Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Invisible fences are becoming more and more popular and in a few cases they are a very successful method for keeping your dog on your property.  In most cases though, this can go badly wrong.

Consider for starters that you are depending upon a boundary that the dog cannot see.  Invisible fences work best when they are the back up to a visible boundary.  This is why you start out with flags.  Most people take the flags away far too soon, and the dog is not exactly clear on where that boundary is or is not, meaning that they will get shocked more often than is strictly necessary for success.  When I recommend an invisible fence, I would put it along natural boundaries that are visible to the dog, such as a flower garden, along a driveway or lane, or along a row of trees.  I would not use a sidewalk or the street as a boundary for reasons I will outline below.

Consider that you often cannot control the degree of shock that the collar delivers.  If you really want to know what your dog is experiencing, put the collar on your upper arm with the electrodes against your skin on the inside of your arm.  Walk towards the fence.  Repeat that five or six times so that you are certain about the outcome.  There is a caveat.  This will hurt and it will hurt a lot.  Electric shock is one of the most intense sorts of pain we are able to deliver, and most collars are factory set to deliver a very intense pain.  

Consider what happens when your dog sees the kids coming home from school.  If he darts out meets the kids right at the boundary line, he may learn that the kids cause pain.  I have seen four cases where this happened and in one case the dog became so aggressive towards people that we could not safely live with him.  When looking for the cause of the shocks, the dog is not going to naturally gravitate towards his behaviour as the underlying cause of the pain.  He will look for clues about when he gets shocked.  He may decide for instance that cars, kids, other dogs, the mail delivery person, or the contractor who comes to install the air conditioner is the source of his pain.  Dogs in pain are much more likely to bite than dogs who are not, and if the dog decides that the contractor is the source of his pain, then the contractor is who he will bite.

Consider that you are depending on a piece of equipment that may not remain charged and may not work all the time.  If your batteries die and you don’t notice, your dog may approach your boundary and not hear the tone he would normally associate with approaching the edge of his yard.  Not hearing the tone, he will eventually test that boundary and then discover that the fence does not currently shock him.  This leads to a gambler’s effect.  When the fence is sometimes live and sometimes not, any time your dog approaches the boundary and he doesn’t receive a shock, he in effect receives a reward.  This means that he will start to gamble to try and figure out when he can win and when he cannot.  This means that in reality you are increasing your dog’s likelihood that he will try and test the fence, even if that means that some of the time he gets shocked.  The rule for using punishment is that it must occur every time that the dog behaves in the targeted manner, and when you use shock as a punisher, this is especially important.

Consider that your dog may learn that the equipment is what causes the pain.  If you do not condition the collar properly, your dog will learn that having equipment put on is going to create pain and they may become difficult to catch and also difficult to put other collars and harnesses on, or even to bandage if they are injured or ill.
Consider that other animals can get into your yard without penalty, and if those animals (foxes, skunks, raccoons, other dogs, children, adults, cats, coyotes, bears, wolves, deer, sheep, goats and pretty much anything else with feet in your neighbourhood) are aggressive or dangerous to your dog, he cannot escape.  This means that if a person comes into your yard with the intent to harm your dog he cannot leave unless he is willing to be shocked.

Consider that most pet dogs are breeds that were intended to stay close to us, and they don’t actually like being outside alone.  They want to do stuff with their people, even if that stuff is just laying close to you while you type on the computer.  Invisible fencing makes it easy to leave the dog out of doors unattended and able to learn nuisance behaviours such as barking at the fence line and ripping the siding off the house.
Mostly...dogs just want to be with their people!
Consider that if your dog sees a squirrel, another dog or a friend across the street and he breaks through the invisible fence, he may learn that the cost of roaming where he wants is a moment of intense unpleasantness.  If he is running towards something fun, he may consider the pain worth the gain.  Coming home is another story though.  Coming home means facing angry and upset people AND experiencing shock.  Thousands of dogs every year die because they broke through an invisible fence.

Considering the eight points above, you may wonder if there is ever a place where I would recommend an invisible fence, and how I would suggest using it.  For rural properties of five acres or more where you want to contain the dog in a specific component of the property, and where there are good visual landmarks, I would consider an invisible fence.  Why five acres?  Because I want the fence to be far, far from a road.  Because I want to be able to see when people are approaching so that I can bring the dog indoors when someone comes to the house.  I want permanent visual boundaries that can be seen even after it snows (tree lines, garden beds, decorative fences, laneways or livestock fences are all possible visual barriers).  I don’t recommend only putting the collar on the dog when he goes outside; I recommend keeping it on all the time.  I suggest that your dog should be accompanying you most of the time and should be in the house when you leave the boundary area.  If you need to remove the dog from the boundary area, take the collar off and either go through a physical gate or take your dog in your vehicle to get him out.  Even then, I have to say that I am not a huge fan. 

If you live in a covenant community that does not allow fenced yards, consider treating your dog as though you lived in an apartment.  Take him out on leash to toilet.  Teach a rock solid recall and a rock solid down stay.  Keep him with you more often than not.  When I compare the number of behaviour problems I see in dogs who live with invisible fences to those who live in apartment buildings, I have to say that I see far fewer dogs who live in apartments.  That says something profound about the life style of dogs who live in apartments.  They just don’t have the opportunity to experience the problems and pain that those who live with invisible fences do.


  1. Good job, Sue. I think it should be mandatory that someone has to wear one for 1 hour, without knowing boundaries, and experience it as a dog would.

  2. You mean with random meaningless boundaries?

    Taught properly, used properly, it can work. But taught properly means teaching the dog that the collar is not relevant and that people are not relevant and that the only object that is relevant is the flags or barriers. It means testing the batteries every single day. It means teaching the dog to come when called. It means monitoring who comes and goes to your home. It means being outside with your dog. It means having your dog inside with you.

    It does not mean eternal freedom for dogs out of doors without any input from the owners.

    I have only ever seen it used properly ONCE. I have seen it misused hundreds of times and I know of tens of bites that I attribute directly to the invisible fence. Blarg.

  3. There is a good article on Karen Pryor's website describing how to do boundary training without using shock collars.

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