What Experts Have to Say About Invisible Fences for Dogs

This blog first appeared on Care2.com.

When walking around suburban neighborhoods in upstate, NY, I am struck at just how many dogs are confined by invisible fences.

There are many reasons dog owners choose to install electronic fences. For some it’s a financial decision—electronic fences tend to be a cheaper option. In other cases, homeowners associations or neighbors prohibit the installation of physical fencing. Whatever the reasons, dog owners install the fencing because they want their dogs to have the freedom to run and play in their yards.

Since positive motivation training and behavioral experts say it’s impossible to predict how any dog will react to electronic confinement, I wonder why so many families are willing to take a chance on their dog’s wellbeing. Positive Motivation Trainer Jenn Michaelis, the owner of SassyT Canine Academy in Westchester County, NY, believes that there is not enough information available about the negative impacts of electronic fencing on dogs. She discourages her clients from using electronic fencing and is happy to discuss alternatives with them. Sara Reusche, who is also a positive motivation trainer, and owner of Paws Abilities Dog Training, LLC in Rochester County, MN, also steers her clients away from invisible fencing.

Both trainers above help rehabilitate dogs who have been negatively impacted by electronic fences. In fact, Reusche said that “…sadly these cases make up a sizable chunk of her business.” And in most instances, the owners never connect their dogs’ out-of-the-ordinary behavioral problems with the recently-installed electronic fences. Some of these behavioral issues include dogs who have accidents in the house because they are terrified to go outside for fear of being shocked; dogs who are afraid to wear collars; previously friendly dogs who become aggressive toward people and other dogs; dogs who are afraid to go for walks and dogs who are afraid of any sound that resembles the warning beep on the shock collar. For example the beep from the microwave or the ping on a cell phone.

Most recently Reusche was called on to help a 1 ½-year-old herding breed mix who had bitten a visitor. The dog was scared and nervous and had “pretty serious fear issues.” The family had installed an electronic fence just three months earlier. “The owners had video footage of the dog before the fence was installed and the difference was like night and day,” Reusche said. “The dog in the video was sociable and happy. There was no question in my mind that the electronic fencing had caused the problem.”

The family removed the electronic fence, and after three months of rehabilitative training with Reusche, the dog returned to his old self. Unfortunately not every dog traumatized by electronic fences can be rehabilitated so quickly, and in some cases, the dogs never get past the trauma. “It depends on how fearful the dog is,” Reusche said. “Some have to go on anti-anxiety medication before the training will work.”

Michaelis is also called on to help with aggression cases as a result of invisible fence confinement. These dogs, she said, are experiencing “barrier frustration.” When dogs are excited—for example when they see other dogs or people walking or jogging past their yard—they are more likely to go past the point of the warning beep and get zapped by the electronic collar. Some dogs will then make an association between the dogs and people they saw when they got the shock. It’s this frustration that can lead a previously friendly dog to be aggressive towards dogs and people. “The problem with using punishment as part of a training technique is that you never know how much punishment is enough to change a dog’s behavior but not traumatize the dog,” Michaelis said. “That’s a very gray area. There’s a reason we have used real fences for centuries!”

Considering installing an electronic fence? Here’s what you should know:

  • It’s essential that you know your dog’s personality before installing an electronic fence. How does your dog react to aversive stimulus—things that potentially scare him? Michaelis said if your dog doesn’t bounce back well from negative experiences or is traumatized by the sound of thunder or fireworks, then an electronic fence is a bad idea.
  • Well socialized, confident well-rounded dogs have the best chance of succeeding with an electronic fence. Although there are no guarantees, this is the type of dog who is most likely to bounce back from a negative experience with the electronic fencing without being traumatized.
  • Never use an electronic fence to confine a puppy. Younger dogs who are not fully developed mentally are more likely to make a negative association with an invisible fence. Reusche recommends waiting until a dog is 3 years old before introducing an electronic fence.
  • Absolutely never use an electronic fence for a guarding breed because they are already territorial and a fence can aggravate that.
  • Never use an electronic fence for a dog that has aggressive tendencies—the fence will only make the dog more aggressive.
  • While your dog will be confined inside the electronic fence, it will not protect your dog from intruders—animals and people—from coming into the yard. Reusche recalled one horrific story of an aggressive dog who broke loose and crossed an invisible fence to kill a Yorkie confined inside his yard.
  • If you feel you have no choice but to install an electronic fence, Michaelis advised placing it at the back of the property where your dog cannot see people and other dogs. This, the trainer said, will reduce aggression and frustration for your dog and is part of being a polite neighbor.


Photo Credit: Nathan Lindahl