Jennifer L. Summerfield, DVM CPDT-KA

Today, I want to discuss a topic that I (and every other dog trainer I know!) get lots of questions about.

Are “Invisible Fence”-type containment systems a good idea, generally speaking?  Or, would this be a reasonable choice for your particular dog?

Now, first things first.

I want to acknowledge at the outset that this this can be a hot-button issue for many dog owners and trainers, with strong feelings on all sides – and that’s perfectly okay.  It’s fine to have differing views, as long as we’re all respectful of each other.

Regarding what I think of Invisible Fences, personally, the short answer is that I am not a huge fan.  We will discuss the reasons for this below.


My goal for today’s post is not to convince you that Invisible Fences are an inherently evil invention, or to make you feel like a bad person or dog owner if you’re currently using one.  Lots of people use them.  And truthfully, for some of my clients, I have seen them work quite well without any apparent problems.

Instead, what I want to do today is provide a thoughtful, science-based overview of how these fences work, the pros and cons of using them, and potential risks that you should be aware of.  I hope you’ll use this information to help decide on the best choice for your living situation, and your individual dog – whatever that choice might be.

What is an Invisible Fence, and how does it work?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start by briefly discussing what we mean when we use this term.

“Invisible Fence“ is actually a specific brand of something called an underground containment system for dogs.  An underground wire is installed around your yard (or other designated area), which emits a signal that is picked up by a collar worn by your dog.  As your dog approaches the boundary line, the collar gives a warning beep, followed by a shock if he continues to move closer.  Ideally, the dog learns where the boundary line is after a few unpleasant experiences, and therefore stays in the yard.

As technology has advanced, there are now some variations available on this same basic idea – wireless systems that cover a circular area up to a certain distance from the transmitter, and even GPS-based models that allow you to “enclose” very large or irregularly-shaped swaths of land.  From your dog’s perspective, these systems all work the same way – using a warning tone, and then a shock, to enforce the chosen boundary.

Why do people use them?

By and large, most dog owners who use an Invisible Fence do so with the best of intentions.  They want to give their energetic pup more off-leash freedom to run and play, or let their older dog have access to the yard for potty breaks when they’re not home.  These are valid goals, meant to make the dog’s life better.

Why not just use a “real” fence, you might ask?  The fact is, this isn’t always possible.  Some subdivisions have strict rules against any type of fencing – homeowners may not realize this until after they’ve moved in and added a dog to the family.  Physical fencing is also quite expensive, as anyone who has priced it knows!  For many families, especially if they have a large yard, putting up a chain link or wooden fence for their dog is simply not an option due to cost.

I understand this, and I have empathy for these situations.  Sometimes, there are no perfect solutions – all we can do is our best.

What are the potential downsides?

Unfortunately, as convenient as they might seem at first, Invisible Fence-type systems have a number of significant drawbacks.  I mentioned above that I personally do not care much for these fences and don’t normally recommend them to my clients.

Here are the reasons why:

  • Risk of aggression or fear response

Although it all sounds great on paper, using shock-based corrections in this way is a delicate balancing act.  We want the dog to find the shock unpleasant enough to deter him from approaching the boundary line, but not so traumatizing that he develops any other behavioral problems as a result.

Unfortunately, the “correct” level of shock for any given dog is extremely hard to predict.  The severity of a correction is very much in the eye of the beholder – which is an interesting topic in its own right, and one that we may explore further in a later post.  Some dogs are relatively unfazed by even a strong, painful shock; others may react dramatically to something we perceive as a mild tingle.

So, ultimately, here’s the problem.  We’re hoping that the dog will associate the correction with his proximity to the edge of the yard, and adjust his future behavior accordingly.  But we’re forgetting something very important – he may also associate the shock with anything else that happens to be nearby at the time, which can result in some unexpected problems.

When I was a teenager, my family made a very short-lived attempt to use an underground fence with our dog Duncan.  The first time he was shocked (on the lowest setting, a “very mild correction,” per the literature that came with the system), he yelped in terror and fled back to the house.

Thereafter, he was too afraid to go into the yard to potty – he stood on the porch and trembled until we let him back into the house.  We threw the collar away and abandoned the entire effort, but it was several weeks before he was brave enough to step on the grass again without shaking.

Dogs can also develop aggression issues towards strangers or other dogs, as a result of being shocked as they approach to say hello.  See my previous post about Heidi the German Shepherd for a particularly striking example of this phenomenon.

It happens.

Does it happen to every dog?  No, of course not.  Some do just fine.  But there’s no surefire way to predict which dogs will develop a problem, and which ones won’t – so you should be aware that it’s a risk.

  • Unreliable containment

As anyone who has worked in an animal shelter can tell you, it’s distressingly common to see lost dogs wearing electronic fence collars.  Despite what the salesman may tell you, no Invisible Fence system is foolproof – dogs can, and do, breach the barrier for a variety of different reasons.

For dogs who are very prey-driven, the sight of a squirrel or rabbit on the other side of the boundary line may prove too tempting to resist.  Dogs with aggression issues towards other dogs or people may become over-aroused and charge across out into the street to bark at neighbors – which can result in a bite.

Some dogs even learn that they can deplete the battery in their collar by standing in the “warning zone” long enough, after which they’re free to leave the yard without consequence.

In many of these cases, the owner feels that the fence is working fine… until the day it doesn’t.

  • Physical safety issues

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s important to remember that an Invisible Fence system is *not* a true physical barrier.  Even if it’s effective at keeping your dog in the yard, it does nothing at all to keep other animals or humans out.

In some areas, this may not be a major concern.  But if you have loose dogs that roam the neighborhood, or in rural areas where coyotes or other wildlife are present, your dog is vulnerable to being injured or even killed in his own yard.  Dogs can also be harassed or stolen by unscrupulous people if there is no physical fence to protect them.

So what’s the bottom line?

As I tell my clients when they ask, I do not recommend Invisible Fences as an ideal first-line option for any dog.  They are particularly unsuitable for dogs with high prey drive, dogs with any aggression issues towards strangers or other animals, and anxious or fearful dogs – but any dog can develop problems.

So be aware.

What if you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and decided that an Invisible Fence is the best option you have?

I realize that there are situations where this might be true.  If you do choose to use an underground fence system for your dog, I would recommend the following:

Never leave your dog outside unsupervised. Many of the risks I mentioned above can be significantly mitigated if you’re there to keep an eye on things – so go out with your pup, and bring him back inside with you when you’re ready to go in.

Complete the training program as advised by the company you’re working with, to ensure that your dog understands where the boundary line is and how to avoid the shock. Don’t cut corners here!  Confusion or lack of clarity are huge risk factors for developing anxiety or aggression issues related to the fence, so take the time to teach your dog properly.

Be aware of what the risks are, and watch for any problems. If your dog reacts poorly to the fence, you may need to stop using it – know this going in, and be prepared to call it quits if necessary.

So if you can – spring for a real, physical fence.  It’s well worth it for your pup’s safety, and your piece of mind.

If you can’t, then make the best decision you can.  You know your dog better than anyone else, and you also know what options are feasible for your living situation.  Life is full of calculated risks.  Just know what you’re getting into, and what the possible downsides are.

Your dog deserves your consideration, no matter what you choose.

(Reprinted with permission from http://www.drjensdogblog.com/invisible-fences-do-or-dont/)