The question has come up several times recently, “What are your thoughts on invisible fences?” Even the afternoon radio talk show hosts of New Jersey 101.5 talked about it this month and I just had to call in and offer my perspective.
Invisible fences, if you aren’t familiar, are an electronic fence where a line is buried underground along the boundary where the owner wishes their dog not to cross (typically around the back yard, front yard or both). The dog wears an electronic collar which will often give a warning beep or vibrate if the dog gets close to the boundary and will shock the dog if he or she crosses that boundary.
I’m not a fan of the invisible fence. My family had one for our dog when I was growing up and I can tell you that he was a smart dog who very quickly learned how to game the system. He figured out how to tell when the batteries on the collar were low and he’d run right through the boundary of the yard. The other big issue we had was that he was terrified to cross the fence even if we removed the collar and we were trying to walk him through on leash. We were never able to take him from our back yard, where the fence was, to our front yard without going through the house (or reversed, we couldn’t take him from the front yard to the backyard where our hose was for a doggie shower without going through the house, which would be problematic if the dog got messy while we were out).
Before I dive into all the reasons I dislike these fence systems, let me explain one very important scientific reason to dislike them (and forgive me for what is about to be a very technical point): In operant conditioning/training, the likelihood of a behavior is increased or decreased by the consequences that follow. This is a rule of behavior, not unlike gravity being a rule of the universe, and is true of all species. The types of operant conditioning fall into one of four boxes (those of us in the behavior field know them as the four quadrants). See below:
When you look at the image, one thing you want to note is that in these terms, positive and negative do not refer to good and bad but rather to adding or subtracting something. Positive punishment, for instance, is generally considered to be quite bad despite the word positive being in the name.
As you may have gathered from the colors used in the image above, good trainers try to avoid using positive punishment and negative reinforcement.
The invisible fence works entirely from those two things:
- Positive punishment: In this case we are adding a shock (painful) for crossing the boundary.
- Negative reinforcement: In this case, moving away from the fence stops the warning beeping that predicts shock. This reinforces moving away from the boundary or, more simply, the dog avoiding the boundary is reinforcing as it is a way to avoid the shock.
Right there, science is already telling us there are probably better ways to get the behavior we want. The behavior in question, of course, is staying within the boundary.
That said, there are other problems with using an invisible fence. They include the following:
- There is no actual fence. Animals can come in, leaving your dog trapped to defend themselves against a strange dog, for instance. Animals coming in may also be just enough to tempt your dog to chase said animal (deer/bunny/etc.) out. Often, a dog will chase an animal out while pumped full of adrenaline but then won’t return to the yard for fear of being shocked, which they will be if they cross back in… what a terrible punishment for coming home!
- False sense of security. The dog may not leave the yard most of the time, but they still CAN. Dogs should never be left unsupervised.
- Makes passersby nervous. With no visible fence, people and dogs will likely assume your dog charging towards them is off leash. That leads them to react differently than a dog behind a fence. Your dog’s behavior may change because those passing people and dogs react negatively to his or her approach. This can lead your dog towards behaviors of reactivity, increased barking, or even aggression.
- Invisible fences fail invisibly. If your physical wooden fence has a failure, you will know it because you can see that the gate is open or that a part of the fence has fallen. Invisible fences can fail if the power goes out, if the batteries on the collar have died, or if there has been damage to the lines underground. None of these malfunctions are easily detectable until your dog is already in danger. There have also been claims that the collars themselves malfunction and shock the dog repeatedly whether they have crossed the fence or not. How horrible!
- Punishment can be misinterpreted. There is no guarantee that your dog will associate being shocked with crossing the boundary of your yard. They could, instead, associate the shock with any number of unrelated things. As an example, if your dog barks and runs towards the fence line because of a passing dog, and they get shocked for crossing the boundary, there is a good chance they will associate the shock with that passing dog, not the place they were in the yard. Now your dog associates passing dogs with pain and shock which can lead to becoming seriously dog reactive or aggressive. This same association could be made with passing humans, cars, bikes, strollers, etc. There is also a possibility that they will associate the shock with YOU! Some invisible fence companies insist on “training” the dog after they install the fence. In those training sessions they often take the dog across the fence so that they experience the shock. The dog can very easily associate that shock with whoever is holding the leash or standing nearby at that time. This can have lasting effects since your dog may lose trust in their family or in humans in general.
- Boundary Frustration. Dogs can develop aggression or reactivity if they are repeatedly frustrated by a stimulus. For example, if your neighbor and his dog walk by every day and your dog can’t get to them, he can get increasingly frustrated by this over several weeks or months of repetition. What may have started off as a bark to say hello can turn into a furious bark of pent up frustration and, given enough time, can lead a dog to finally just blowing through the invisible fence, despite the shock, to chase or attack the source of that frustration. With an invisible fence, there is nothing to block these visual stimuli.
Bottom line, I would avoid the invisible fence. There are other safer and less negative options.
- Physical Fence. Whenever possible, I recommend a physical fence. No fence is ever going to be 100% secure but a physical fence is your best bet. When shopping for a fence, consider things like height and type of fence carefully. Is your dog a digger? If so, you need to make sure you go down as well as up. Blocking visual access is often just as important as blocking physical access. Your dog doesn’t need to be able to see the road or your neighbors’ yard and in many cases, blocking those visuals will make your yard time much more peaceful.
- Tether or Zip Line. In the case where a physical fence is not possible due to housing restrictions or budget, using some form of tether is an option. The downside of using a tether to a tree or ground stake is that it restricts movement and is easy for the dog to get tangled in the line while playing. This is why another popular solution has been gaining traction. The idea is to install a “zip line” across a yard where you can tether the dog to the zip line above so the dog can move freely up and down the yard without getting wrapped up in their leash. This also prevents humans from getting caught up in the leash as well! To see one example, check out the video HERE.
- Training invisible boundaries. You can train an invisible fence using positive methods (and you don’t even need the “fence” to do it). It will take considerably more time and effort to do and will never be foolproof (i.e. I would never leave the dog unattended) but it would be a far more gentle and humane way to get the desired behavior of “stay in the yard” than using an invisible fence. This method is not for the faint of heart! Unless you can dedicate months of careful training to this, I would suggest you go with one of the previous options. There are also some breeds that were bred to chase animals, and dogs that, for similar reasons, simply won’t be easily convinced to follow an invisible boundary rule. If you would like to learn more about this process, I’ve linked some awesome step-by-step videos at the bottom of the page from one of my favorite trainers. Again, keep in mind that a fence or tether is generally going to be the best plan of action for most dogs.
One last bit of advice: I would never recommend leaving a dog in a yard unattended even if they are fenced or tethered. There are too many variables including hawks (a problem for small dogs), humans with bad intentions (neighbors poisoning dogs over fences are more common than you would like to believe), or even just simple accidents like getting a collar stuck on something which could cause suffocation.
The only guarantee when it comes to dogs is that they will do dog things. It is always better to err on the side of caution.
Nicole L Yuhas CPDT-KA
Note on the videos: One thing she uses to her advantage in the video is a curb (a clear boundary for the dog). If you don’t have something clearly differentiating spaces (aka your grassy yard and your neighbors grassy yard with no clear difference between the two) using yard flags or a stringing a low rope can help when teaching this and can be faded out over time by removing flags or parts of the rope.
This blog is intended to be informative as well as entertaining. It contains my opinion which may not reflect the opinions of any organization I may be affiliated with. My opinions should not be interpreted as those of my coworkers, family, friends, casual acquaintances, and certainly not the opinion of my cat, although my dog probably agrees with everything I say, if for no other reason, than because I provide the treats and meals (cats are less inclined to agree with anyone but themselves). Information provided here is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge but, as information and opinions change, neither the facts nor the opinions expressed here may be true or accurate at any future date. As I don’t currently own a time machine, I cannot be responsible for things that prove to be untrue, or opinions I change my mind about, should those changes become apparent in the future. It should also be noted that, as I am human, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes in the information provided here. Frankly, even if I were a computer, it is likely there would be errors, as computers, in my experience, can be a royal pain in the butt. This blog may contain affiliate links which you are under no obligation to click. If you click them, they will hopefully take you the place I intended. But they may not. As I’ve said, computers can be a pain. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t think I intended, click your ruby slippers three times together and say, “there is no place like home.” If you do that, and click the “back” button, you should be safely returned. Computers can, at times, have a mind of their own. Any training suggestions or opinions expressed here should be taken as information only and should not be seen as advice particular to you or your dog’s unique situation. Please consult with a training professional before taking any action.