My experiences with electric (underground or “invisible”) fences

I’ve never personally used an underground or “invisible fence.” I joke that I am the queen of gates, I love real fences, fences that don’t bite, fences that can support roses and clematis, pole beans and pumpkins.

But a lot of people sell them,  and plenty of students arrive, loath to tell me that they use these fences. But I’m shockingly good at being able to spot dogs who use these fences, even before the handlers tell me the stories.

One of my most important training Gurus, Susan Garrett, regularly repeats the phrase “sometimes could be any time” to warn us about the importance of consistency in training our dogs. Of course, when Susan says this, she’s not talking about aversives such as electric containment, she’s talking about the way we condition cues.  She’s saying, if sometimes your dog is rewarded for barging out the front door, or if sometimes you reinforce the dog who just broke his down stay with a run through the agility course, then that dog might expect that to happen other times. So we try to be as consistent as possible in training.  We want the dog to learn how we operate, sort of like the way you learn to operate the car. If you don’t have the key, it won’t go.  One pedal makes you go, the other makes you stop. If the rules of operation are unpredictably changing, that could make animals — including us — anxious, mentally ill, “neurotic.”

So I can see it when dogs have learned, “I could get zapped here, I could get zapped anywhere.” And this can change their whole relationship with the world.

For example, a pet owner wanted to introduce me to her yellow lab. I tried to start our visit as usual, with an off-leash romp, observing the dogs’ natural behavior in a hopefully relaxing, cheerful environment. But the handler released her leash, and her dog froze.

I asked, and they said yes, they’d installed an underground electric fence, not long ago, and walked around the property to show the dog where the “boundaries” were. Her dog seemed concerned we were about to show her some new boundaries.

Another person, with an adorable beagle, called seeking help because when the microwave “dinged,’ her dog was suddenly freaking out. It would run upstairs, frothing at the mouth, and cower under her bed.

“Did you recently install an electric fence?”  Yes. “Does it emit a warning tone?” Yes.

Another story — a Great Pyrenees had become terrified to get into the car. I asked if the family used electronic containment, and maybe drove their car through the fence-line with the dog in the car. Well yes, they had installed an underground “fence,” and left the collar on the dog when they took him for a ride, but “the fence company told us dogs don’t get the shock if they are inside the car.”

 Maybe you hear all this and think, these problems are not difficult to solve. Take the dog’s shock collar off before you go anywhere. Dogs can tell if they are wearing the collar or not.

Sure. But dogs know you apply the collar sometimes, and if you could do that sometimes, you could do anything anytime.

I don’t deny that some dogs seem to be old enough or infirm enough or scared enough to remain contained inside an underground fence, but it’s also true that many invisible things can go wrong.

With my visible fences, I can see when they need repair. And visible fences offer a bit of screening.  And they give dogs larger more sniff-able yards.

Perimeters are danger-zones for electronic-contained dogs. Invisible-fence installers might “train” with the dial on low, but a low-level shock would fail with high-level distractions, so they typically leave the collar set at a much higher level than the dog experiences in “training.” And if the dog trips -up strong shock while relaxing to sniff a dandelion, the dog may be truly frightened and find it difficult to relax in the yard after that.

 It’s scary to walk past dogs barking behind an invisible line.  It’s sad when dogs escape after wildlife and get hit by a car. Fortunately those things only happen “sometimes.”

What’s worse is the harm that happens every time. Dogs don’t know what your criteria is when you apply the collar. They weren’t doing anything wrong and they don’t know your good intentions. They just know, you did it.  You gave them a collar that bites.  You foolishly led them to get hurt. And if you might do that sometimes, you might not be entirely trustworthy any time.