Dog wearing shock collar

At the risk of raising your hackles and possibly earning your eternal contempt, I’ll confess: I use electric correction devices on three out of four of my dogs. But before you unleash your best animal welfare-based wrath on this positive-training devotee, read my story first and make up your own mind as to my guilt.

No one said keeping four dogs was going to be easy. It's even harder when the dogs you call family happen to come with all kinds of health care concerns and problem behaviors. After all, I'm a veterinarian, so that's just how it goes; I can handle it. But when they all started finding various and sundry ways to escape my one-acre homestead (in search of neighbors bearing food, mostly), I was stumped.

For once, I had no tools to make the digging-under stop or the sneaking-through cease. My yard is just too darn big! So after years of shivering over vehicular near misses and lots of hand-wringing in general, I finally relented and had an underground fence installed around the perimeter of my property.

Teaching Boundaries

In case you've never heard of one of these systems, let me explain how it works:

Underground fences (also known as invisible fences) consist of a long strand of wire professionally installed under the ground, a home base control box that ties into your house's electricity and a collar with a small box attached to it that buzzes with a brief current should the dog wearing it decide to cross the "invisible" line buried below.

The idea is that a dog trained to wear such a collar will learn to avoid the areas where the wire is laid. But this feat is typically only safely and humanely achieved after a significant training period. During this time, evenly spaced flags will line the perimeter, thereby offering visible cues, which makes it easy for dogs to recognize the significance of the boundary. Dogs are effectively trained to avoid the area by very gradually advancing them toward the perimeter, cautioning them as they approach. When the line is crossed and they hear a beep, they have 10 seconds to back up before they get "tapped."

"Tap" is my word for it. Because with the system I elected, it's really not the zap you might expect from a device designed to administer an electric current for correction. Instead, it's more of a tap-tap sort of prickle sensation. But it's true that not all dogs are as willing as mine to fear the simple tap-tap and forever avoid the fence line. (In fact, I think mine are more than willing to stop at the sound of the warning beep.) Some need to have the setting for the machine cranked up to its highest level. All dogs are different.

Differences in Devices

In any case, there you have my confession, but it's far from a mea culpa. Indeed, I feel like I've made not just a sound decision to help solve a serious safety issue (which is currently fully resolved), but elected a perfectly humane approach, too.

Yet I'm sure at least some of you will disagree with my assessment. Electric correction devices are overused tools designed for the lazy trainer and even lazier dog owner, you'll say, and they're only for people who haven't absorbed the notion that dogs almost never need such extreme kinds of correction.

To which I have this to say:

Despite the bad rap electric correction devices have received among animal welfare-minded people like us, the truth is that they're not all created equal. Because, as with everything, the devil's in the details. And in the case of electric fence devices, the details are usually to do with the following questions:

  • Has every other reasonable option for correcting the behavior been exhausted?
  • Is the dog behaviorally sound and free of any anxiety disorders that may predispose him or her to an adverse reaction to the corrective stimulus? (If not, reconsider. Some dogs — particularly anxious ones — have had serious behavior issues arise because they weren't screened well before being subjected to a novel stimulus like this one.)
  • Does the device offer very low-end settings for sensitive dogs? (It should. Ask to feel what it's like.)
  • Is a behavior professional involved in the setup and initial use of the device? (It's always recommended, even for a veterinarian!)
  • Does the behavior professional make follow-up visits to ensure it's still working according to plan and that the dog is experiencing no adverse effects? (Generally considered a must.)
  • Do you have a backup plan in case this fails? (If not, find one lest you blindly pursue a path without regard for your pet's potential adverse reaction.)

Note: Some dogs may never learn to associate the boundary with the stimulus. They'll simply stress out over it. In other words, fearful, sensitive or slow-learning dogs may not be good candidates. What's more, even if the device helps keep the dog on the property, it doesn't prevent other dogs from entering the yard, so no dog should be left outside unattended.

Seek Other Options First

Now, I know what you're still thinking. It just seems wrong, this idea that we would consciously elicit pain — no matter how slight — in order to achieve a desired response. We’d never do that to our children, so why are we willing to subject our dogs to it?

Nonetheless, my experience with this fencing equipment has offered me this not-too-popular perspective on the subject. But in case you're wondering how I approach my clientele when the subject arises, here's my party line:

In general, I still vote no to the use of electric correction devices for keeping dogs in the yard. Why risk an adverse reaction when most problems have so many alternatives? Yet there are some exceptions where they may be necessary, including electric barriers around pools to help prevent dogs from drowning or those that keep dogs from getting into traffic and injuring themselves.

So now that you've got the back story, do you still pronounce me guilty?