Features September 2016 Issue

Why We Don’t Recommend Electric Fences (Shock Collars)

[Updated September 25, 2017]

The industry calls them underground containment systems. The public tends to call them by the most commonly known brand name – “Invisible Fence.” I unfailingly call it a “Stupid Underground Shock Fence” (SUSF). Because that’s what it is.

Sadly, SUSFs are popular for several reasons:

1. They are less expensive than a physical fence, easier and faster to install.

2. Many homeowners associations prohibit physical fences (don’t even get me started!) .

3. SUSF companies, other shock-collar companies, and trainers who use shock tools, have done a very good job of convincing many dog owners that these tools are effective and harmless, using deceptive terms such as “stim,” “tickle,” “e-touch,” and “electronic” to disguise the true nature of the shock. Incredibly, some even claim that they are using positive reinforcement when they use shock.

dog with shock collar

Most dogs learn to associate the boundary lines of their underground shock fences with getting “zapped.” Unfortunately, this makes many of them associate whatever they saw that drew them toward the boundary – other dogs, kids riding bikes, elderly pedestrians, etc. – with the unpleasant shock. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, when they begin to show anxiety or aggression in the presence of these stimuli (whether or not they are near the boundary, and whether or nor they are wearing “that” collar).

What Can Go Wrong with a Shock Collar?

SUSFs are, after all, legal to sell. They can’t possibly be that bad, can they? Yes, they can. Here are some of the bad things that can happen if you use a SUSF. I have seen the fallout firsthand and heard credible reports time and time again:

1. Some dogs become very aggressive, associating the shock with whatever was passing by at the time: another dog, a skateboarder, a child . . . I had a lovely Golden Retriever client who was ultimately euthanized as a dangerous dog because of this. Even after the SUSF representative came out and “retrained” her by putting a second shock collar around her groin to keep her in the yard, this previously aggression-free dog continued to run through the fence and attack dogs and humans passing by. Her aggression generalized to other non-fence situations, and her owners ultimately decided they could no longer trust her.

2. Some dogs are so traumatized by the shock that they are terrified to step foot into their own yards.

3. Some dogs are so traumatized by the warning beep associated with the shock that other, similar beeps – such as the beep of a camera, microwave oven, smoke alarm, electronic watch alarm – will send them into a total panic. I had a Greyhound client who was misdiagnosed with separation anxiety for this reason.

4. A SUSF doesn’t protect your dog from intruders (other dogs, humans) and hence puts her at risk from them (maybe an aggressive stray dog, a rabid fox who wanders into your yard, or a human with evil intentions), and puts innocent intruders at risk (a child, perhaps) especially if your dog has become aggressive due to the shock association.

5. Some dogs learn how to run through the fence. Some ignore the shock in a moment of high arousal over a passing dog, car, human, or other exciting stimulus. Some will deliberately accept the shock as the price they pay for their freedom. Still others learn to stand in the beep zone until the collar battery dies from the constant beeping and the dog crosses the fence line shock-free.

Positively Not Positive Training

Despite what those who market them might try to have you believe, there is nothing positive about an SUSF. Certainly they do work to keep many dogs contained in their yards, but at a high price. Shock is a very strong aversive. That’s not even open to debate. Even if you’re convinced you’d like to try one (shame!), you won’t know until it’s too late if your dog is one of the many who suffers one or more of the above-listed problems. The potential damage to a dog’s emotional health and physical safety should put these products in the “Never, Ever” category for any caring dog owner.

Comments (24)

I have used an invisible fence for over 20 years. I have acreage and it is horse fenced, but not fenced for dogs. Over the years, I've had 6 dogs and no problems. Part of my acreage is swamp and would be impossible to fence. My dogs enjoy a better quality of life because of the invisible fence. They get to run off leash, romp and play, hunt out in the field, accompany me to the barn to feed and to do chores. It allows them to have the active lifestyle they were born for. I also take them for a daily hike on a leash and that is in no way comparable to the freedom and exercise they get at home. They only go outside when I am home (they don't get let out during thunderstorms), when I'm not home they stay inside with their collars off, they also sleep inside with me on the bed. I am an avid dog lover and to me it would be more cruel to keep them penned up or on a leash for their entire lives-I just couldn't imagine doing that. A good invisible fence brand has e-collars that are adjustable from tone only to 5 levels of correction (so you don't have to zap your dog so high that s/he is terrified). I couldn't even feel the first level. There is always a warning tone that the dog learns; so after being zapped once or twice, they back up when they hear the warning tone, if properly trained. For about a week, take a bag of treats and when the dog wanders into the warning zone, call them back and praise and treat-you'll avoid a dog that sits in the warning zone and drains the battery. They learn the boundaries very quickly and avoid them. The e-collars have a low battery indicator light, so you know when to replace your battery. The system also has an audible alert that lets you know when a wire is broken-it's loud-you hear it through the whole house. As long as you use the system responsibility and train correctly; it can be an invaluable tool that saves lives and allows dogs to have an enhanced quality of life. I honestly don't understand why you are trying to "shame" your readers into not using them. When trained as pups, my dogs have gotten an average of 3 zaps before fully understanding what the warning tone means and it lasts a lifetime. As adults, my dogs no longer ever get zapped. You do have to train properly, you can't just throw the collar on and ask the dog to figure it out on their own. I enjoy and subscribe to your magazine, but as you argue that I should be shamed for my choice to use an invisible fence, I just as strongly and passionately argue that you've got this one wrong.

Posted by: Moonstone | October 21, 2018 1:11 PM    Report this comment

Years ago we had 2 border collies we used an electric fence with. The one had such thick fur the would stand anywhere and not feel the shock. She also was not our problem dog so we didn't worry about her. Her brother though, jumped over our fence regularly so we put the collar on him. He got shocked one time then would not leave the house!! Needless to say, we removed the collar and fence and never used it again. It took about a week after the fence was gone before he would come back out into the yard unescorted. I wouldn't use them again!

Posted by: Borderdogs | October 21, 2018 8:33 AM    Report this comment

I did a lot of research on electric fences for my neighbors. What I found out is that they are not safe for small dogs. They can cause a dog to go into cardiac arrest and die from the shock. The smaller the dog the more likely this is to happen. And if your dog of any size has a undetected heart condition, they are at risk of sudden death from these fences. They are definitely not worth the risk.

Posted by: Sue @ Cowdog's Puppies Rescue | October 18, 2018 8:49 PM    Report this comment

I had Jack Russell Terriers for years. Years ago I talked to a man who installed invisible fencing. Two of my girls kept tangling with skunks. De-skunking the dogs (and house) was getting old. He advised me against it. He said Jack Russells and Border Collies were the worst dogs for invisible fencing, They are so fast, they don't get shocked when they run over it, after something, but do get shocked when they come back home. He advised individual runs, which they got. I never left them outside for extended periods and had very few problems. I always kept my dogs busy with lots of fun training. The smallest of my dogs could go over a 6 ft. chain link fence in nano seconds. Joy wasn't being "bad", she just wanted to go back inside. After the divorce the dogs and I moved to where there was no fencing and I couldn't afford kennels. Every one got run lines. The dogs were able to interact with neighbors, which everyone loved. Joy, however, learned to get off her run line, collar still on her, no problem with the clip. If my neighbors were outside, she'd run over to greet them, then come back home. Otherwise, she'd kind of knock on the door to come inside. My 3 current dogs use those same run lines. Their limit is about 30 minutes then Spudley starts to complain by barking, Chance cries. My dogs are very prey driven but since there is likely to be anything from rattlesnakes to bears wandering into the yard, I go on high alert when they do start barking. I do not leave them out when I'm not home. And, I still use fun obedience games to keep them busy.

Posted by: Cindie M | October 17, 2018 5:44 AM    Report this comment

I prefer a dog run with a concrete slab and a cover. To have a well adjusted dog you need to walk your dog, and if you walk your dog then they don't need the run of your yard. Your dog can get hurt with both a fenced yard or e-fenced yard. There are so many pluses to a dog run vs fencing, you know where your dog is at all times, what they can't get into, keeping dog messes in one area to be cleaned up on a daily basis, they are safe as are other animals and people, they won't be able to eat what they are not suppose to eat, chew, dig, fleas and ticks are easily controlled. There isn't any negative things about a dog run, and dog runs do not have to be ugly, they can be a very nice and attractive part of your yard. Dogs are a pack animal, and the pack travels together, letting dogs have so much time to travel in your yard without you, makes you the low pack member, when you need to walk your dog, that makes you the pack leader.

Posted by: minnickpam | October 17, 2018 12:18 AM    Report this comment

For 20 years I wholeheartedly agreed with the content of this article. Then a year ago we adopted Lola, part hound, part frog. She readily scrambled over the fence that had contained two dogs twice her size. At first she scrambled right back, but over days and weeks she became more adventuresome.

It was a battle of wits between Lola and my husband. We installed "coyote rollers" as a previous poster here suggested. Lola balanced on them on her way over, like a master log roller. We extended the fence upward, angled in. She squeezed through the necessary gap by the gate. It was mentally, emotionally, and financially overwhelming. We talked about maybe not being able to keep her.

Lola was taking basic obedience training so I asked the instructor for advice. To my amazement, this committed positive trainer advised me to get a hidden fence. She said it was necessary to keep Lola safe, the lesser of two evils.

My husband took longer to convince. The turning point came when Lola escaped and we had her trapped inside a neighbor's 6' picket fence. Lola climbed it. Then my husband knew he couldn't build a fence to contain her.

It wasn't all smooth sailing. The first company we called ultimately refused the job because I was so conflicted and emotional they "didn't think they could make us happy." A competitor installed a wire along the middle of our existing fence. Then he scared the bejesus out of Lola by shouting as he pulled her into the beeping zone. She was afraid of the yard for days and she hadn't even been zapped. I read the training manual and found he'd done it all wrong. We took our time - weeks - and she got over her fear and learned the boundaries. I'm very glad we got a fence that gives her a warning. And yes, I've tried the collar myself. It's like a strong static shock. Yes, unpleasant, but when it's over it's over.

We walk our dogs every day and take them to doggie day care twice a month - there's a lot of energy to burn off - so Lola gets breaks from the collar and shows no signs of sores. We've also had neighbor dogs wandering the streets with dead batteries. Even before we got a hidden fence ourselves we recognized the problem was with inattentive, lazy owners, not with the fence. And we know people who have several acres of land, where a traditional fence would be impossible because of the terrain, as well as the cost.

Are we converts? Not really. Lola's brother has never tried to escape so we have not put a collar on him. My point is that we understand now that a hidden fence is a valid, sometimes necessary option. It saved Lola's life, and we will be forever grateful to our pragmatic obedience trainer.

Posted by: thebeta99 | October 17, 2018 12:07 AM    Report this comment

I've had dogs go over fences, under fences, even straight through the fence. Yes, the stupid dog managed to chew a hole in chain link. Currently, we have five acres of yard for our dogs and it is fenced with goat fence which you would think would keep a dog in but no... they dig out, squeeze out barge out and of course follow the creek out. Tell me how to fence a creek, please. I've seriously considered an invisible fence. I'm sorry if that offends the author and some readers but I can live with that.

Posted by: Elmer_Fudd | October 16, 2018 10:52 PM    Report this comment

I've had dogs go over fences, under fences, even straight through the fence. Yes, the stupid dog managed to chew a hole in chain link. Currently, we have five acres of yard for our dogs and it is fenced with goat fence which you would think would keep a dog in but no... they dig out, squeeze out barge out and of course follow the creek out. Tell me how to fence a creek, please. I've seriously considered an invisible fence. I'm sorry if that offends the author and some readers but I can live with that.

Posted by: Elmer_Fudd | October 16, 2018 10:52 PM    Report this comment

I am 50-50 on electric containment fences. I have always lived in the country with large yards - never fenced. We had an electric containment system with the wire going around the yard boundary. It worked fairly well until our aussie mix figured out how to drain the battery by sitting in the warning zone. Had to pay twice to get her out of doggie jail! Also, we used black wire which wasn't smart since we did have to find breaks a few times.
We next got a wireless containment system. It has also worked well with one very bad issue. As noted above, it will shock spontaneously during thunderstorms. I now have a dog that is terrified during thunderstorms although we haven't used this collar on her in years. She is also petrified with sensor beeps from smoke alarms and CO2 alarms that need new batteries.
Both of the above dogs were properly trained to the boundaries. Dog 1 had no fear issues, Dog 2 absolutely does.
Real horror story - We had a neighbor in South Carolina whose dogs were running the neighborhood. After numerous complaints, he went out and bought a containment system (assuming wireless) and just slapped the collars on his 4 dogs. No training - lots of screaming from the dogs. He removed the collars because the dogs were toileting in the house because they were afraid to go outside through their doggy doors.
We have also used an ecollar for training when a dog wants to chase prey and won't recall. We do use it on vibration setting and it is effective.
Bottom line for me is that I have learned a lot about positive training from this site and will use that as a first line training method however, I reserve the right to use an ecollar if necessary to prevent my dog from ignoring my recall when deer, fox, turkey, etc pose a more exciting option than coming to me or for staying in my unfenced large yard.
I do not leave my dog out when not at home but she is allowed to go out to potty alone so not as concerned with or ever dealt with wild animal attacks.

Posted by: Kmerritt | October 16, 2018 8:44 PM    Report this comment

I always believed that 'fences' were to keep unwanted others OUT. It seems utterly ridiculous to me to put in 'invisible fences'. The vandals, the thieves and wandering predators, stray dogs or wild-life.
As for buying into a housing development that does not allow 'fences -- don't do it unless you don't want to keep a dog. If they whack it on you after you've bought in, contest it!

Canine Therapy Inc -- it has NOTHING to do with "purely positive training" or anything similar -- it is simply keeping your own property (including your dog) safe.

Posted by: Jenny H | October 16, 2018 8:15 PM    Report this comment

This article is total propaganda from a card carrying member of the Church Of Purely Positive Training. Ecollars and ecollar training by professionals who know what they are doing with the equipment SAVE the lives of thousands and thousands of dogs each year. Purely positive training can NOT teach a dog what NOT to do or get a dog to stop doing dangerous or obnoxious behaviors. I would love to live in a world were we could sprinkle magic pixy dust on everything to fix it. The Church of Purely Positive Training holds that if a dog “refuses” to get with their programs, then it’s fine to take the dog to the shelter or take the dog on that one-way trip to the vet. Go to YouTube and watch Victoria Stilwell advising a family to put down their Cocker Spaniel for showing food guarding behavior on the show, It’s Me Or The Dog! The dog was killed because the Purely Positive Trainer could not figure out how to solve a very, very common behavior problem. As a professional trainer, I come in behind these sorts of trainers all of the time. When the dog won’t stop doing negative behavior in exchange for a cookie, the PPT tells the client to “send the dog back to the breeder, take the dog to the vet to be killed, rehome it or take it to the shelter. As a dog lover, this infuriates me! If a “trainer” does not know how to solve dog problems, they should not be playing God and recommending death to the dog or the dog-human relationship. Shame on the author for this irresponsible and misleading article.

Posted by: Canine Therapy Inc | October 16, 2018 4:56 PM    Report this comment

I am on my fourth golden and all but the first have done well on the invisible fence. The first came to me at 6 and had a tendency to take off periodically. The last three came to be as a puppy who I trained with no real issues. All learned to respect the fence boundaries and never tested them once trained. I now use a dogtra collar when he is off leash and he is responsive to the buzz and almost never have to nip him. All of this allows me to have him off leash in the yard , while walking in the parks and gives him plenty of room to actually run. He has adapted well to the training methods and always knows I am nearby as I never allow him out unless I am with him. It works well in the retriever breed and makes both of our lives better. He has the front and the backyard and gets to see people who know him when they walk by the house. He is a happy pooch and the collars add to his life and mine. All good here.

Posted by: leedy | October 16, 2018 4:39 PM    Report this comment

We've used e-collars to train service dogs. Lumping them with collars for electric fences seems too simplistic. The collars do not replace positive rewards, which is always the basis for teaching new skills. They have a vibration, sound, and range of electric levels, are used when the dog knows what he's supposed to do, but doesn't want to do it, or is going to be in danger. Many of the disabled individuals we work with are paralyzed or missing limbs. Some have limited vocal control. They have no way to physically control a dog other than an e-collar. We employ them on the lowest level that the dog senses (and always on ourselves first). My experience is that the dog quickly learns what's expected and a mere vibration will do the trick. No electric shock involved. Most of the time, the collars are only used for a short period of time. We advocate professional training for anyone who elects to use them because timing is critical and they should never be used in anger or as punishment.

Posted by: Jancie | October 16, 2018 4:25 PM    Report this comment

I recently moved to a property surrounded on three sides by a pre-existing electric fence for cattle. My dogs hit the fence once and since then have not attempted to wander off the property. No trauma, no problem. I'm glad the fence is there.

E-collars (or shock collars, as you prefer as a means of ignorant aspersion) is a tool which, as a trainer, I have seen demonstrated to be significant advancement in training as well as a means of rehabilitating dogs seemingly lost to any hope of recovery and doomed to euthanization. I use it now for almost all the dogs I work with, for it is a novel, subtle, remote and non-physical means of communication which, when used correctly, opens up enormous possibilities for owners and their dogs. My dogs routinely become excited when I pull mine out: it means a great romp without leashes. Moreover, I know of trainers who specialize in e-collars to rescue hardcore behaviorally damaged dogs that no "positive-only" would dare go near (dogs for whom a turkey treat means nothing) and brought them back from the brink. The electronic collar is a life saver for dogs. The positive-only industry opposes it because they recognize it as a huge threat to their unilateral and failed model of training. By the way, 60% of my clients come to me having experienced frustration and failure and suffered a lot of wasted money and time by "positive-only" training.

A tool has no moral qualities. It cannot be 'awful" or "horrible" or 'mean." A steak knife, a screwdriver, a bottle of aspirin and a salad fork are all tools, as equally capable of producing harm, injury or death as they are of enabling an easier and more productive life. By condemning innovative tools with potential to help dogs and save dogs' lives we are degrading ourselves as responsible individuals and also infantilizing dogs. The movement to ban electronic tools is reactionary, fear-based and regressive; it is also a direct blow to the promise of empowering more owners and saving more dogs from abandonment and death.

Posted by: RipR | October 16, 2018 4:16 PM    Report this comment

I have had the invisible fence for well over 10 years with 4 labs. One got out twice until I adjusted the settings. The other 3 have never gotten out. I swear by the fence. Who wants to go out in a snowstorm in the middle of the night because a dog has to go potty? My dgs know where the line is and never get shocked. They have other dogs going by the house every day. There is a lot of barking but tey never leave the yard. I, for one, think this is one of the best investments I have ever made.

Posted by: hoser | October 16, 2018 4:09 PM    Report this comment

Had I experienced the horrors of the above posters, I'm sure my testimony would be different. Because I live on a street which is very busy with extremely fast moving traffic, I installed an invisible fence (albeit with some trepidation). Fortunately, my aussie "learned" the system almost instantly. My system does have a beep, prior to shock. By training with the flags that are used to warn of the beep, he has never been shocked! He memorized the boundaries very quickly and has never made any attempts to break through. I had similar experience with two labs for whom I dog sit. That family also has an invisible fence and all of the dogs know the boundaries at each of our homes. Not trying to convince anyone else, but know that my dogs appear to enjoy the freedom of exploration within a safe setting. I, too, read of horror stories but can only share my experience as having been quite successful.

Posted by: aussiefrost | October 16, 2018 3:40 PM    Report this comment

While driving in the country I have picked up at least 5 dogs wearing shock collars, seemingly lost on the road, that were either bored or excited by something and bolted through the "fence." Happily I was able to return each of them to their owner, none of whom thanked me (not that I was expecting it), most of whom chastised their dog.
Yes, these things are cruel, take away the dog's job of defending their property, etc. It seems these fences have replaced the chore--and delight--of walking and spending quality time with the dog.

Posted by: Tozolon | October 16, 2018 3:30 PM    Report this comment

this is for anyone who has a dog that climbs fences. Use PVC pipe between posts above the fence with a largersize over it. when the dog tries to climb, the PVC will spin and the can't get over it!

Posted by: Dancing Dogs | October 16, 2018 3:16 PM    Report this comment

We got a new 20 pound cairn terrier, ? dog named Chloe. Now I have 2 basset hounds & we already had a fenced in yard which they are perfectly happy with, Chloe can't jump the fence but she learned to climb right over it in a snap, so I bought one of these fences just for her so she wouldn't make the attempt to climb the fence. Now I never liked the idea of electrocuting my dog but I didn't know any other way to get her to stay in the yard. We installed the thing & put it on the lowest setting you can, & then tested it on us. It hurt like hell! I couldn't believe how painful it was & that was the weakest setting? So needless to say we are out $400.00 & we never used it. Now we have to be outside with her until we can figure something else out. Don't believe anything you read when it says it feels like a small pinch or a vibration or some other ridiculous claim. If you think they are so great them you put the collar on & cross the line & see how you like it. My husband & I are still traumatized from the shock.

Posted by: Squirtsie | October 16, 2018 2:50 PM    Report this comment

I had an electrical fence installed by a company in CT.The salesman told me that there was a WARNING SOUND to let the dog know that if he was going over that point he would receive a shock. So I thought that after training my dog he would know that detail. After the fence was installed I wondered why my puppy was running too near the fence and was screaming terribly of pain, so I ask the young guy, who was supposed to be a trainer, why that happened if there was a warning sound. That's when he told me that there was NO warning sound. I paid $1,000 for that horrible fence which I firmly believe is a rip off.
Thank you for that article.

Posted by: Milou | October 16, 2018 2:50 PM    Report this comment

I am really on the fence here...no pun intended. Our housing addition does not permit visible fences - what are we to do? We do have a small fenced backyard, but I would love for the dogs (Dalmatians) to have the run of our 2 acres. In the past we had an underground fence - it worked perfectly for almost 10 years. I think because we did not buy from a big box and did have it professionally installed. The gophers began chewing the wire and they finally won. I agree - it isn't for all dogs and it does have its drawbacks. Proper training in its use is critical. But what alternative do homeowners have in these fenceless subdivisions? I would like to know.....

Posted by: Budbull | October 16, 2018 2:44 PM    Report this comment

I used to work for Invisible Fence in CA. I would never, ever use this system. I have seen dogs become aggressive (a golden retriever), and others become extremely terrified. There are way too many ways this system can fail too, batteries go bad, wires are cut, transmitter doesn't work. Some dogs will cross the line and never come back because they know they will get shocked coming back in. They were trying to promote this product so that veterinarians would recommend it. One day a dog was brought into a vet's office, it was hit and killed by a car while on this system. That's a real great recommendation! Some dogs had badly infected holes in their neck because of the prongs on the collar. I could just go on and on about how bad the Invisible Fence system really is.

Posted by: GSDlover1947 | October 16, 2018 2:40 PM    Report this comment

I have nothing to say about these positively awful inventions.
Just trying to keep this line alive hoping others will respond.

Posted by: smithdogs | October 16, 2018 2:35 PM    Report this comment

I see why there are 0 comments... you have to jump through hoops just to be able to leave a comment.
Anyway, I clicked on this article, looking for "electric fence, dog collar malfunction in inclement weather" to see if anyone else has experienced this...
I happened to be at my daughter's home, babysitting, during a thunderstorm. I let the family dog, Max in because of the storm. He's a very hyper Germin Pinscher and since they have a small child, he stays outside, most of the time.
A few minutes after he had been inside, the collar began to beep. He was panicking, I was panicking, trying to get him closer to the unit, itself. Wasn't working and I only had a few seconds to figure it out so I pulled the collar off, just in time before it went into full on shock mode.
I wanted to find out if anyone else had experienced this before so I could convince my daughter and her husband to figure out another way since they had experienced other problems, with the device, before.
I shudder to think what may have happened, had I made the decision to have my daughter bring the children to my house, as I sometimes do, while she and her husband are away, for the day, at work.
Please let more people know the danger's of these devices. People are so busy with their lives but really need to research these things better.

Posted by: J_Adkins20 | June 7, 2018 8:58 AM    Report this comment

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