An Open Letter from Lisa Patrona, Dip. CBST, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, AABP-CDT to those considering electronic/'invisible' fencing.
The Electronic/"Invisible" Fence: Gambling With Your Dogs Life...it is NOT worth the risk
There are many risks to your dog's well-being that come along with electronic shock fencing. Read The Dangers of Electronic Training Devices for more information. You may think you understand ALL of the risks, but I guarantee that you really don't - unless of course you're someone like me who fully understands the canine learning process. Most people are aware of the more obvious risk factors, which should be enough for you to never consider this type of fencing to be a safe option for your "best friend," but one of the most dangerous risks of all is one that people are never, ever aware of until it's too late: Aggression.
I speak with people far too regularly whose dogs have developed an aggression problem as the direct result of their electronic containment system. The owners of these dogs are completely shocked (no pun intended) that their dog is behaving aggressively as adults, children, dogs, bikes, joggers, etc., pass near to the electronic fence boundary and/or into the containment area. Sadly, and far too often, I hear the words "my dog is the sweetest dog ever, but this behavior is unacceptable, and if it doesn't get fixed, I have no choice but to get rid of him!"
When these people call for help, they have no idea that their choice to use e-fencing in the first place has landed them, and Rover, in this position. They usually use words like "unpredictable" or "protective" to describe his outbursts, initially unaware of the obvious: that his untoward behavior only occurs when he's within the electronic boundary. It's far from "unpredictable," and as for "protective," the only one he's using this behavior to protect--as they'll (hopefully) come to understand and accept--is himself.
As I begin my talk about how Rover learns and how the electric shock delivered by the collar he wears is responsible for his behavior, I can't help but feel sad. It's not Rover's fault. He cannot help, nor change, the way he learns. It's hard to explain to people--as they insist that "he only got shocked once or twice when we first got the system"--that in a moment of excitement (that they may or may not have witnessed), he accidentally got too close to the boundary, got shocked, and associated the pain of the shock with whatever he was focused on when he got shocked. So there you have it. Whatever he was focused on in that shocking moment (adult, child, bike, jogger, stroller, garbage can, you name it) is now Rover's enemy, and he behaves aggressively because he's afraid that person or thing will cause him another painful experience. Perhaps had his boundary been set behind the house in the area with no passersby this could have been prevented (?) but I digress, it's too late for that now.
Just as concerning is that for some dogs, accidentally getting close to the boundary and hearing the "warning" tone (even without actually being shocked) can be enough to create a nasty association with whatever the dog is focused on when he hears the tone. Now the tone and the shock are linked for the dog--the tone predicts the shock, so whatever he was focused on in that moment is the enemy now. Whether he got shocked by his collar or not, the impact is the same. The association has been made, the damage is done.
As the conversation continues, Rover's fate hangs in scary uncertainty. If Rover's people aren't completely understanding, and willing to make a different choice for Rover's containment immediately, and to commit to manage and supervise him to prevent further incidents during the re-training process (which could take months), Rover will very likely end up not only losing his home, but quite possibly his life.
I'm not suggesting that re-homing Rover isn't an option, but let's be realistic. People don't line up to adopt dogs with known behavior problems, especially an aggressive behavior problem. So unless his people are going to find someone like a friend or family member to adopt him (someone who's committed to working a potentially lengthy positive reinforcement-based behavior modification plan to help him through the problems he already has), the chances for a happy ending for him are almost nil. Many mistakenly believe that they can "just get rid" of a dog like Rover by finding a rescue group to take him since "he's such a great dog except for this one problem." The fact is that most rescue groups won't accept a dog with a history of aggressive behavior, no matter how "context specific" or "understandable" the behavior may be. "OK," says the caller, "I'll take him to a shelter. Someone will adopt him, he's a great dog, except for this." Unfortunately there's no guarantee that Rover will ever make it out once he's in. Perfectly adoptable, great dogs (who don't have behavior issues!) lose their lives every day in shelters because there's no room. No room, not even for a great dog like Rover.
I'm sure there are dogs who are confined within electronic fencing who don't develop fear-based aggression problems like Rover, but those aren't the dogs whose owners call me--the dogs for whom this article is written.
If you choose electronic fencing for your dog, whether he'll be a victim of behavioral fallout like Rover or not is really nothing more than a crapshoot. Just like with any gamble, the odds are NOT in your dog's favor. Rover's people had no idea that this risk even existed before they decided on an e-fence. Not one person I have ever spoken with had any idea, until it was too late. Some folks I speak with are willing to decide differently for their dog right away. Those are the dogs who'll make it and live happy full-term lives, because they're fortunate enough to live with people who love them enough to be accountable for the decision they made, and to do whatever it takes for the dog they love. Sadly for Rover, his people weren't willing to make the necessary changes to help him, and he paid the ultimate price when they "didn't have any choice but to put him down."
Please. If you are considering an e-fence because you feel for whatever reason that it's "my only option," think again. Click here for alternatives. There are plenty of options.
And finally, since you're now aware of the extreme risk electronic fencing poses to your dog's behavioral health and well-being, if you still decide to go ahead with this option for your dog, there's one more thing I want you to do. Gaze into your dog's sweet, trusting eyes and let him know that you're sorry but you believe that the risk to his life is worth it. Continue gazing as you also promise that you won't blame him if he develops a problem like Rover had, and that you fully understand that he has no choice in how he learns, and equally no choice in what you're choosing for him.
Realize that you're gambling with his life and if you still decide that you are going to choose this type of containment for him, promise that you won't blame him for any problems that result, and that you'll never let Rover's fate befall him.