Weighing the Pros and Cons of Invisible Fences
Last fall I purchased a home in North Idaho. Although I was thrilled by the open space and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, I faced an immediate dilemma: My acre of land was fenced with white, open-slatted fencing that would not safely contain my two Pugs. Although the Pugs rarely venture far from my side, I wanted the added security of a fence.
When I began looking for a containment system, I faced major restrictions. Neighborhood codes only allowed a few specific types of fencing, all of which were extremely expensive. In addition, my new next-door neighbor was less than thrilled at the idea of altering our shared fence line to accommodate my dogs.
The easiest answer to my problem? An invisible fence. Invisible, or electric, fences work by delivering a warning sound followed by an electric shock through a collar when a dog crosses the boundary line. But was this the right choice for my Pugs?
Before I tell you what I chose, let’s weigh the pros and cons of electric fences.
Electric Fences: Pros
An electric fence is affordable for most people. Many neighborhoods and developments have strict codes governing the type of fencing, if any, that is allowed. Although electronic fencing can be expensive, it is often significantly less than the cost of materials and installation for traditional fencing, particularly the high-end options required in some places.
Electric fences give homeowners some flexibility. Electronic fences don’t interfere with surrounding views or break up green spaces created by open property lines. In addition, an electronic fence can be installed more quickly than many conventional fencing options.
An electric fence allows a dog to roam. Electronic fences can be designed to cover up to 25 acres. They also are easily installed on difficult terrain that may be more challenging for traditional fencing.
Invisible fences are effective most of the time. Some pet owners opt for an electric fence because other alternatives have failed to keep their dog inside (the dog either climbs over or digs under a traditional fence). In most cases, dogs quickly learn to stay within the boundary line to avoid the warning signal and subsequent shock.
Electric Fences: Cons
The shock has to be fairly significant and painful. In order to deter the dog from venturing across the boundary, the shock has to be severe enough that it startles and alarms him. Many electric fence companies compare the shock the dog receives to the type of static electric shock we feel when we walk across carpet and then touch a metal door handle, but in order to really act as a deterrent, the shock needs to be more substantial than that.
An electric fence is a form of punishment. I don’t recommend punishment as a training technique because it can lead to some unfortunate and dangerous associations. In the same way, a dog restrained by an electric fence may learn to associate the sensation of the shock (the punishment) with something completely unrelated to the fence. For instance, if the dog runs up to the boundary to greet the another dog and is shocked, he may associate the other dog with his pain. Even a friendly dog can become agitated, fearful or even aggressive when a stimulus is consistently associated with pain or a threat.
Electric fences can foster barrier frustration. An invisible fence offers a dog the full sight of another dog or person as they approach, but prevents him from greeting that dog or person. This can lead to barrier frustration. As the dog’s frustration increases, the chance for aggression or fear-based behavior, even out on walks or in situations outside of the yard, also increases. Behavior may escalate to growling, barking and lunging at the approaching stimulus and puts the dog at risk for biting if a person or another dog ever crosses the fence line and comes into the yard.
An electric fence doesn’t guarantee containment. A dog may see something he wants to chase, or he may be frightened by something such as fireworks or thunder — either way, if his motivation to cross the fence line is high enough, he can still get out. If the dog is aggressive or is experiencing barrier frustration, he may become even more overstimulated by the shock when he crosses the fence line. Once a dog has successfully broken through the fence line, chances are he will try it again. Finally, each time the dog crosses the fence line, he is effectively locked out of his own yard, unless he is willing to be shocked again as he reenters.
An electric fence can frighten a dog. Most of the visuals, like flags that mark the fence line, are taken down shortly after installation. But without a visual marker, the dog may not remember where the fence line is and may be unclear on when or where he will get shocked. This can lead to increasingly neurotic and fearful behaviors.
Although the invisible fence was more cost-efficient and convenient, I felt strongly that it was wrong to use shock to train my Pugs, and I wasn’t willing to take the risk of harming them physically or emotionally. I opted instead to forgo fencing and use a long line for potty breaks. I also enclosed a smaller part of my yard where the Pugs could safely play. The fencing was rather expensive, but it was well worth it to guarantee my dogs’ safety and emotional health.