Is an Electric Fence the Way to Go?
The pluses and minuses of allowing more freedom with an invisible boundary.
At first blush it seems like a great idea for any dog. An electric fence costs hundreds instead of thousands of dollars like an actual fence would, and doesn’t mar the landscape. It allows a dog to explore the world outside without your being there to make sure he doesn’t run into the road and get killed by a car, attack passers-by, or get into scrapes with other dogs. Other benefits: an electric fence does not obstruct a dog’s view in any way, can be placed easily around even hilly, rocky, or terraced terrain, and does not need a nod from next-door neighbors or have to pass muster with any local regulatory boards who set standards for fence height and placement.
Indeed, “a lot of people say it’s a godsend,” notes the Director of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVB.
You probably know how it works. An underground wire that goes around the perimeter of a property line is attached to a shock box that can deliver jolts to a gizmo on a dog’s neck, held there by his collar. The set-up is effective. “Ninety-odd percent of dogs come to understand what constitutes the perimeter,” Dr. Dodman says, “and stay within it after they’ve had a couple of shocks. The dog understands that it hurts to cross the line. There is a beep that precedes the shock to let the dog know he’s getting too close.”
Dr. Dodman is not a big fan of teaching a dog by delivering a painful jolt of electricity to his neck. He has seen trainers drag dogs across the line with the gizmo set very high to deliver an excruciatingly hurtful nugget of power in order for them to learn. But, he acknowledges, “the downside of a dog’s not being contained can be pretty serious, with cataclysmic and even fatal injury possible. So I get it that people say, ‘What’s the big deal about a shock with all that’s at stake?’” But there are caveats.
Some dogs ignore the shock
“Not all dogs are contained by an invisible fence,” Dr. Dodman reports. “Even companies that manufacture them say that 2 percent of dogs are not confined by the threat of the shock, and that may be an underestimate. Some dogs, if they see something they want to get to, will just blow through and take the shock.” That is, an electric fence is a solution, but not a completely surefire one. Leaving your dog unattended outside always poses a risk; you’re never completely off the hook. Dogs do sometimes break out and cause harm, either to themselves or others, even if inadvertently.
Worse still, once the dog has satisfied his urge to chase the squirrel — or the dog passing by — he may be afraid to run back through the invisible fence because now that his adrenalin is no longer surging, he’s more aware of the shock and the pain it can cause. That is, even a dog who wants to come back into the yard might not. Electric fences are now available that are jiggered in such a way that the dog has a couple of minutes to run back in without receiving a jolt, sort of a like a get-back-into-jail-free card — but how are you going to train a dog to understand that if he breaks the rules, there’s no punishment for un-breaking them?
Some dogs globalize their fear of the shock
On the flip side of those dogs who won’t let a shock stop them if something is simply too enticing on the other side of the line are dogs who get shocked once and then won’t venture out at all. Dr. Dodman has had electric fence manufacturers ask him why some dogs won’t leave the house after being trained not to cross the line via the application of the shock. Such dogs are called “porch sitters” by those in the industry.
The answer to the query, Dr. Dodman says, is that for some dogs, “once shocked, they believe the backyard is dreadful. When they get a belt of electricity delivered through the neck, they simply run into the house and don’t want to go back out there. These are often timid, affectionate dogs, maybe dogs who have separation anxiety who seek their owners’ attention, who hang close and are very sensitive.” After they are shocked, they come to believe the entire yard is a hostile place.
Some dogs become territorially aggressive
One electric fence manufacturer, Dr. Dodman comments, “says the invisible fence system is entirely natural because by containing the dog within his territory, it’s going with the flow of nature. ‘Inside, this is mine; outside, someone else’s.’”
The problem, Dr. Dodman says, is that “there’s enough information to suggest that an invisible fence may increase territorial aggression. It can make territoriality even more pronounced near the line. In fact, Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, who studied instinctive behavior in animals, noted that a dog who runs back and forth along a fence barking when he sees people passing might become less territorial if the fence is taken down.”
Territoriality might even be more incited by an electric fence than a traditional one. Consider, Dr. Dodman says, that a regular fence is bilateral, meaning that not only is the dog unable to get out, but people and other animals are unable to come in. So the dog, inside, is safe. He has what Dr. Dodman calls the home-field advantage.
But an invisible fence is unilateral. The dog doesn’t get out, but people can still come in — the mailman, the UPS man, the kid who takes a shortcut on his bike across the edge of the dog’s property. That inability to effectively guard his property could serve in some instances to make a dog even more adamant about trying to keep people out — and in some cases lead to aggression that ends in more than barking. It is an undisputed fact, Dr. Dodman says, that the majority of dog bites occur when dogs are on their own property unsupervised.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. “The gold standard is a real fence,” Dr. Dodman says. “People use electric fences because they’re cheaper, feel a regular fence is going to be an eyesore, or even fear that the dog will tunnel under it, which does happen in some cases. But a traditional fence, if at all possible, has the benefit of keeping the dog ‘safe’ from what’s outside as well as not coming with any electric shocks to his sensitive nerve endings.
In the end, the doctor says, “it depends on the individual situation and the individual dog. If somebody’s living on a half-acre patch in the middle of a suburb, it would probably behoove them to put up a regular fence. It’s small enough and inexpensive enough and won’t cause pain.
“Think of your house, your town, your street, your dog’s personality, and make a decision that’s right with all those considerations in the mix. On the upside, if you have the right kind of situation and the right kind of dog — he understands the beep, gets shocked a couple of times, and does not have a bull-headed personality that would cause him to run through — an electric fence may be the right answer. But if he’s sensitive, wimpy, frightened, it’s probably not a good idea.” Furthermore, Dr. Dodman says, if you put an electric fence on a small plot and your dog has something of an aggressive, territorial nature and will not like being unable to deter “interlopers” from entering his terrain, “it’s sort of like turning your dog into a loaded handgun.
“I’m not sure I’m saying electrical fences are all bad,” he adds. “It’s just a complicated decision.”