The pros and cons of electronic, underground fences
An electronic fence system (sometimes referred to erroneously by the brand name Invisible Fence) is a fencing option that more and more people are considering these days. Some neighborhood covenants may forbid the use of visible (as in chain-link or privacy) fencing, and since it is patently unsafe (not to mention illegal) for dogs to run loose, e-fences are becoming more popular, especially in the suburbs. Though not an exhaustive list, the following information should give you some food for thought before you invest in such a containment option. You must always keep in mind the dog’s welfare as well as your family’s needs, and do your research before making your decision. As with any training tool, e-fences are not suitable for all dogs or all situations.
- No visible barrier to ruin the view; are aesthetically pleasing to the landscape
- No physical barrier for humans to have to cross (if you move on and off the property a lot)
- Could turn out to be a less expensive option, depending on the size area you want to fence and the brand of e-fence you buy. Home improvement stores sell “do-it-yourself” e-fences, but remember: you get what you pay for. For the most part, your safest bet is with a proven name brand that includes professional installation and training for you and the dog.
- No visible barrier: other dogs, children, wild animals, etc. can still wander on to the property. This can be a problem, especially if your dog gives chase to “defend his yard” and accidentally crosses the boundary. He can be “zapped” for “doing his job.” This is not a good association for the dog. Also, that there is no visible barrier is very disconcerting to some passerby, as it may appear that your dog is not under control. Everyone deserves the right to walk their neighborhood without fear of being molested by unleashed animals. Even if you know Fido is safe, others may not know it. (This may only be an issue if you are talking about e-fencing the front yard.) Keep in mind though, that we live in a very litigious society, and parents don’t always keep track of their kids…if a child wanders up to your “unfenced” dog and is knocked down in play or bitten, you will have less room to stand than the visible fence owner.
- If your area is heavily trafficked, and this causes the dog to get excited and try to interact with passerby (or chase them away), he could develop a negative association with passerby. Scenario: jogger flies by, your dog gives chase, and gets shocked. This scenario repeats over and over throughout the day, because frankly, dogs get bored easily, and chasing things is fun-to a point. The next thing you know, your dog hates the sight of joggers…because every time he sees one, he gets shocked. Again, poor association, but this can take a long time to be unlearned. It can happen with kids, other dogs, or anything that excites your dog to the point where he will get too close to the boundary. (And trust me: a dog who “flips out” at the sight of joggers or seemingly innocuous stimuli can be hellish to own, to walk, to live with. This is a bad habit to break.)
- Many counties do not consider e-fencing to be adequate containment for dogs (it is breaking the leash law). Some require that the dog be visibly contained in a yard or on leash at all times. Check with your county to be sure.
- Poor acclimation of the dog to the new system can cause confusion and unpleasant consequences to the dog. The dog MUST be adequately trained to respect the new system, and taught the boundaries beforehand by a skilled trainer. This is important for the dog’s safety and security, and to keep him well-adjusted. Basic obedience skills are a must before fence training even begins, and the dog needs to have boundary training, as well.
- Some dogs do not respect the shock and will plow right through it. Hunting breeds are famous for this–they are bred to be impervious to harsh elements (and to be very focused on their quarry) while hunting, so the “shock” can become just an annoyance to (or worse, barely even noticed by) them. They may dash out whenever the urge hits, and will not usually cross back over the line willingly (the reward for chasing a squirrel is worth the shock; what exactly is the reward for returning back through the shock into the boring yard?), and coaxing them to do so could cause them to start making negative associations with the yard, or you. (They are too caught up in the moment to equate chasing the squirrel with the shock.)
- Some of the cheaper systems can malfunction in bad weather. What if the power goes out? (Ever see “Jurassic Park”?) A friend had her system short out because it was struck by lightning. Unfortunately, she had no idea it was malfunctioning until her dogs were gone. Can dogs escape from regular fences? Sure, but it takes a little more work, and you can usually figure out where the “breach” occurs and fix it more easily. Plus, how will you know if a malfunction in the system is not causing repeated unnecessary shocks to the dog? He should NEVER get shocked unless he crosses the boundary, period. (Most good systems come with a warning beep that lets the dog avoid the shock: hear the beep? Back up. No shock.) A malfunction could occur in poor weather, or, with cheaper systems, if the collar gets wet.
- E-fences can be considered inhumane if the dog is not properly trained. The shocks themselves may indeed be painful, or just annoying. It depends on the dog, and on the quality of the fence. I do not consider well-timed electronic communication within a training protocol to necessarily be inhumane–as long as learning is taking place. Random shocks, or shocking without training or learning happening, is definitely inhumane.
These are just some of the things to keep in mind. You might think, by the few examples in the “pro” column vs. the many examples in the “con” column, that I do not believe e-fences are good tools. That is not the case–they can be wonderful tools, if several conditions are met:
- You cannot have a visible fence, period. If you can have one, get one instead.
- You have a VF, but the dog has learned to jump, climb, or dig out repeatedly. An e-fence, properly installed in conjunction with the VF and the dog trained, can solve this problem fairly easily…if your dog can respect it.
- Your dog is not the independent type, a wandering type, or impervious to the elements (i.e., a brush-diving beagle who will be two states away, following that trail, before he realizes he is bleeding and lost).
- Your dog already has some basic training, and listens well to you, even with distractions.
- You are not planning on leaving the dog in the e-fenced area while you are not home (most of the dog’s time in the yard should be with you, or if you are indoors, with you monitoring the dog in the yard).
- The e-fenced area is rural, or secluded-not a lot of distractions on either side, and does not butt right up to a heavily-wooded area. Back yards are highly preferred over front yards.
- Your neighborhood is not replete with high-energy kids, lots of off-leash dogs, or tons of cars.
- Your dog has a low prey drive, and will stop chasing something if you call it.
- You get a quality system installed, and have someone train your dog while you watch and participate. Remember, training is ongoing.
- You do not expect the dog to exercise or entertain himself in ANY yard–you know he needs you to help him. Yards are not babysitters for dogs. Dogs want to be with us, wherever we are.
Dogs are creatures of habit and instinct. They can be exceptionally well-trained and still chase inappropriately, or decide not to listen if the reward is great enough. The best-case e-fence scenario is an aesthetically-pleasing yard with a happy dog who respects the boundaries, likes to play in the yard, and is having all of its needs met at home, including basic training and plenty of appropriate exercise. The worst-case scenarios include dogs who become neurotic (or aggressive) because of repeated shocks; dogs who fear being in the yard at all; dogs who begin to fear people, other dogs, cars, squirrels, whatever; dogs who repeatedly breach the system and are eventually hit by a car, forever lost, or stolen, to name a few.
As far as the “humaneness” of such a system goes, I ask: what is more humane? A dog who gets little or no exercise because the yard is unsafe is not having its needs met. A dog who is allowed to roam is a nuisance and is in danger–so this is NOT a humane option at all. If the e-fence works well and all the dog’s needs are being met in tandem with such a system, even if the dog gets one or two shocks, it is more humane than letting him run loose to be hit, lost or stolen. If all the basic criteria can be met, and there is no chance for a decent sized area fenced with a visible fence (i.e., an e-fence is the only option), and the dog will have a good quality of life because his people will be able to play in the secure yard with him, then that sounds like a workable, humane solution to me. Most dogs, when trained correctly, only end up getting 2 or 3 shocks, because they quickly learn the boundaries and respect them (if the temptations are not too great). “Humaneness” has its degrees. We must consider the dog’s quality of life, always.
My recommendations for the best, most humane fencing scenario? A 6-8 foot privacy fence enclosing an area large enough for a good, rousing game of fetch, including some trees for shade and a separate “potty” area that will not be in the middle of the play area. A well-rooted, close-cut fescue is the best substrate, followed by mulch (if you don’t want to mow). Second-best scenario? A chain-link fence meeting the same requirements. (Privacy-fenced dogs tend to develop less barrier issues, but secure chain-link is preferable to an e-fence, usually, or no fence, always.)
In other words, e-fences would not be the preferred way to fence the average dog in most urban or suburban situations, though in some situations, they can be perfectly fine. Talk to a trainer who has experience in e-fences, and use your best judgment. Don’t be misled by hype, but get all the facts first. Beware of a company that will not acknowledge the “cons” of the product as well as the “pros.” No tool is right for every dog.