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Dog Fences: Invisible vs. Visible

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…