The illusions of "invisible" fencing

Safe containment is an important issue for any pet owner. Keeping your pet on your property and decreasing their ability to roam or chase are some of the reasons for installing a fence, particularly for hunting breeds or herding breeds which are stimulated by sights, scents, and sounds. Electronic or so called "invisible" fencing is one of the options that many pet owners choose. Over the years, both my personal and professional experiences with electric fencing systems have demonstrated that the cons far outweigh the pros. The illusions of "freedom" and "safety" that the systems provide set people and their pets up for failure.

My personal experience with electric fencing happened nearly 10 years ago, long before my career as a dog trainer began. Volunteering at the local animal shelter, I often saw stray dogs come in wearing electric fencing collars. As the staff lamented, the dogs would run through the fence and then run away to avoid the shock of going back into their own yard or the batteries had died inside the black box attached to collar. Animal control officers would go through their daily routines of collecting dogs running around town with electric fence collars and waiting for their owners to realize their dogs were missing. I was shocked at how long it took some people to realize that their dogs were no longer in the yard.

Around the same time, my husband and I moved into the perfect home for us in a wooded, quiet neighborhood. The neighborhood had restrictive covenants against all physical fencing, thereby preserving the the community open space, or so they said. The house already had an electric fence system that the previous owner had used with his dog. We figured that our two dogs would learn to live with it, although I felt a bit anxious from the get-go knowing my experiences from the shelter and my personal aversion to using shock collars. But we loved the house, we could afford it, so in we moved.

The first thing we noticed about our new neighborhood was how difficult it was to simply take a walk around the block. Almost every house had dogs behind electric fencing and all of them were violently reactive towards anyone or anything that walked past. Many dogs would throw themselves at the imaginary boundary, baring teeth, hackles raised. This daily gauntlet made walking through my own neighborhood a mostly unpleasant and stressful experience for both me and my dogs. We soon learned the only peaceful walks would be taken in other people's neighborhoods that did not have electric fencing or on local walking trails that we would have to drive to everyday.

At our house, our dogs seemed to quickly learn the boundary of the fence and stayed within it without incident for the first few months. On a cloudy July 3rd afternoon, our dog Big Sandy saw our neighbor's dog (who often ran loose) chasing a van down the street. Like a bullet, Big Sandy took flight straight through the electric fence without a flinch. She was hit by the van as I screamed. It was the most horrible thing I can imagine any pet owner having to witness. My dog struck by the front tire of the van and dragged 20 feet as the driver slammed on his breaks. I picked up Big Sandy and ran with her broken and bleeding body to my car, as a friend sped us to my vet. One back leg was crushed beyond recognition and her long flowing tail was severed hanging by the fur. We arrived at my vet's office within 15 minutes and he went to work saving Big Sandy's life. I sat in a room covered in her blood replaying the events in my mind, trying to figure out how I could have changed it. If only, if only, if only. I felt that I had really failed Big Sandy on so many levels.

Little did I know how lucky we all were that day. Big Sandy had no internal injuries and was back to her normal routines in a matter of weeks. Her recovery was amazing to witness and she accepted, adapted, and immediately started hopping through life as if nothing had happened. She has not only survived, but thrived and continues to thrive on three legs with half a tail.

My husband and I agreed that we would never trust or use the electric fence again. We rallied our neighbors to change the covenants without success, and we eventually moved to a neighborhood where we could build a real physical fence to our liking. Our dogs have lived safely and contently for many years and our daily walks are a joy in our neighborhood without electronic fencing.

As the years have passed and my experience and dog training business have grown, I see more and more clients seeking help with behavior problems directly correlated to installation and use of electric fencing. These issues include housetrained dogs that begin urinating and defecating in the house to avoid the yard, dogs and young puppies that develop frustration, fear and aggression towards people, other dogs, bikes/cars and other things on the outside of the fence, stress related physical issues, and several incidences of dogs getting trapped and repeatedly zapped in the "shock zone" and attacking their owners when they try to move them.

The guilt I feel for what happened to Big Sandy continues to drive me to educate my clients and friends about these systems, their inherent flaws and their possible behavioral consequences and long term health effects (which we need to know more about). While we get the illusion of protection and an easy, quick fix for containment, our dogs get trapped, become stressed, reactive and fearful, and feel anything but free.

Dr. Ian Dunbar Seminars and Workshops in the Midwest