Monday, December 1, 2014

A Student Asks About Electronic Fences

Today I received an email from one of my students who was considering installing an electronic fence system in their backyard and wanted to know what I thought.

I'm sorry to sound so negative (again) but I hate them.
I hate electronic (shock) collars.  For one thing, it is way to easy for the human to remove themselves from the act of shocking their pets.  This by itself is a big problem.  Did you know that their use is illegal in at least four European countries (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany) and is restricted in three others (Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy)?

In a webinar by Kathy Sdao, The Seductiveness of Shock, I learned of an interesting Behavioral Study of Obedience by Stanley Milgram 1963  in which the participants were instructed to use different levels of shock ranging from "Slight Shock to Danger: Severe Shock" on their human "victims," no matter how much they protested and said it hurt, or even if they fell silent.  The victims were not actually being shocked but those pushing the buttons didn't know this.  My point is that even knowing that the level of shock ordered could be dangerous, some did as they were told, disregarding the poor man on the other end of the wires.

And now, back to the electronic fences.  Companies make them attractive by saying things like
"Your dog deserves the joy and freedom to run and play freely without the physical restraint of a leash always controlling their movement, ..."
"Electronic pet fences and kennels keep your pet safely in your yard"   Until they don't.
"... have won the hearts of over 2 million owners and their dogs & cats"  I think the dogs and cats would strongly object to this statement.
"Most Reliable, Humane electronic fences"  Shocking an animal is humane???

Unfortunately, what they don't tell you about are the problems using these systems can cause.  And electronic fences can cause quite a variety of issues where there would normally be none.

They can cause the dog to shut down and be afraid to be outside.

Not knowing where this punishment is coming from, or being able to understand why it happens, they can start relating the shocks and warnings to anything that is happening around them at the time.  An example is if a dog or human is approaching, and the puppy goes to say hi and gets the ZAP! or BEEP!   The pup can relate it to the approaching dog or human and then becomes fearful of anyone/thing approaching.  This will usually lead to your pup being "reactive" which is often fear based, and acting aggressive because they are trying to get the scary thing away from them since it causes bad things to happen (shock).              
Another problem with that is that the behavior doesn't usually stay in the yard.  The fear will go beyond the invisible fence lines and come inside the house, or while out on walks, in the car, etc.  
A person who lives in my area put in an electronic fence for their smaller dog who is an absolutely lovely sweet dog and loved everyone.. (past tense).  Now, whenever anyone walks past their house, he comes out like Cujo.  He even attacked an unsuspecting dog that was being walked and wandered onto his yard.  This could have gone very badly for him since the other dog was much larger.  My pups and I have always had a good relationship with him, so he doesn't do that to us.  Instead he cowers just at the imaginary boundary line.... wants to say Hi but knows he can't.  Sometimes I'll go over into their yard and bring him away from the boundary line and pet him. You can see the relief flood through his body.  They also leave him outside when they're not home, thinking he's safe.  He's not.  It would be very easy for a dog or other animal to come in and hurt him, for someone to steal him, or for him to break over the line either to chase something or if the collar is not working.  He has run through the line into the road, then he didn't want to come back when the owners were calling him.  Someone once told me that the fence doesn't beep or shock if he's coming back from the other side of it.  I guess they forgot to explain that to their dog.
I currently have two clients whose dogs are reactive to other dogs.. both have an electronic fence.  It might be coincidence, then again, it might not.

It can and often does cause fear of other beeps and noises.  If the dog is in the house and the microwave or something beeps, it can cause the dog to now be afraid of receiving the shock in the house.  How can you reason that away with a dog?   You can't.  And he has just become afraid of being in the one place that he should always feel safe.
I had an 'almost client' that wanted to work on her dog not going over the threshold of the front door. When I arrived, I saw she had a shock collar on her dog. When asked why she said that she had the e-fence installed so he wouldn't go through the front door.  It was in the house!!  I had her remove the collar and got out my yummy treats and my clicker to go over my training methods with her.  One click and the dog ran into the corner of the kitchen and would not come back out.  The poor thing looked like I had beat him when just moments earlier he was so happy to see me.  My heart fell and of course the woman never had me back.  Before I had started I asked her if he was afraid of noises, etc., which is a standard question, and she said no.  Afterwards I talked to other trainers and one had suggested that maybe the collars warning 'beep' was more of a clicking noise or had a click like sound associated with it's activation. Or maybe it sounded like the latch on the door and suddenly that sound was in the kitchen which meant the zap couldn't be far behind.  I don't know and never will.

If you're saying that your dog would never be outside unsupervised, then why get one?  Besides training a great recall - which we do in class - having your dog on a 20 foot lead can be just as rewarding for him.  He'd probably rather have you out there playing with him anyway.

So those are my feelings about electronic fences.  My question to you is, is it worth taking a chance of traumatizing our dogs?

And the student that asked for my opinion?  I’m happy to report that I received this reply: “Wow, I am so glad I asked!!  Thank you so much for dissuading me”


  1. Hi Lisa, just came across this article and I think it makes a lot of sense. Here's my problem now. I have the world's sweetest dachshund/beagle mix. Loves all dogs and all people. Except the neighbor dog, who has free reign of the neighborhood 24/7. The neighbor dog is an extremely passive lab and 98% of the time they are best buddies, but on a handful of occasions for no visible reason, my dog has attacked the neighbor dog. The first couple times were in my yard, but it has now happened a couple more times in their yard when I have let her out of the fenced area. I've been wracking my brain as to why my sweetest, most passive of my 3 dogs has a vendetta for the neighbor dog and I really think it may have something to do with what you described above. I've turned off the underground fence and will just only have the dogs outside when I'm home with them, but any advice for reversing her new found aggression toward Bella?

    1. Hi Julie,
      Off the top, I'd work on some counter conditioning. Instead of writing it all out here, follow the link at the end of my comment. Dogs become very good at generalizing, so while yours may only be reacting towards Bella right now, it can very easily begin to happen with other dogs. My dog Doobie got snarked at by a black lab once. No physical contact was made. Doobie then decided he hated that black lab, then all black labs, then all larger dogs, medium dogs.... I had a reactive dog. All from one incident that was basically harmless in our eyes, but scared Doobie enough to trigger this very strong fearful emotion.
      You will have to be actively supervising your dog every time he/she is outside to work on it, and also to be sure that your dog stays safe.
      And if you need help, hire a positive trainer in your area. Go to the Pet Professional Guild to find one. Or you can send me an email and I'll help you find one.

    2. And I am happy to say that while it took us about two years of work, Doobie is no longer reactive towards dogs. He doesn't necessarily like them, but that's ok.


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