entire lives.

    Our dogs don’t need the collars anymore. Haven’t for years – because the invisible fence taught them perfectly the limits of their territory. They are very happy dogs.

    • I have to disagree here. One thing the author didn’t mention is the torment to people who wish to have a lovely walk on the street passing by these houses. I have had to abandon all hope of walking in my neighborhood because of these nasty fences. As a human, walking past a yard with dogs loose outside, I have to make a judgement call not knowing if the dog is truly contained or not. It is not fun and I and my dogs have been attacked by these dogs who supposedly are contained in their yards. Even if the dog doesn’t come out at us, we have no way of knowing that it won’t and these dogs usually display aggressive behavior. There are way too many potential problems with a device that in my opinion is defective because of how it is used by the average dog owner. Get a leash and get your butt out of your chair and take your dog out for exercise! That needs to be done regardless of the fence used for your dog.

  12. Anyone who tries the shock collars /electric fence collars on themselves first, in an attempt to see how it feels to a dog. Please put the contact points on the same part of your body as they will touch your dog. Also make sure you are barefoot and out doors to get the true amount of shock your dog will experience. The moisture level in your ground will have a strong effect also, more wet, more shock! I do not use either of these devices and will not! Take the time to train your dog properly and live in a dog friendly area where you can keep your dog safe with a physical fence. I know this info from having horses on a large acreage fenced w electric wire. I thought my fence wasn’t working till I was filling the water tanks one summer day in my barefeet! SURPRISE! it works! but I never got a zap w shoes on….

  13. In NSW, Australia, where I live, electronic fence systems are illegal unless accompanied by a 5ft physical barrier. It doesn’t stop people importing them from other states or overseas, but it does limit the damage. The only person I knew who used one had 6ft to 10ft fences the dogs were still getting over, and it was used only when she was outside with them as when she was gone, the dogs were kept inside. It worked fine, but when those dogs passed on, she never used it again. Having seen with my own nervous dog the added comfort he got from a colorbond fence (ie one he couldn’t see through), I am glad I don’t have to face this dilemma!

  14. PUHLEEEEASE!!!! How about we liken the invisible fence to a busy street. Every time you see a friend across the street and you go to greet them, you get hit by a car!! Do you think you’d learn?????? An invisible Fence is the best thing my dogs have ever had! Do you really want a tethered dog to chase full force after that rabbit that crossed the yard and snap his neck when he hits the end of the line? Yes, it is not right for every dog, but this article makes it sounds horrible for all dogs. I have to admit I can no longer use my electric teapot because the beep must be at the same frequency as my fence and the dogs get jumpy. NOT ALL BEEPS ARE THE SAME FREQUENCY!! The microwave is not a problem. I concur with everything “cjh” has to say. I have so much I’d like to say, but I won’t drag this on. I do want to make a SUGGESTION–Often the fence installers place the flags right above where the wire is buried. While the dogs will learn the boundary eventually, I find it’s easier and makes more sense to place the flags at the point where the collar starts to beep. Instead of having a beep and getting zapped before they even get near the flags, they have a visual as well as an audio warning before going past the flags. Then, if they DO go past the flags, they are corrected.

  15. Pingback: Dog Walker’s Hair Goes Gray Overnight: Says Invisible Fences Are to Blame « Dogs in Need of Space

  16. A certified dog trainer might include an IACP trainer. Just saying.

  17. 人気ウェディングドレス

  18. I have to disagree with most of the points in this article. We’ve had the invisible fence for almost 30 years and obviously have had numerous dogs use the system. We live in a rural area and have our property and our neighbor’s property connected by the invisible fence – almost 5 acres total. One edge of the property borders a busy road. Before the invisible fence we had 3 dogs killed on that road. Since the invisible fence – ZERO. The dogs do learn the boundary and don’t test the fence so they don’t get shocked on a daily basis. Its my experience that getting shocked is the exception rather than the rule. We’ve had several dogs who could be let out without their collars and they never left the yard or even went near the boundaries. They had no idea that they could have left if they wanted to. In my opinion the benefits (living dogs) outweigh the risks.

  19. We had an invisible fence installed 3 years ago when we got our new puppy. As we live on acreage it is impractical to fence conventionally. Our previous 2 dogs were forever running of and causing much anxiety. With this system installed and I stress proper training our very energetic dog has only twice gone through the barrier. I left the flags up so he is getting a visual then audio long before anything else. I walk him regularly off the property but he is NEVER allowed to walk through the fence with his collar off. I also tried the collar myself and while it was certainly something I could feel the sensation was gone in a around 30 seconds.
    I live in Australia and believe me he has plenty of temptations including kangaroos and foxes. The system works in exactly the same way children learn, that is through natural consequence. A child can be told not to touch a hot element and yet out of curiosity they will touch it and learn from the physical response ie it is !@#$%^& HOT and are less likely to repeat the action.
    As with all things there is always a degree of risk therefore it is up to us to manage that risk and not to just consider banning something outright because some owners have been ill advised on training.
    Finally our dog is friendly and well adjusted with dog, cats and humans. These fences are not illegal in Queensland but are not approved by the RSPCA.

  20. I see these posts are fairly old however, it seems to be the only place I may be able to get the advice I need. I live with my boyfriend and his two small dogs, a Yorkie and a Chihuahua mix. In the past 6 months it has become obvious neither are potty trained. Several attempts at crate training proved unsuccessful due to the Yorkie hiding under the love seat when we attempted to leave. Sadly two adults can’t wrangle him. Attempting to enforce good bathroom behavior does not work once we are gone. Almost daily there is something to clean up from both of them. One will use a potty pad however, the other will not. The mix dog is a rescue dog. She is kind however, quite skittish when you raise your voice. Both dogs are around 3 years old. We have a decent sized fully fenced in back yard. Both of the dogs will dig their way through any barrier we have put in place within minutes. We have blocked in the fence with everything we can think of short of cementing under our fence. I don’t know how to potty train the dogs OR keep them in the back yard. I understand leaving them in the back yard (with proper shelter, water etc) isn’t a potty training fix but I need some relief from the daily cleaning. I’m worried the Invisible Fence or anything like it may hurt the skittish Chihuahua. :( HELP!

    • What a frustrating situation, Cortney! It’s definitely possible that the Invisible Fence could cause your Chihuahua mix’s fear issues to worsen. If you live in Minnesota, I’d be happy to arrange a private lesson to see if we can figure out some long-term solutions to your dogs’ potty issues. If you’re not close by, check out http://www.ccpdt.org for a trainer in your area who can help you get a handle on this.

  21. Hi, I have an invisible fence for my dogs, a very fast boxer and also a very fast yellow lab. Before installing invisible fence we had 2 chows and a bassot hound. The chows were on the road several times, and the bassit played with a semi, and did not survive, so we decided to put in an invisible fence, about 6 yrs. ago. Now we did not just put the collar on and stick the dogs outside(dumb move), we trained the dogs every day for about a month, and when we did turn the collar on, it was low, and the dogs recognized the beep and stayed back. We then still did not let them go for a couple more weeks, and when we did they stayed in the yard. I wish we would have had the fence years ago. We burried 1500 feet of wire, so the dogs have alot of place to run, and they do! They have never ran through the fence ever, and if you have seen a boxer run, they are fast., and as far as animals getting in, i see squirrles, and rabbits stay on the other side of the fence when the dogs are out because they know the dogs will not pass the line. Dogs are smart, and learn well, when our lab does not have her collar on, she still stays back, but after about a week she realizes there has been no beep, and she sneaks out, but as soon as the collar is on, she never tries. My dogs are very healthy and the vet says the fence is great, it keeps them safe. If you are going to install one , you need to be responsible and train you dog, if it does not work, it is not the dogs fault, you can read the instructions, they can not.

  22. We just had an invisible fence installed in front of the back yard fences and accross the front yard. My dog does not need it, she does not run away and is most friendly with people.But we have a just over one year old Balinese cat who tries to run out whenever we open the door. I leash trained him before trying to teach him property boundaries, but he has run away and chasing him landed me in the ER. I train him several times a day and he recognizes the warning sounds and seems to recognize the flags. If this works it will give him the benefit to be in the backyard with us in the summer time and get the exercise he needs. Does anyone else have an invisible fence to contain a cat? During the training period the radio signal is very low so he does not get a bad kick. I may not even have to turn it up if he learns to listen to the sound. The sound is not like my microwave or my computer. The cat will know the difference in pitch.

  23. Invisible fences are not as you describe. Dogs learn fast. They hear the click or beep coming from the collar and are too smart to spend every day walking close enough to the line to receive a shock. They quickly learn how far they can go and they remember. The dog makes a mental note of the boundary. If the battery runs down on the collar it will stop clicking but in the beginning the dog will still avoid the boundaries of the wire where he is used to it being. Eventually if the battery is out long enough he will realize the fence is not working but not at first. Also, it is not true that a dog is so dull-witted that it is unable to differentiate between the collar beeps and clicks and the beeps and noises made by appliances and other devices in everyday life.

    The one thing I don’t do is allow my dog out in the yard with the electric fence unless a family member is home because the fence does not keep out other animals and while my dog has no aggression issues against anyone I don’t want another animal in my yard unless supervised. I disagree with the suggestion that fear and aggression issues a dog might have would be blamed on an invisible fence when these problems are caused by much deeper issues ranging from poor socialization to poor breeding. In other words the dog would have these problems even without the electric fence.

    Sometimes a regular fence is not the best answer. My property line and my neighbor’s is divided by large evergreens. A fence just will not work. My Doberman is 90 pounds of solid muscle, athletic with an intense activity level. He runs swift and hard every day and even then he does not make a mistake and run into the boundary of the invisible fence. He knows exactly when to stop or to turn and even in the excitement of chasing a rabbit or deer he does not cross the line. On the other hand he is extremely hard on my deck rails, which just with his full velocity activity he eventually bumps loose and we sometimes have to repair sections. I would imagine that a privacy fence of wood or composition materials would constantly be in disrepair from him bumping or trying to climb over. My dobie also works off energy by digging. He would dig under any fence I would be able to install. The invisible fence works perfectly to contain him. Just remember to check the collar batteries regularly .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s