Monday, August 1, 2011

Thoughts on Invisible Fences

(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)

The “invisible” fence has become a very popular tool for dog owners, and I’m often asked what I think of them in classes. I do understand the appeal of them - having just put up some privacy fencing in my yard, I know how expensive a real fence can be. And many neighborhoods have restrictions on true fences (although I will never get on board with that policy). However, despite the appeal, “invisible” fences can lead to some major problems.

First and foremost, I’m putting “invisible” in quotation marks. While that is the common term for them, they are, in reality, shock systems. “Invisible” makes it sound harmless, but it does deliver an electric shock to your dog. Many people claim it’s such a low level that it doesn’t hurt the dog, but it has to be unpleasant. If it wasn’t unpleasant for the dog, he wouldn’t bother to avoid it, and thus, it wouldn’t work. Shock training (even at low levels) can lead to fear and anxiety. Some people end up with dogs afraid to go in the yard at all, afraid to walk out of the yard to go for walk, etc. Other times, there is a stimulus so exciting (“Oh my gosh! A squirrel! A squirrel!”) that the dog bolts through the line, but then doesn’t want to brave the shock to get back into the yard. And as a vet tech, I have seen multiple dogs develop sores and skin infections at the site of the shock collar prongs.

Some argue that the dog only has to experience the shock a few times before the warning signal is effective. However, if you think about how classical conditioning works, the warning signal comes to evoke the same physiological events as the shock itself. Think Pavlov’s dogs – after being paired with the food, the bell itself could evoke salivation. By being paired with the shock, the warning tone itself can evoke the same internal response that the shock does.

Shock fences can also increase reactivity in some dogs. For a dog who is already a bit nervous about strangers, other dogs, kids, or whatever might be walking by the yard, if he approaches them and gets shocked, he can pair that shock with that thing going by and it can increase his anxiety, lead to crazy barking displays, etc. And while your dog may not get out of the yard, the shock fence does not keep other things from coming into your yard. The dog walking by that your dog charges at barking can come right into your yard and cause trouble.

The bottom line is that an actual fence is the safer way to go. If that is not an option, but you want to give your dog more freedom outside, try a long, 20-foot leash line, or take your dog to the dog park or other fenced area for off leash play.