It might seem like an electric fence is a great idea for all dogs. Unlike an actual fence, it keeps a dog safely contained without obstructing his view in any way.
It has advantages for owners, too. It costs hundreds, instead of thousands, of dollars, like a wooden fence would. It doesn’t interfere with the look of the landscape. It can easily be placed around hilly or even rocky terrain, and it does not have to be approved by any local planning boards that set standards for fence height and distance from the property line.
But there are potential issues.
The shock of it all
An electric fence is an underground wire that goes around the perimeter of a property line. It’s attached to a shock box that can deliver electricity to a gizmo attached to a dog’s collar. If the dog crosses the line, the shock box delivers what can be painful jolts. In other words, the training is in the punishment. There’s a beep that precedes the shock to let a dog know he’s getting too close.
Some trainers drag their dogs across the line with the gizmo set very high in order to deliver an excrutiatingly painful nugget of electrical power so the dog will learn. For well over 90 percent of dogs, the threat of electricity applied to their bodies is effective for having them remain inside property lines. Still, we are not fans of inflicting punishment, or the threat of punishment, to train a dog.
Another issue is that not all dogs are fazed enough by the electric shock to keep them contained. Even companies that manufacture electric fences say that 2 percent of dogs are not confined by the threat of a shock, and it’s possible that’s an underestimate. Some dogs, if something is interesting enough or threatening enough on the other side, will just blow through and take the shock.
That’s why, no matter what, it’s never a good idea to leave your pet unattended. Dogs do sometimes break out and cause harm, either to themselves or others.
Sometimes, dogs that break through the fence, either to chase a squirrel or perhaps bark at a passer-by, may be afraid to run back through. Their adrenaline is no longer surging, so they’re more aware of the shock and the pain it can cause. Granted, electric fences are now made so that if a dog breaks through, he has a couple of minutes to come back across the line without being jolted. But how do you train a dog to understand that if he breaks the rule, there’s no punishment for un-breaking it?
Another problem is that some dogs who have been shocked won’t leave the house to go into the yard. They globalize the pain and believe the entire backyard is a hostile place rigged to harm them. It’s often timid, affectionate dogs who have this reaction, sometimes dogs with separation anxiety who are very sensitive and apt to hang close to their owners to begin with.
Finally, an electric fence serves to make some dogs more territorially aggressive. A regular fence means the dog can’t get out but also that nobody can get in. With an electric fence, on the other hand, people can still come in — the mailman, neighbors, the kid who takes a short cut across the lawn with his bike. So the dog is at a disadvantage. Not being able to chase interlopers off his property will make him more apt to bite rather than just bark. Indeed, many dog bites occur when dogs are on their own property unsupervised.
How to make a decision
The gold standard is a real fence. It has the benefits of keeping a dog safe and keeping him from feeling alarmed that others can get in when he can’t get out. It also has no electric punishment attached to it.
But the answer is not one-size-fits-all. If you already have an electric fence and if you have the right kind of dog — a mellow one who understands the beep and doesn’t feel anxious about needing to guard his terrain — it could prove a reasonable solution. For a sensitive, anxious, frightened, or downright wimpy dog, however, it’s probably not the right approach. Make your considerations carefully.