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Dog Fences: Invisible vs. Visible

Get a Real Fence I’ve been asked by dog training clients several times about my opinion on the Invisible Fence. The short answer is that I really, really don’t like shock fencing; I think it’s inhumane. Watch the video below, which shows several humans wearing a shock collar, for an indication of what it might be like for a dog to wear a shock collar.

Invisible Fence is one brand of shock collar fencing; “invisible” is a euphemism for pet containment systems that use electronic shock that humans can’t see but dogs can feel. Other brands are Petsafe, Dogtra, and SportDOG. Some systems have wires underground, some are wireless. I have only a few personal experiences with the brand “Invisible Fence,” so I’ll mostly comment on the product of invisible electric shock fencing in general, not the actual brand, except where I do have experience.

Electric fencing, of the visible sort, is used to contain horses and cows, where I came from (Northwest Idaho). That sort of fencing is bad enough – the animal can actually see the fence, at least. The only use for invisible electronic fences with dogs, in my opinion, is to fortify a visible fence that a dog is jumping over or digging under. Even then, I think it’s more humane to use a physical solution instead of using a shock collar, but sometimes that’s not feasible. That’s the only use of electronic fences bordering on legit for me. It’s very hard on a dog’s psyche to get an electric shock from an invisible force, without coming up against a real barrier.

The idea of the Invisible Fence and other brands is that the dog wears a shock collar with a receiver. When the dog approaches the Invisible Fence with the shock collar on, it hears a beep as a warning. If the dog crosses the boundary, s/he receives a shock from the electronic collar, which I think you can set to various amount of shock. The dog begins to associate the beep with the possibility of shock, so s/he avoids the areas that cause beeping. When I worked with clients with the Invisible Fence in the Seattle area, there were little flags around to signal to the dog where the Invisible fence boundary was installed, so they all developed a fear of little flags, including random flags in other people’s yards.

So why do I think shock collar fences are inhumane? Not all dogs are badly affected by these invisible shock fences, but many dogs definitely are. The “fence” doesn’t keep loose dogs or pestering children from coming in. Lots of dogs get out, when fenced in by electric shock, but they can then be afraid to go back home, knowing that they’re going to get another invisible shock on the way back through! I’ve talked with people at Seattle animal control that say they find electric fence shock collars on stray dogs all the time.


Some people trying out a shock collar on themselves.

You also never know what association your dogs will make when shocked by an invisible force. If a dog sees a child on the other side of this invisible barrier, the dog may be excited enough to go up to the boundary and get a shock. Even the beep, which leads to the shock if ignored, becomes a conditioned aversive, meaning that the dog is afraid of it, too. A dog that gets shocked after seeing a child could very easily develop a fear of children. Or if it’s a dog that the “fenced-in” dog gets shocked for approaching, then dogs become more scary. Fear leads to aggression.

This doesn’t happen in all cases, so you’ll get plenty of people saying how they got an invisible electric shock fence and loved it, that the dog learned in two or three shocks not to go past the electronic fence. They may not associate the fence, which truly becomes invisible to the human, with the dog’s escalating aggression to other dogs or children. But when I did private sessions, I worked with several dogs whose aggression was caused by the electronic fence. It’s just too risky.

I worked with a dog just outside of Seattle a few years ago, whose owners had recently installed a shock collar fence. The dog had been shocked by the collar a few times, but hadn’t yet been taught that it could go through with a Magic Word. So the protocol was something like this: have the shock collar off of the dog, say the Magic Word, and take the dog through, so the dog learns that it can go through the fence when it hears that word.

The poor dog was peeing all over herself, fell to the ground, and refused to move. She had to be carried through the fence and I was a bit surprised that it didn’t bite the owner, it was that scared. That same dog developed aggression to strangers as time went on.

I had a different client who had an Invisible Fence. She forgot that the collar was on her dog when they went for a walk. That dog no longer trusted her to keep her safe from the shock Gods. He won’t go down the stairs to go on a walk. When he finally could be dragged out or lured out with treats, he ran quickly away from the home and then didn’t want to go back home with her when the walk was over.

This same dog also escaped once, when the Invisible Fence collar was off, but he refused to come back home, even though he had a lovely recall before the Invisible Fence was installed. A neighbor had to catch the dog for her, as the dog wouldn’t let mom come close.

As I mentioned above, one of the fears the dog develops is the fear of little flags, which are installed along the fence line at the beginning. Owners use them to keep dogs out of rooms in their home, although the shock fence can also be made live indoors. Let’s say it was your child…would you get baby gates to keep them out of a dangerous room, or would you put on a shock collar that shocks them when they enter that space?


Dogs are not babies, of course, but they are living beings that share our planet and deserve humane care. Don’t fall for the line that dogs don’t feel shock like people do. I recall a history class that said something similar about black slave women. The claim was that black women didn’t feel the pain of giving birth like whites did. They didn’t kick and scream like white Southern belles; their pain was invisible, so it wasn’t real.

I work so hard to eliminate fear and aggression in dogs, I just can’t think of it as humane to create fear on purpose by shocking a dog with invisible electronic fencing.

And I haven’t even mentioned the trouble that can happen if the shock collar malfunctions, as some brands do in the rain. The terrible pictures above are of a dog named Rufus that was left in the rain with his brand new shock collar on. Rufus did survive, by the way, but the severe burns on his neck are from the shock collar repeatedly shocking him for hours in the rain. Disgusting. And it’s not just the rain. Just about everything malfunctions over time – cars, cell phones, and yes, shock collars.

Dogs need exercise, of course. But if there’s any way you can get a real fence, do it. If you have a fence that needs fortifying because of a digging dog, physically bury more fencing. If your property is too big to fence, just put a fence for your dog that’s smaller; your dog doesn’t need the run of the whole place. If your neighborhood doesn’t allow any tall fences, at least get as tall of a fence as you can get and supervise your dog when outside. If all else fails, still get a real fence, but fortify it with the shock collar. That will be less risky, but it’s still not risk-free, because you never know what your dog will associate with the shock.

If if you can’t afford or build a visible fence, don’t get a fence at all. Any dog trainer that says otherwise is *not* a positive dog trainer, in my opinion. If safety is a concern, have your dog on a long line while they’re outside, with supervision. Chaining a dog outside alone is a whole separate rant I may write one day…

Written by Grisha Stewart, Ahimsa Dog Training, Seattle [Slashdot] [Digg] [Reddit] [del.icio.us] [Facebook] [Technorati] [Google] [StumbleUpon] Tweet This Post!
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18 Responses to “Dog Fences: Invisible vs. Visible”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Great points. Somehow the Invisible Fence has a good rep and people don’t call it a “shock” collar system. I had one student who used a do-it-yourself version for his back yard. His dog went into the yard, hit the boundary and got shocked. Then, the dog generalized the shock to the entire back yard and refused to set foot in any part of the yard ever again – oops! He was forced to walk his dog for exercise/potty after that, despite the fact that he had a huge back yard.

    I have heard that the Invisible Fence staff are the “bad guys” during “training” and associate themselves with the shock, not the owner. But you’re right, if the owner forgets to take the collar off the dog can make a lasting bad association.

  2. Grisha Says:

    RE: The Invisible Fence guys taking the fall, that’s a good idea. But you never know what dog associates the fence shock with. Even if the Invisible Fence guy becomes the Scary Monster, is it really just that one person? Men wearing hats? Men with beards? Smokers? All men?

    Also, one could argue that if the beep of the fence boundary is enough to make the dog not cross the invisible line, then even if they walk up toward a child and hear the beep, that could be enough to increase fear of children. It’s just so risky, as you know!

  3. Link Exchange Requests - When To Say No | Aldebaran Web Design's Official Blog Says:

    [...] 1. Website Conflicts With My Values: First and foremost – I believe that electronic dog fences are completely inhumane. [...]

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I really appreciate this article, as you hit all of the salient points re: the downside of electronic fencing. As a rescuer, I do, actually, distinguish between “The Invisible Fence” and all others; and am willing to place certain dogs with certain families who either have that fencing, or are willing to certify that they will use that company only. I am not, in any way, associated with, or paid by that company. I do, however, know that they provide significant training of the dog and the people; provide safeguards against both malfunction and excessive shocking; and require that the franchisees provide emergency service. Thus far, this is the only electronic fencing with which I am willing to try placing any of our dogs. This requirement, together with change-in-behavior provisions becomes part of the adoption contract, and the dog must be surrendered back to the rescue if provisions aren’t met.

    I make this concession because, in the Metro New York ‘burbs, many otherwise fabulous homes are absolutely unwilling (and, in many cases, unable, by law or covenant) to use conventional fencing; and they feel that one of the reasons they actually acquired the spacious property they did, was for the enjoyment of the family, with a family dog or dogs. They are well aware that even when supervised, the risk of vehicles in the absence of fencing, is far too great. So, when a great family comes along, who is sincere in their desire to safely keep their dog safe, happens to be perfect for a given dog, and is willing to go the extra mile to work with a reputable company; I am willing to risk and monitor the dog’s placement with them, rather than abandon them (and all their friends and acquaintances) to the puppy mill trade; and deprive the shelter dog of the home.

    Sadly, the vast majority of electronic fencing is used by people who install far less expensive, DIY fencing; do no training; have no professional inspection of the electrical work done; have no built in safeguards; and have no interest in the fencing beyond their own convenience. Much, much suffering is caused, as described in this article.

  5. Grisha Says:

    Thanks for your comments and thoughts. It does seem to be that the Invisible Fence is the lesser of two evils. If people are choosing between buying a shock collar at a pet store or having Invisible Fence people install it, I’d recommend (after trying to talk them out of the darn thing in the first place!) that they have it installed by Invisible Fence. But, to mangle a metaphor from David Sedaris, it’s kind of like choosing between a plateful of chocolate pie mixed with glass and a plate of feces with glass. The first one is better, but it’s not the right choice.

    These otherwise fabulous homes in the burbs need to not leave their dog outside unsupervised, then, with the dog on a long line. Don’t let them talk themselves into thinking it’s humane to shock their dogs into a phobia of beeps little white flags… If they *really* want the dog off leash, at least install a short, allowable fence and install the Invisible Fence along those same boundaries, just to reinforce it. Don’t shock the dog with something invisible!

    I know your choice is – no home for this dog or placing it with an otherwise suitable, loving home with an Invisible Fence. I agree that you’re making the right choice. I just don’t think they are making the right choice to have that kind of fence in the first place, with no visible barrier.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    I really enjoyed this article, especially the part where you make the analogy between Black people and dogs – so appropriate.

  7. Grisha Says:

    Thanks! Although It’s not so much an analogy between Black people and dogs (which comes off as racist) as between slaveholders that ignored the suffering of their fellow human beings by justifying that they feel pain differently and some dog owners who justify the use of shock by saying that dogs feel pain differently.

  8. Kim Says:

    Thanks for educating people of the dangers of these evil devices. I know first hand because I have a dog that has been traumatized by the fence and it was done under a “humane” and controlled environment. It’s been two years and we are still trying to cope with his fear issues related to that one use of the shock fence.

  9. Grisha Says:

    If you agree that shock collars are not humane training tools, join the Shock Collar Coalition!

  10. Casey Lomonaco Says:

    Hi Grisha,

    Great piece!

    One of the unexpected but common side effects I’ve noticed with these containment systems in my own clientele is that I frequently get dogs who become extremely fearful of any sort of “digital beeping.” Timers, microwave ovens, cell phones, doorbells, alarm clocks, etc. since most of these collars issue a “warning tone” before actually shocking the dog.

    This creates, really quickly, a conditioned punisher that comes back to haunt the dog/handler team in unexpected ways when encountering “every day” sounds like those mentioned above.

    Casey Lomonaco
    Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training

  11. Large Fierce Mammal » Shock Collar Containment Systems for Pets - Not Recommended by the Large Fierce Mammals Says:

    [...] and operates Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, Washington. Her website contains an article titled Dog Fences: Invisible vs. Visible in which she documents her own reasons for feeling basically the way do. Among these are dogs she [...]

  12. A Says:

    We have a very low fence that our dog has yet to jump over….until today. As renters we cannot put in a taller fence. I am opposed to any kind of shock collar so are there any methods you recommend to train him to stay in the yard? Thank you!!

  13. Advice Needed Re: Electric Fence - Poodle Forum - Standard Poodle, Toy Poodle, Miniature Poodle Forum ALL Poodle owners too! Says:

    [...] I don’t like them either. I’ve seen dogs blast through them (into a road) and I’ve seen dogs hurt when strange dogs came into the yard. Many dogs can apparently deal with them without issues, but I wouldn’t ever risk it. Re not running out the front door, that’s an easy one to train. My miniature is trained not to go out the front door unless he has a leash on, and he’s rock solid. I can leave the front door open and go in and out, and he never steps over the threshold. Some opinions: Say No to Shock Collars Taylor & Francis Online :: Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems? – Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science – Volume 3, Issue 4 ScienceDirect – Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research : Why electric shock is not behavior modification Dog Fences: Invisible vs. Visible | Ahimsa Dog Blog [...]

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Hi Grisha thank you for posting this this is something I have been telling my clients here in the New Forest Hampshire England for a very long time

    Chrissy Cara Dog Training

  15. Chrissy Gough Says:

    Hi Grisha

    Thank you for posting this.

    This is something I have been telling clients here in the New Forest Hampshire England for a very long time

    Chrissy

  16. Gail Tenney Says:

    I was a trainer for the fence company and can share so many nightmare situations that can happen and have happened to dogs ..dogs get caught in the signal field, getting shocked non stop, the signal can bleed off cars, TV sets and the dog gets shocked for doing nothing wrong,,I knew a dog that got shocked just sitting in the family den doing nothing, the battery runs down and the dog runs into traffic, when the dog gets use to it and runs through, I have seen the company wrap shock collars around the dogs stomach. I will never forget that. I have had dogs throw up and get diarrhea just at the sight of the Electronic Fence car pulling up. I remember this one poor dog that would just walk around the house shaking all day long, the dog kept running through the fence to run away for good it was so terrified..It was in a constant meltdown as imagine not knowing when you would be getting a shock on your neck??..the list goes on and on and it is evil and cruel..I did this job for only 4 months and I quit the day a client asked me if I used this on my dog and it just flew out of my mouth “oh my no I would never shock my dog!!!!” I only took the job as like most people I thought I would be saving lives, I never meant to hurt dogs but I saw in the end it was…plus dogs on this are harder to train in general as many are left outside free all day so are use to doing things they way they want and are more difficult for loose leash walking and recalls.

  17. Susan Mann Says:

    Hear hear! Wholeheartedly agree, and will add that I think the brand name of Invisible Fence is misleading advertising. It is not a fence, as per the dictionary definition which includes the word structure. It doesn’t accomplish any protection from thieves, wildlife, or other dogs, all of whom can come right on in. And possibly tempt the dog out, even with a shock collar (excuse me, they call it a “static correction” I believe!) I have heard from a number of people whose local homeowners associations are now prohibiting all fencing (or any which has the real capacity to contain a dog, anyway!) except for “underground” fences, which I do not think they would do if this option were not available to them. That, of course, increases the purchasing of such devices! When people ask me about them, I state very clearly that they are NOT fences, they are a boundary training system that utilizes shocking the dog to make the dog fearful of going beyond the boundary. I also mention the several dogs I know personally, and many more not personally, that have ended up in shelters and found new homes with the collars still on- because the dogs go through the fence once for whatever reason, then don’t want to risk coming back in!

  18. Katie Says:

    I agree completely that underground pet fences should never
    be used alone…. To me it’s just not safe, any dog, given a
    powerful enough motivator, will “forget” about the shock in their
    excitement and cross the threshold… Of course, now they are
    loose, and too afraid to come back into their yard, due to the
    knowledge they will be zapped again…a lot of dogs end up in
    shelters with e-fence collars fastened around their necks….
    However, I must say I’m a fan of using the electric fence as a
    reinforcer for a physical fence. I have 5 dogs, only one needs to
    wear a fence collar as well, and he’s a GREAT dog, but he’s
    adventurous, I have a 6′ fence that he jumps out of like it’s
    nothing… (kinda scrambles a bit at the top, but he’s quick about
    it…) I got him as a 10 month old puppy who had been returned to
    the shelter 3 times cuz other people couldn’t keep him contained.
    He was a bear to leash train, he’s perfect now, a lot of time and
    probably 4 jars of peanut butter later, he’s got a great heel…
    But he’s a weimeraner vizsla mix, he needs more than leash walking,
    he needs to RUN! I live on a busy road, in the countryside where
    people fly along and dont pay attention. I love my system, a
    physical fence with an invisible fence wire tacked to the ground
    fight along the physical fence. Not all the dogs have a collar,
    just the jumper. He’s not fearful in his yard, he doesn’t have any
    of the generalized fears of electronic beeping (quite the
    opposite…they’re all a fan of the microwave…) he simply doesn’t
    jump the fence anymore and he is safe and in his forever home. I
    think it’s good to know the issues and potential risk/benefit
    analysis of any tool. I get annoyed with people who want the
    underground fence because it’s cheaper than installing a physical
    fence, or becaus they don’t want the aesthetics… To me the
    risk/benefit of that set-up is ludicrous… Safety of your dog,
    both physically and emotionally, verses…aesthetes, no brainer,
    but in my case, I think the risk/benefit analysis is just as
    ludicrous, either have a dog that is a born adventurer, jump his
    fence and be killed on the street (or turned into the shelter in
    the case of his previous owners) or have a mild shock that he
    associates with trying to jump the fence, which prevents him from
    doing it, to me it makes sense. But it’s an individual basis…has
    to be. No tool works the same for each dog, and some are completely
    incompatible with an electric fence system, wether too sensitive,
    or couldn’t care less!

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