Invisible Fences: Expectation vs. Reality

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Cultural Fences

I lived in southern California for many of my formative years. There, almost everyone had a fenced backyard. If you had a dog, they were behind a fence in the backyard. When they weren’t, they were in the house or on a leash. I am certain there are people who let their dogs walk off-leash in California, but I didn’t see them often. I did see that if animals were roaming about, they were quickly picked up by animal control. In a crowded, suburban neighborhood near Los Angeles, there is not a ton of room for roaming dogs. 

When we moved to northern Utah, hardly any of our neighbors had fences. There is definitely an appeal to seeing rolling green lawns and pretty little gardens for blocks and blocks. Yet, there existed a problem: dogs. 

People in this new neighborhood still had dogs, but they let them out with little to no supervision. Without fences, they would of course wander off to poo, pee, and play in other peoples’ yards. There are many stories of friendly neighborhood dogs. There are also stories of damaged property, scared livestock, and dog bites.

This is why there are leash laws and “dog at large” laws. So most dog owners agree that their pet should definitely stay in their own yard. What they don’t always agree on, is how to do it.

Fencing Woes

There are, of course, many solutions. Each solution has its own benefits and drawbacks. Today, we will focus on “invisible” fences. This can refer to any number of devices connected to a collar on your dogs’ neck that use sound and/or electricity to keep your dog in your yard. Why might you choose this option over traditional fencing?

  • Your neighborhood has a certain aesthetic. Sometimes this is from the city level or a Homeowner’s Association. Fences may not be allowed, or only very specific or expensive fencing.
  • Your budget doesn’t include the expense of a fence.
  • Your dog is digging under, slipping through, or jumping over your fence.
  • Your property has boundaries that make a regular fence difficult. This might include extensive trees, rough terrain, or water features.
  • Your dog escapes through the gate when you open it.
  • You want your dog to be able to use both the front and back yard.

These are valid reasons. I can understand why you are considering it, if it seems to coincide with your needs.  

And, why not?

It does seem like a good idea. You still get to see your neighbor, the HOA won’t come down on you, and your dog won’t escape from the yard anymore. You just set up the wiring and slap the collar on your dog, and now each time he tries to run out of the yard, it will give a warning tone. If he continues to try, it will give him a quick static shock. Will this effectively “punish” the behavior, so your dog will stay in your yard?

Well, if the static shock is painful enough, yes. It will not work if it doesn’t cause the dog discomfort. However, she may not enjoy her time outside as much as you’d hoped. Remember, dogs learn by association. So they don’t always learn what we hope from aversive experiences like a static shock.

Other things that may happen with an invisible fence:

  • Another animal or person may walk by. Your dog will run up to them, expecting to greet them, but instead feels an unpleasant shock around his neck. New people or animals become a predictor for discomfort. 
  • Your dog may become fearful of or reactive to strangers or other animals
  • Your dog may develop a phobia of sounds like the warning tone of the collar
  • If your dog gets excited or determined enough when a cat or another animal walks by, he may PUSH THROUGH the shock to chase it. With the excitement gone, he may not want to go back across the barrier to get shocked again. He may be stuck outside of the yard.
  • Other animals may go through the boundary of your invisible fence and your dog will be trapped inside it. This can result in anxiety or injury.
  • When the batteries on the collar go out, your dog may go back to going under, over, or through the fence. 
  • Most, if not all static shock collars come with a warning to not use them on animals younger than 6 months old, or below a certain weight. 

Many, if not all, of the consultants here at Pet Harmony have seen an animal affected by one or more of these drawbacks. 

Playful Puppy or Scared Dog?

In one of my former neighborhoods, a neighbor had a huge, open backyard. I would often walk by with my dogs and work on their loose leash walking. One day, there was suddenly a pointer puppy in their yard. He ran towards us cheerfully, with his bum wagging and his body curved. Then, suddenly, he stiffened, lifted a paw, and whined, backing away from an unseen barrier. He eventually ran and hid behind the house. I was able to see the effects of the invisible fence as time went on. A few months later, I could only walk by on the other side of the road. The now-adolescent puppy would rush the boundary, barking, growling, and snarling at me and my dog. He had learned that passersby meant that he would experience discomfort. His reactivity was his way of trying to control the situation. If he scared people away, then he didn’t get shocked.

A german shorthaired pointer rushes towards the camera

I also worked with a very timid chihuahua. Joey was leaving little urine marks all over his owner’s home and property. He would tremble at the sight of new people, and didn’t want to eat in the boarding facility I was working at. We started trying our regular confidence-building activities with clickers and treats. The moment he heard the “click” of the marker, he flinched, and ran to the end of his leash, pacing and panting heavily. Upon further digging with his pet parents, we found they had an invisible fence at home. The clicking sound predicted the shock of leaving the boundary. We were able to increase his confidence over time, but he is still afraid of that noise.

What Can I Do?

If you currently have or are thinking of using an underground or otherwise “invisible” fence, consider other options. You can try staying out with your dog while they are out. That way, you can reinforce desired behavior, and teach them alternatives to undesired behaviors. If your dog is still working on improving their recall, take your dog out on a long leash to let them stretch their legs or potty outside. Find local dog parks or daycares to let your dog run and play, if they are dog-friendly.  Enroll in a dog sport like barn hunt or agility. Work on improving your indoor enrichment activities; it may surprise you how effective indoor nose work or puzzle feeders can be in helping your dog to manage their energy better. If possible, install a physical fence. It will keep other animals out and, with supervision and training, will keep your dog in. 

An open field is not the only way to exercise your dog. You may be surprised at how little space you need to keep your dog healthy and happy.

A longhaired German Shepherd standing in a fenced yard. There is snow on the ground.
A physical fence is a great way to keep your dog safe.

There is only so much we can learn without experience. If you are experiencing guilt or if you are feeling angry about this post, that is okay. Take a step back, calm down, and know that we are here for you. You can only act on the knowledge you have, and you can only behave in ways that have been reinforced for you. We sometimes act on what seems to be a faster solution to our problems rather than what is best for our situation. That is human, that is normal. There may even be cases where none of the fallout is evident, and the animal may even seem to be thriving. It is important to remember that a quiet, still dog isn’t always a happy dog. This can be a sign of learned helplessness, and it is not a sign of a healthy animal. 

Now What?


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