Are Invisible Fences a Good Idea?

For those unfamiliar with invisible fences (sometimes called underground fences), it’s a wire that’s installed under the ground around your property. Your dog wears an electronic collar that can sense this wire. When your dog nears this wire boundary, the collar sounds off a warning beep. If the dog continues and hits this boundary, the collar gives the dog an electric shock. There is usually a training phase where the dog is taught that the beep precedes a shock so that (ideally) the dog will never have to be shocked again after this training because they will have learned not to proceed any further when they hear the beep.

It’s a good idea in theory for those who are, for whatever reason, unable to install an actual fence and would rather not tether their dog (which I also do not recommend doing without supervision). However, I personally can’t recommend invisible fences as the risks outweigh the benefits in my book.

The Risks:
  • Sometimes the distractions are too great. I’ve heard enough stories about dogs who’ve bolted after a squirrel (or whatever they fancy), received a shock when they burst through the boundary, and were then too terrified of another shock to come back through, leaving the dog stuck outside of his/her own yard.
  • It doesn’t keep other animals out of your yard. Perhaps a loose, dog-aggressive dog may wander into your yard and injure or kill your dog. Maybe you have a dog with a high prey drive and a cat unknowingly strolls into your yard and can’t quite get away in time (this is of course assuming you give a rat’s arse if your dog kills what may be someone else’s pet). What if you have a small dog and a predator wanders into the yard for a tasty snack? This is why, if you must use an invisible fence, I strongly recommend you never let your dog out unsupervised (though this is a good idea with any fence, really).
  • It can leave some dogs terrified. Some of the more sensitive dogs become so terrified of the shock, no matter how mild it may be, that they are terrified to go into the yard. I’ve heard of at least one dog who was so afraid of the shock he would only walk along the wall of the house and wouldn’t really go out into the yard. Although this was of course not the intention, it’s a bit psychologically cruel.
  • The collar battery can die, and seems to do so often. I’ve had two neighbors with invisible fences and I would often come home to find their dogs in my yard because their collars had quit working and they realized they could cross the boundary without punishment. These dogs could have been hit by cars, harassed joggers, and/or various other unpleasant things.
  • It can also cause barrier frustration. This is when the dog runs to/along the boundary and flips out (barking, snarling, lunging, etc.) at another dog, person, or prey animal, etc. because they are frustrated they cannot get to it. While this can also happen with an actual fence, it tends to be much less severe since the dog isn’t experiencing a stressful beep or uncomfortable shock to associate with whatever has him/her frustrated. The association of the stressful beep/shock can develop into fear-aggression toward the object of frustration.

Invisible fences can work fine for a select few dogs. As long as there is VERY minimal harm being done (psychologically or physically) and the dog is being supervised while out in the yard, I probably won’t tell you you’re an ignorant and/or terrible person. But for the most part, I strongly recommend against using them. If you really can’t install an actual fence for whatever reason, I suggest instead that you take your dog out on a leash or long line and teach him/her a solid recall around distractions. I prefer teaching dogs without the use of pain, force, or intimidation. Here is a good example of teaching your dog boundaries while making it fun for them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msCmMaYtjpI

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