My husband and I recently moved to the suburbs — a choice that seemed premature to some outsiders given that we don’t yet have children. To be honest, our decision was somewhat guided by the fact that we have an insanely energetic dog (meet Finley!), and keeping her cooped up in a Brooklyn apartment just didn’t feel fair. Now, we have a backyard for Finley to run around in on an hourly basis. The only problem? I’m nervous she’ll escape.
The majority of the yard has a wooden fence, but Finley could easily jump it without so much as a running start if she were so inclined. If a furry friend or neighbor on a bike were to catch her attention, I’m pretty certain she’d take off in hot pursuit. Because of this, I rarely leave her outside unsupervised.
Of course, I’m very familiar with those tiny telltale flags that electric fence companies place around yards when dogs are being trained to stay within a specific area. They’re a common sight as I walk Finley through nearby streets every afternoon. So I began to wonder whether that kind of invisible containment is a good idea for my dog: a highly curious and social — although at times nervous and territorial — hunting dog who has severe separation anxiety but wouldn’t hesitate to run after a tasty-looking bunny rabbit. I turned to three dog behavior professionals for help with this decision.
According to Sarah Fraser, a certified dog behavior consultant and co-founder of Instinct Dog Behavior & Training LLC these types of fences are generally installed with the goal of giving a dog more freedom to sniff, play, and get exercise. “They’re fairly popular in some situations,” she says, noting that they’re typically less expensive than erecting a physical fence.
“The benefits are primarily for the humans,” says Anthony Newman, a certified pet dog trainer and owner of Calm Energy Dog Training NYC, who acknowledges that physical fences can simply be unattractive and that some people may not be up to the task of adequately training their dogs to be out in the yard without relying on an electric device.
Although electric fences may do a good job of keeping collared pups within their confines, they do nothing to deter other animals, people, or distractions from entering the property. You simply can never know what kind of tempting activity will be going on around your dog and, without a physical barrier, it’s all on display for her to see. Fraser says that a dog with a high prey drive — one who, like Finley, can’t resist chasing squirrels or deer — might have a hard time resisting temptation on the other side of the invisible barrier. Many hunting dogs and Terriers fit this description, although individual personality variations exist within all types of breeds, according to Fraser.
She also notes the potential for developing frustration aggression if your pooch sees interesting people and animals passing by and isn’t given the opportunity to approach them. If the dog isn’t well trained with the workings of the fence, it can lead to fear, confusion, and stress, especially if she’s repeatedly shocked for trying to initiate contact.
Another risk is that of a dog accidentally breaking the barrier if she panics. “If you have a dog who’s already anxious or fearful or aggressive, they may bolt and it can make the issue worse. They won’t want to come back to the other side,” Fraser says.
New York-based certified dog behavior consultant Virginia Hoffmann says electric fences can actually cause dogs to become sensitive to handling around the collar and neck. Worse, the electronic collar that the dog must wear can lead to severe burns if the fit is improper. It can also occasionally misfire and zap the pup when she’s nowhere near the fence line.
What’s more, Newman considers the biggest risk to be what dog owners fail to do once they install a confinement system of any kind. “Restraints are often relied upon to the exclusion of other tools that are necessary to make your dog calm, peaceful, respectful, and obedient: namely physical and mental exercise, social play with other dogs, and obedience work,” he says. In other words, letting your dog hang out in the yard all day probably means not taking the time to properly exercise, socialize, and train her.
While Fraser doesn’t support installing an electric fence, she says there are some fairly skilled professionals who will do it along with boundary training, which should always be done using positive reinforcement. “I don’t recommend people do it themselves,” she adds. “Don’t destroy the trust by recalling your dog across the boundary. An aversive stimulus to control the behavior can be tough on some dogs, especially those who are anxious or fearful.”
Like Fraser, Hoffmann is not an advocate of these fences. “Not all dogs learn quickly and, yes, I have known dogs afraid to leave the house as a result,” she says. “Stop immediately if the dog shows signs of fear during training.”
Newman suggests finding a reputable company and speaking not only with the owner but also with the trainer who is going to install the fence. “In the case I witnessed, the regular installer was unavailable so the owner of the company did the conditioning himself, and apparently was better at running the business than working with dogs: The dog was traumatized and for weeks after wouldn’t enter the yard at all.”
He also urges owners to walk the border of the yard while communicating to the dog via audio and body language which areas are okay and which are off-limits. Beyond that, he stresses the importance of routinely engaging your dog with training and other stimulation. “As long as you put daily time and effort into walking your dog outside of your property, exercising and socializing them off-leash with other dogs, and working daily leadership and obedience rituals indoors and out, most dogs shouldn’t run into problems with an electric fence,” he says.
“Electric collars aren’t pleasant, but they aren’t exactly painful. It feels like a quick pinch,” Newman says, noting that e-collars can be set at varying intensities, and when used in conjunction with an electric fence the intensity tends to be on the higher side. Thankfully, Newman believes that most dogs need only a few training sessions to learn to stay away from the perimeter and avoid a shock. From then on, a warning buzzer should stop them from getting too close to the boundary.
Hoffmann thinks it depends largely upon the sensitivity of the dog. “I personally found it painful even at a low level. Other people say it doesn’t hurt,” she notes. “It’s the same with dogs.”
“We will never know for sure what another animal feels,” Fraser adds, noting that all we can really do is watch the body language of the dog in an effort to determine what she’s experiencing.
I was a bit shocked (no pun intended!) to learn that three specialists seemed to recommend against me installing an electric fence for Finley. Given that she already has anxiety issues and is fairly environmentally sensitive, it seems the best approach is to invest in a much taller, more durable physical fence to keep her safely confined in our new backyard. That, combined with Newman’s suggestions for keeping up with consistent exercise, socialization, and training, seems like the best approach for my active pup.
Granted, Fraser claims that “there are some stable, sound dogs who will do just fine with [an electric fence],” I’m not so sure Finley is one of them and don’t want to find out the hard way.
Have you ever used an electric fence? Please share your experience, good and bad, in the comments.
Read more about electric fences and collars on Dogster:
About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).