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)
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.]