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.


I’ve trained quite a few dangerous dogs to wear muzzles, but I’ve never trained my own dogs to wear muzzles. If you read my last post, “A Horrible Thing Happened,” you know why I am training M’Ocean to wear a muzzle now.

Like most people, I thought, if I got my dog as a tiny puppy, from a responsible breeder, socialized him and trained him and socialized and trained some more, my dog would never be dangerous dogs. Wishful thinking is dangerous when it comes to our dogs.

Training helps prevent dangerous behaviors, and petting, grooming, stroking your dog can increase his level of oxytocin and make dogs less dangerous, but some dogs naturally produce less oxytocin than others

Fortunately, properly muzzled dogs can’t bite. It allows you to more safely socialize, train and travel with your dog, and it allows the dog to pant, drink water, bark, eat treats and even to push around balls and other toys! But a muzzled dog can’t bite, puncture, or pick up and toss a dachshund. A muzzled dog is far, far, far less dangerous than an unmuzzled dog. Here is a video showing how a very dog aggressive dog’s behavior changes when they are disarmed with a muzzle.

But if the dog isn’t wearing one during the time that you need it or if the dog is able to push the muzzle off his face? It won’t work. A safe muzzle doesn’t interfere with vision or the natural movements of panting, breathing, eating, drinking. It has a forehead strap so the dog can’t push it off his face, and the part that goes around the skull is very snug, so the dog can’t possibly get out of it. Fitting the muzzle can take a week. Often I’ve bought two or three muzzles, and punched new holes in the straps, to get the fit just right.

Basket muzzles can be so comfortable and well ventilated that a dog can wear them all day long. If you have a dog who might jump up and pop you in the face with it, a plastic, rubber or silicon type is better than wire. We condition the dog to love it as with a head halter. Chirag Patel made a great muzzle training video, so I’ll just share that with you here. My only added comment is that you do need a forehead strap, especially if your dog has a history of knowing how to push a head halter off his nose.

The part of the muzzle that goes around the skull needs to be very snug. Often times, when I fit a muzzle, the head strap stretches and loosens over a few days and I need to keep punching new holes to tighten. You shouldn’t be able to fit any fingers under the strap that fits on the back of the skull, but the basket itself needs to be loose enough for the dog to open his mouth, bark, pant, drink water, eat treats. Here are some examples of muzzles that many dogs can wear comfortably all day long. Do you have a favorite muzzle?

I changed my mind.

So I called my veterinarian this morning and said, “I changed my mind.” I’m not going to get M’Ocean neutered — not yet, anyway. Here’s my reasoning (and I maintain the right to change my mind AGAIN).

M’Ocean doesn’t go around marking or humping pillows or blankets. He does sometimes get overly excited around other dogs, where it seems like he would like to hump them. Recently when a sweet playful spayed german shepherd came running over to him and dived directly underneath him, he wrapped his arms around her and started humping. It wasn’t a dog fight, but she was pinned and it scared her. He let her go, he didn’t hurt her, but I guess that was the event that made me think, I want to make training easier.

And unfortunately, neutering might not make training easier. At least, not for my dog. I see plenty of neutered dogs who get very excited when they see other dogs. Learning how to play, especially when you’re the biggest strongest dog on the playground, takes time. He does best in a large group, and this pretty dog diving into his arms was a pretty big challenge! But M’Ocean is increasingly showing self control around distractions.

My guess is that testosterone levels will naturally decrease as he hits five years old and 6. Maybe we’ve already been through the worst of his hormones.

When M’Ocean was 11 months old, an older intact dog at a dog Canine Musical Freestyle event jumped over the ring gates, landed on M’Oceans neck, sent him flying and left him with a shoulder injury that took a few months and about $1000 to heal. Yeah, I still am upset about it, because the event organizers seemed to blame M’Ocean, as though it happened because he was intact. But the dog’s owner told me her dog is “an asshole,” and he had a history of repeated bad behavior. So, unprovoked attacks happen to neutered dogs too. And now M’Ocean is 3 and he is 90 lbs of confident, socially experienced, mature, ballsy dog. A dog, maybe even a coyote, would think carefully before jumping a dog that looks like M’Ocean does now.

So I’m thinking, if I’m going to have to keep on training him and being wary of coyotes ANYWAY, if neutering isn’t a guaranteed resolution of the typical behavior challenges I face in owning a large imposing looking working dog, then I might as well focus on training and see how far I can get with that. I will re-evaluate in the fall.

Keeping his natural hormones for just a few extra months, while he is still building muscle and bone in agility, that has some health advantages. It’s a lot of responsibility, but if I can handle and manage him safely, there are some real health benefits, protections for his bones, brains and muscle, associated with keeping him intact a bit longer. He is becoming more “conscious,” more of a real “thinking” dog every month. There are other options, such as chemical (temporary) castration, or a vasectomy. I have time to do some research. He’s a LARGE dog to be running in agility. He needs to be in peak physical condition. So, about that neutering? Not yet. I changed my mind.

Off Leash Freedom!

How do you wind up with an adult dog who comes when called? There are lot of pieces to that puzzle. A lot of it is practice, practice, practice! But some of the pieces might be genetic. Some dogs have a natural urge to hunt, which can be a tremendous asset, as long as they are hunting for the things you want them to hunt for! But what if they take off after deer or chase cars or squirrels?

It’s important to prevent dogs from rehearsing behaviors that you don’t like. Some trainers use shock collars to stop dogs from chasing the wrong thing. I resist doing that, most especially with young dogs, because shock experiences can undermine a dog’s confidence and drive. It can leave them second guessing themselves and reluctant to experiment — an essential part of successful problem-solving. I don’t want my dogs to be afraid of trying something new.

The head halter to off leash progression in this video, (“Increments of Freedom” with Whole Dog Camp lead trainer Jenny Ruth Yasi) should be just one small part of your larger games-based recall training plans. This isn’t about coming when called, but it’s about understanding and using your leash and training gear as conditioned reinforcers, as well as cues. The head halter to off leash progression rewards dogs with one little increment of freedom at a time, around gradually increasing distractions! Dogs can understand that they aren’t just working for cookies, but they are working for something MUCH more interesting: freedom! Head halters and long lines set dogs up to succeed in trading responsiveness for privileges.

Rewarding with privileges — rather than giving privileges before the dog is ready and then punishment because the dogs makes mistakes — is a more fair way of working with your dog. It’s not fair to expect dogs to perform successfully off-leash if they can’t even perform successfully ON leash. I hope we all can become more awareness of when we are giving a dog a privilege and when we are taking a privilege away, and how that may influence behavior. When dogs understand that they aren’t just working for hot dog, but they are working for what they REALLY want, this leads to happier, less frustrated and more robustly confident dogs. Thanks for leaving me any questions or comments, here or on youtube!

Resource Guarding, part one

Picture the behavior you want to see.

“Resource guarding” is aggression that occurs around a dog’s possessions. The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or it could even be YOU. I once had a guest dog who would find a recently cleaned spot on the rug, and he would resource guard THAT!  It’s the opposite of what we want, which is  a relaxed attitude, a dog who isn’t worried about anything.

IMG_0124IMG_0192Resource guarding is the dog saying “Stay away!” It might mean stay away from my bone, my pups, my corner of the room, my human. It’s one of the most common behavioral problems I see, but fortunately one that is highly responsive to training.

First off: Why do dogs do this? Like almost all aggression, resource guarding typically starts as insecurity, and a lack of confidence, a dog who can’t predict what’s going to happen with a resource. Over time the dog can come up with his own plan for controlling resources, and this can develop into increasing aggression. Some dogs might be genetically more prone to this. I saw a puppy once that was scary aggressive, resource guarding at 16 weeks, and I was told euthanized by 6 months. Something was wrong with that pup.  But that is very rare. Far more typically, resource guarding is triggered by the environment, regardless of genetics.  Resource guarding is almost always a learned behavior. The dog has learned to act aggressively, because it allows them to control access to limited valuable resources.

IMG_0251This is why trying to pick up and control all potential triggers often fails.  You can’t eliminate every possible resource in the environment. When you limit some resources, you’re making every other resource in the environment seem more important,   MORE valuable, and this has potential to escalate things a  dog may choose to guard. We will never be “done” with our mission to  prevent development of resource guarding in all of our dogs. Behavioral health requires a  sense of  resource security throughout the lifespan.

When you’ve  flooded your environment with other resources,  the stinky spot on the rug doesn’t stand out so much. So that’s one way of approaching the problem. Rather than handing out one ball in a group of 6 dogs, dump out 24 balls. Begin with balls just laying there, don’t throw them right off the bat! If it looks like one dog is experiencing a ball shortage, dump out MORE balls. The idea is to have so many balls, no dog needs to worry about balls.  Ignore the balls, don’t touch the balls,  let the dogs do what they want. Add more balls as necessary.  Do the same if you pass out dog bones or treats. I remember spending $30 on 12 dog bones once, but it was super worthwhile!

I’ve seen dogs learn how to relax, again and again, in resource flooded environments. The resource guarder will likely collect  items: maybe six tennis balls, plus two bones and a rag, but then they start to  settle down and feel foolish because none of the other dogs cares a bit about what they’ve got. All the other dogs have what they need and they aren’t bothering the resource guarder. What does this tell you about the world?! I don’t know, but maybe something!

These ideas are not necessarily a prescription, but  reflective of experiences I’ve had with dogs who stay with me. As an old friend used to say to me when talking about beekeeping, “you need to think like a bee!” The same thing is true regarding resource guarding in dogs. We have to think of how we would feel if someone came and took our iphone out of our hands! Fortunately, dogs don’t care about iphones! IMG_9288