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Know the Dangers of Electric Dog Fences

Why pet parents should think twice before installing one.

by Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT
November 20, 2021
Male Alaskan Malamute dog stands in the yard between the plants
pavlobaliukh / Adobe Stock

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

Eleven years ago, Linda Teasley and her husband wanted to give their two puppies — Goldendoodle Noodles and English Bulldog Sheba — access to their yard so the dogs could run around and play. But in order to do so, they needed to make their half-acre property safe.

Having previously suffered through their local association’s laborious design-review process when they planned to build an addition to their Northern Virginia home, Teasley didn’t want to revisit the process to build a fence. So, instead, the couple installed an electronic fence — a so-called containment system in which dogs wear collars that send electric shocks to their necks if they attempt to cross a buried wire.

Today, many pet owners in the U.S. are making the same choice, as an increasing number of homeowners’ associations, as well as cities and counties, are putting restrictions on the types of fencing allowed — physical and electronic alike — and where they can be built.

There’s a pretty fierce debate as to the safety and efficacy of these systems: Thousands of American pet owners swear by them, but many others would like to ban shock collars, which would effectively end the use of electronic fences. Shock collars are already illegal in a number of other countries, including Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Wales, and in some states in Australia.

How Do Electric Fences Work?

To start, the sensor wire is buried along the perimeter of the area in which the dog is to be contained. Then, little flags are placed along that line so that the dog can see the boundaries. Different techniques are used to teach the dog to stay in the yard, but basically, for the first few days, the shock feature on the collar isn’t used. Instead, the dog hears a warning beep from the collar and then the owner shouts, dances, sings — whatever it takes to get the dog to retreat from the line and go to his person for some tasty treats and praise. Essentially, the dog is being trained to do a recall when they hear the beep.

Once the dog is reliably retreating from the beep, a consequence for ignoring it is added: if they ignore the beep and cross the wire, they will receive a shock. Ideally, the dog only has to be shocked a handful of times before learning to respect the beep and retreat. But no matter how well the dog learns to stop when they hear the warning beep, for the system to be effective, the collar must be worn at all times when the dog is in the yard.

Why Are They Dangerous?

Shock collars are an aversive tool, which means they use pain and/or fear to motivate the dog to stay in the yard. Proponents describe the shock the dog as similar to the zap we get when we touch a TV after walking on carpet. They say the dog isn’t hurt, and that the sensation is minimal. But pain and fear threshold levels are different for each animal, just as they are for each person.

So the question isn’t whether that sensation scares or hurts us; it’s whether the shock scares or hurts the dog enough to keep them from leaving the yard. That pain or that fear has to mean more to the dog than chasing squirrels or feral cats or kids playing soccer or whatever exciting adventure lies beyond the invisible line. That’s how aversive the shock has to be.

Some dogs are motivated to stay put, some dogs become so afraid of the shocks that they won’t go out in the yard at all, and some dogs don’t care a bit and fly through the shock. Case in point: the Teasleys ended up scrapping their electronic fence about two weeks after it was installed, because Sheba ran and hid upstairs when the collar was put on her and Noodles just trotted through the “barrier,” ignoring the shocks.

Beyond the system not working out, any time a dog feels pain or is hurt, there’s a risk of fallout behaviors developing, says Niki Tudge, certified dog trainer and behavior consultant and president of the Pet Professional Guild. “What happens is that dogs start to generalize the pain to what they see and hear around them,” she says. “Then you end up with dogs who become reactive and aggressive towards children going past on bikes or people walking by.”

For this reason, cities like Overland Park, Kansas, stipulate that electronic fences cannot be used in front yards, and they have to be at least 10 feet from public walkways or neighboring property lines. Council Bluffs, Iowa, goes even further: Not only can the system not be used in the front yard, but the owner must be with the dog when the dog is outside.

But Are They Effective?

Don't count on it. Pet parents should keep in mind that electronic fences are not actually fences. No physical barrier secures a dog inside the perimeter or keeps other animals or people out. “Generally speaking, the electronic containment system is something that is an illusion of containment,” says Kenneth Phillips, an attorney who specializes in dog-bite cases.

In fact, “electronic containment systems usually are not considered to be any type of boundary fence as required by the ordinances of various cities and counties all over the country,” Phillips says. Municipalities that do include information on electronic fences generally state that they cannot be used for any dog with a history of aggression.

Not having a physical fence in place can spell danger, not only for people and animals passing by, but also for the dog in the yard. In December 2015, McCann — who has led many a Greyhound search-and-rescue mission — got a call from his veterinarian to help find Dimitri, her 15-year-old Terrier mix. Dimitri was out in his yard with his two siblings when a coyote entered the yard and dragged him away. McCann grabbed his infrared camera and set out to look for Dimitri; after more than an hour, the search party found the little black pup gravely injured a couple of hundred yards from his home. He died two days later.

Given accounts such as these, as well as the basic question of whether it is ever okay to use pain or fear to train a dog, it’s unsurprising that the collars are banned in other countries. While groups, including the Pet Professional Guild, lobby to ban shock collars in the United States, some rescue organizations will not adopt any dog to a home that uses an electronic fence. So though it may be time consuming, it's best to put up an old-fashioned, red-tape lined fence and keep an eye on your dog when they're outdoors. An electric fence might seem like an easy fix, but your pup deserves more.

tracy-krulik

Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT

Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT, is a Northern Virginia-based certified canine separation anxiety trainer and honors graduate of Jean Donaldson’s prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers. Krulik is also the founder and managing editor of iSpeakDog — a website and public awareness campaign to teach dog body language and behavior.