Every time I walk past a yard where I see dogs charging across their lawns toward me and my dogs, I have to think: Do they have an invisible fence? If so, will it stop the dogs? I quickly scan for little white flags. Sometimes the flags are there, but sometimes they’re not. And are they not there because there is no fence or because the owners took the flags down? Are those pesticide signs? The clock is ticking. The dogs are charging. Twenty more of my hairs turn gray, my stomach flips, and I do an emergency U-turn.
I’m super tired of walking by these fences. How about you? Playing dog-walker chicken with overstimulated, unsupervised dogs just isn’t my steez.
There’s already so much written about these fences, but in case it needs to be said again: Invisible fences are not REAL fences. Traditional fences are designed to keep dogs in and keep others out, and they provide a clear visual barrier so people passing by know the dogs on the other side are contained.
Hit pause: I understand that these fences work for some of you. I’m not calling you a bad dog owner for using them. But these fences scare me and my friend just got hurt, so I’m gonna call out some problems with them. Nothing personal, okay?
While no option is perfect, these invisible fences fail the average dog owner in many ways. Allow me to elaborate, based on my experiences with these fences (as a dog walker and a shelter worker where I was a frequent host to stray dogs with failed underground fence collars). Here’s what they do wrong:
1. They fail to keep some dogs in
- Plenty of dogs are happy to take the shocks in order to get to whatever high-value item is on the other side. A dog sees squirrels, turkeys, dogs they want to play with, a dog they want to chase away, a kid on bike, an ice cream truck, and they’re motivated enough to take a few shocks in order to get to it.
- Some of those dogs will leave the yard, but won’t take the shock to come back in the yard. It’s not fun taking the pain just to go back and sit in your yard. So now your dog is loose.
- Some dogs that figure out that the batteries in their collars are dead (no warning beeps) or their collars are loose enough not to feel the shock. So off they go to explore the world!
- When snow banks are high enough, dogs can walk right over where the invisible fence line reaches. And off they go again!
- Some dogs will bolt when they are scared of thunderstorms, fireworks, etc., and they don’t care about taking the shock if they think it’ll help them escape what’s frightening them.
2. They fail to keep other animals and people out
- It doesn’t prevent anything or anyone from entering your yard. These fences don’t keep anything OUT.
- Some dogs are perfectly happy to stay in, dead batteries and all, but they are surprised to find other dogs have entered their yards. Or wild animals, unwelcome people, or aggressive dogs who got loose from someone else’s house. Your dog will get shocked if they try to escape the threat.
3. They can cause behavior issues
- Some dogs are so frightened by the shocks they receive that they don’t want to go outside anymore. Like for days.
- When dogs charge the boundaries of their yards every time they see a dog/bike/person and get a shock, it can cause serious behavior issues.
- Some dogs will associate the pain they feel with what they see. This can potentially lead to aggression or reactivity.
- Some dogs won’t leave their yards for fear of a shock, even when they’re not wearing their collar. I knew a dog that had to be driven down the driveway, past the fence line, in order to leave the property for a leashed walk.
- Some dogs become afraid of beeping. Because their collars beep as a warning before they receive a shock, the dogs become fearful whenever they hear a similar beep. Like from the microwave.
4. They frighten people passing by who can’t tell whether the dogs are really contained
See: playing dog-walker chicken. Also: delivery-guy chicken, young-children-and-senior-citizens-out-strolling chicken, and jogger chicken.
When invisible fences are appropriate
I’ll be the first to admit that some of these things can happen no matter how you contain (or don’t contain) your dogs. Dogs dig under wood fences and jump chain link fences, and gates can swing open.
And despite how much I can’t stand underground fences, I’ll acknowledge that there are two ways that these fences might not be totally unreasonable options for some families, provided you do the proper boundary training, have excellent recalls, and do not leave your dogs unattended in their yards:
- As a secondary containment system for escape artists. If you have a dog that is able to scale or dig out of traditional fences, using an electric fences as a backup system might be worth exploring.
- As a containment system for rural properties with many acres. If you have acreage that can’t be fenced in because it is so large, using an electric fence at the far boundaries may be worth exploring.
Underground fences range from $100 (for a DIY kit) to a couple thousand bucks. There are some affordable alternatives out there, like these fence kits. My choice for affordable and sturdy is farm fencing. I know because that’s what we choose for our yard. It’s comparable in price to a professionally installed electric fence. You can build it four- to eight-feet high. You can bury part of it below ground if you have diggers. It doesn’t obstruct views, and you can fence in just part of your yard if you have many acres.
In the end, if you do choose a hidden electric fence, please go with a professionally installed product, preferably the Invisible Fence brand, rather than a DIY job. Do the boundary training, slowly and as positively as you can. Make sure your dog has an excellent recall. And never leave your dog unattended.
This isn’t the right fit for every dog. For some dogs it won’t keep them in, for other dogs it has the potential to cause serious issues. Never use them with dogs who have a history of reactivity, fear, phobias, or aggression.
And, please, can those of you with invisible fences (or no fences at all) stop leaving your dogs unattended in your yards? It’s crazy frightening to see dogs charging you at top speed, white flags or no. And if you think your friendly dog would never do such a thing, I invite you to nanny-cam your yard. Betchya a five spot that lots of your dogs are having a blast playing dog-walker chicken while you’re gone.
Am I on target with this? What do you think of invisible fences? Let us know in the comments.
The original, longer version of this story ran here.
Jessica Dolce is a professional dog walker and cat scratcher who lives in Maine with her two dogs and three cats. When she’s not scooping poop, Jessica blogs about her life with dogs at Notes From a Dog Walker and runs Dogs in Need of Space (DINOS). She can sometimes be spotted at old post offices, drive-in movie theaters, and any place that serves a mean brunch.