Electric fences safe and ethical?

Question:

We just moved, with our Golden Retriever, to a house that doesn’t have a fence. Would you recommend an electric fence?

Answer:

My suburban dog training clients often ask this question, especially after a neighbor has purchased one of these systems for their dog or, like you, after they have moved to a home without a physically fenced in area. For purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that you are asking about electronic containment systems (for use with a collar receiver) and not visible, above ground electric fencing as is used for cattle. However, my advice would be the same in either case.

I strongly advise against using an electronic containment system to teach your dog to remain on your property. There are simply too many serious physical, behavioral and possibly even legal risks to your dog for me to recommend otherwise.

Whether shocking dogs works to change behavior is not at issue. What is at stake is the effect doing so has on dogs and whether we can achieve our training goals in less risky, more humane ways. Dr. Karen Overall put it very succinctly, I think, in her open letter, stating “. . . In all situations where shock has been used there is some damage done, even if we cannot easily see it. No pet owner needs to use this technique to achieve their goal. Dogs who cease to exhibit a problem behavior usually also cease to exhibit normal behaviors. The only data available support the idea that shock is neither an effective nor suitable training tool[i].”When one considers that the purpose of an electronic containment system is often to give the dog “freedom” to “enjoy” spending time in the yard, Dr. Overall’s words can make one stop and think again.

Many people find themselves attempting to decide whether these systems are right for them without the benefit of accurate information. Sales brochures are confusing at best and at worst present distorted information. In researching my reply to your question, I called a well-known company to ask about their product. During our conversation, the representative spent five minutes explaining to me why it is so wonderful to “just let my dog outside by himself” worry-free. Dog trainers know nothing could not be further from the truth. There are many reasons to worry about dogs outside, alone, deprived of the mental health benefits of human company and the bodily protection of physical fencing. This is not just about being “nice” to dogs (although that is certainly reason enough). It is also about maintaining a dog’s social skills, which can serve to prevent dog bites down the road.

The same representative assured me that it would be “fine” to train an 8-week old puppy using this system, and that on the third day of training the owner would “let the puppy feel the collar on his own when he is set up to make a mistake.” Again, dog trainers know that puppies making decisions about what is safe and what is dangerous during their socialization period (which closes at about 14 weeks of age) are very vulnerable. They become even more so when they are a bit older and the socialization window is closing.

What if the puppy is looking at a child, bird, squirrel or its owner at the time it “feels the collar” and associates the startling shock it feels with that stimulus instead of focusing on the action of crossing the yard boundary? The subtlety of this type of training is not apparent to average pet owners and it is unreasonable to expect that it should be. It is up to canine behavior professionals to explain these types of risks.

Instead of any type of electronic system, I recommend using a physical fence, or (if erecting a physical fence is not permitted by zoning regulations in your community), taking a look at what you want to achieve by having a fence and finding other ways to meet those goals.

Why? There are many advantages of physical fences over electronic ones and there are serious risks associated with electronic containment systems.

Reasons physical fences make a great choice

  • A well-maintained physical fence won’t harm your dog. Installing a physical fence avoids the behavioral risks associated with electronic containment systems (these are detailed below, in the list of risks associated with electronic systems).
  • A physical fence may better protect you against dog-related liability than an electronic containment system can.

    The definition set forth by local ordinances and liability insurance policies for “controlling” or “containing” a dog varies, so be sure to check yours. Consult an attorney to make sure you understand these definitions and exactly what type of fencing you need to avoid liability should an incident or accusation occur. Something as simple as your dog jumping up to greet a small child who has wandered onto your property has the potential to become an unpleasant situation.

  • A physical fence can effectively protect your dog (and family) from wildlife, other dogs and unwanted human visitors. An electronic one provides no protection for your dog at all.
  • Presuming that a physical fence is built and maintained with your dog’s escape skills in mind, it will work every time.

    This is often not true of electronic containment systems. A strongly motivated dog will sometimes break through even when it is working properly. Once out of the yard; some dogs will not re-enter the yard and are trapped outside by the fear of being shocked. Shelters often receive stray dogs brought in wearing their electronic collars.

    Electronic containment systems have been known to malfunction for various reasons and dogs can escape. Sometimes malfunctioning equipment can cause physical injuries to dogs[i]. This does not occur with properly maintained, well designed physical fences.

  • A physical fence will not interfere with how you are training your dog no matter what method you are using. All it does is keep your dog safely contained in the yard so you can enjoy it together.

    When your dog does not sit fast enough, do you respond by shocking him or her? If not, why would you shock your dog for failing to come when you call when you are in the yard?

    Give this some thought and consider whether using shock to keep your dog in the yard is consistent with the method of training you have been using with your dog up until now or whether it is radically different. If you are not sure, call your dog trainer and discuss it with him or her.

  • A physical fence will save your dog’s life if your dog is tempted by something so compelling that he or she ignores your call to return to you.
  • Aggression can be created in previously non-aggressive dogs, particularly at the boundary. This aggression can result in bites to humans, sometimes serious, as dogs attempt to greet them at the edge of the yard and receive shocks as they do so. Dr. Richard Polsky[ii] studied this by examining court cases involving dog bites in which electronic containment systems were installed and working. While Dr. Polsky’s sample was small, this risk alone deserves very serious consideration.
  • Your dog can be physically injured by the equipment, especially if your dog is left unsupervised.[iii]
  • Your dog may become afraid of any or all of these things: your yard; the boundary area; anything or anyone that comes near the boundary area; and/or being on leash with a new person (presumably starting with the trainer who introduces the dog to the system).
  • Your dog may become frustrated (barking, lunging) at the boundary, scaring passersby who do not know whether or not your dog is under control when no fence is visible and whether your system is working or not. Your dog’s behavior can cause other dogs, on or off leash, to become reactive, worsening the situation, especially if your dog is unsupervised.

    The worst that will happen is that you will realize that you need to do more training with your dog so that won’t happen again. But an electronic containment system may not even be reliable enough to save your dog’s life if put to the test against, for example, a deer across the street or a dog in heat in a neighbor’s yard. Highly motivated dogs, as stated above, can (and have) made the decision to tolerate the shock from the system when they are in pursuit of something they want intensely.

Reasons why electronic containment systems are a poor choice

In addition to the disadvantages of electronic containment systems mentioned above, some of the serious risks of using shock when training include:

  • Aggression can be created in previously non-aggressive dogs, particularly at the boundary. This aggression can result in bites to humans, sometimes serious, as dogs attempt to greet them at the edge of the yard and receive shocks as they do so. Dr. Richard Polsky studied this by examining court cases involving dog bites in which electronic containment systems were installed and working. While Dr. Polsky’s sample was small, this risk alone deserves very serious consideration.
  • Your dog can be physically injured by the equipment, especially if your dog is left unsupervised.
  • Your dog may become afraid of any or all of these things: your yard; the boundary area; anything or anyone that comes near the boundary area; and/or being on leash with a new person (presumably starting with the trainer who introduces the dog to the system).
  • Your dog may become frustrated (barking, lunging) at the boundary, scaring passersby who do not know whether or not your dog is under control when no fence is visible and whether your system is working or not. Your dog’s behavior can cause other dogs, on or off leash, to become reactive, worsening the situation, especially if your dog is unsupervised.

The risks above are presented mainly in terms of how they affect people; you might feel bad if your dog is physically injured or if a passerby is scared of your dog. But training a dog using a shock collar or other aversive strong enough to prevent them from leaving your unfenced yard can have other, more subtle and long lasting detrimental effects.[iv]

The humane concerns about electronic containment systems are serious enough that several countries, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Slovenia, the principality of Wales in the United Kingdom and parts of Australia have outlawed them.

My recommendation is that you install a physical fence and spend interactive time with your dog playing training games in your yard, including training an emergency recall and an emergency down stay so you will have fabulous off leash control. You can use the safety of your fenced yard to teach your dog to walk happily by your side, both on and off leash so you can take walks in the park and in town together.

Remember that dogs left alone in yards are headed for trouble, no matter what type of equipment you use to keep them within your property boundaries. Solitary dogs are lonely dogs: they bark and/or growl along fence or flag lines, they dig, they often jump up to greet people because they are so relieved to have company, and they tend to be hyperactive when they do come indoors. They do not benefit from being outside by themselves; quite the contrary. Dogs benefit from spending time with you, whether inside or outside.

Here is one last piece of word of caution should you decide not to take my advice and install an electronic containment system anyway. If your Golden Retriever is a puppy, I would ask that you please discuss this decision with your dog trainer and veterinarian. Specifically, speak with them about the detrimental effects of aversive training on young puppies. If you are raising a puppy but don’t know a certified pet dog trainer yet, now is the time to find one! Be aware that at least one electronic containment system company is advertising that its system can be used with an 8 week old puppy. I would advise you to wait until your dog is at least one year old before considering this question again. Hopefully, by that time, not only will your dog be more mature but you will have had the opportunity to learn more about canine behavior, dog training and how beautifully dogs learn without any need for using shock, startle, or pain.


[i] “Simply Shocking” Miller, P. Whole Dog Journal, April, 2003 Volume 4, No. 2

[ii] “Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems?´Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, Volume 3, Issue 4 October 2000 , pages 345 – 357

[iii] “Simply Shocking” Miller, P. Whole Dog Journal, April, 2003 Volume 4, No. 2

[iv] “Why electric shock is not behavior modification” Overall, K.L. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, January/February 2007 Vol 2, No 1, p.1-4