Shocking Behavior: The Trouble With E-collars, Invisible Fences and 'Zapped' Dogs

Patty Khuly, DVM
June 22, 2010
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As most of you already know, I’ve got this new pup named Pinky. She’s adorable and I’m seriously thinking about keeping her around for a while, given the medical needs of her diseased skin condition and her wonderfully sweet disposition. Problem is, she’s got a thing for freaking out the chickens and goats.

In fact, it’s gotten so that she likes to play "capture the chicken," by which she catches and slobbers all over the chicken's head until I tackle them both and retrieve the wayward chicken. I say "wayward" because neither chickens nor goats are supposed to be outside the fence-line that divides the back half-acre of my property from the front half. The dogs and cats rule the fore. Chickens and goats, the aft.

Here’s what I’ve done to ensure everyone’s continued adherence to my rule of law: The goats have a heavy-duty latch on their gate and the fence is anchored to the floor with heavy-duty spikes attached to a taut wire that seals the deal to the ground. Meanwile, the chickens have their wings clipped so they can’t scale the four-foot fence. There’s also a harmless bit of fishing line strung a few inches above the fence to keep would-be escapees inside. Problem is, a couple still manage to make it over every month or so. At which point I do another round of wing-clipping.

However, ever since the new girl arrived, the line between the front and back have become too close for comfort. Little Miss Pittie Mix likes to run the fence-line, scaring all my prey species half to death.

Though Slumdog and Vincent (my two dogs) have also been known to get annoying like this, the prey creatures don’t seem to take them very seriously. Not that I dismiss the impact even two smallish dogs can have on a pack/flock of easily stressed animals. But Miss Pinky clearly represents an impressive escalation of hostilities. Some kind of innate awareness tips my prey off to this particular predator’s more serious attitude — or perhaps to her prodigious skills (of which I do not doubt, were she to put her mind to it).

Now that you have the background, here’s the point of this post: All of this got me thinking about adding more fencing. Actually, I’d been thinking of my fencing situation long before Pinky. I mean, she’s a foster dog, after all. She’s temporary. Some healing, some education, and she’ll have a great new home. But my chickens and goats? They’ll probably always stress out over my permanent children.

But fencing is tough. I’m so done with all the chain link. Its epensive to do right, and it’s already showing its wear. Despite all the security measures I’ve taken, the dog-on-goat activity at the fenceline is tearing up its foundation. So what’s a stressed out animal caretaker to do?

Always take the dogs out on leashes. OK, so I’ve been doing that, ridiculous as it seems for an acre-owner. After all, I moved here so my animals would have the space they deserved and the personal "comfort" that implied.

Consider an "e-collar" (aka "electric collar") alternative. Yes, that includes the so-called "invisible fencing" solution. Done right, it keeps dogs from crossing boundaries they shouldn’t, once they've learned to associate crossing the boundary with a noxious stimulus — a low-grade electric shock. And yes, like you, I detest the concept on principle. Here’s why:

Dogs often won’t learn not to cross the boundary of your choice. Many will simply stress out over it. In other words, fearful, sensitive or slow-learning (read: especially stupid) dogs may never learn not to cross any given man-made boundary in response to an electric shock. They’ll just become more fearful in response.

It just seems wrong, this idea that we would consciously elicit pain in an animal in order to achieve a desired response. We’d never do that to our children, so why are we willing to subject our dogs to it?

Nonetheless, my experience with this equipment has offered me a not-too-popular perspective on the subject. Here’s my party line:

I say NO to "e-collars" and "invisible" fencing. There ARE some exceptions, including the prevention of injury (as with pools and the potential for drowning) or the prevention of injury to other animals (for dogs with a strong predatory drive).

Yet there are lots of caveats, even when it comes to these more extreme circumstances:

a. Adaptation to the device MUST be undertaken only by an experienced trainer/behaviorist.

b. Visible barriers should accompany the invisible barriers to keep dogs from associating the latter with something s/he sees beyond it (joggers/runners, cars, dogs, etc.).

c. Attention MUST be paid to the dog's reactions so that there's no pushing an animal to his/her psychological limits in service of the end goal (safety).

d. It’s critical to remember that it’s always far better to re-home a dog than to risk behaviorally maiming a dog forever. After all, the purpose is to achieve animal safety, not to kill an animal’s psyche. 

With this personal philosophy in mind (based on oodles of pro-and-con client/patient experience on the matter), I sought the opinion of Dee Hoult, a Miami-based trainer I’ve worked very well with in the past. Here’s what she had to say when I sent her an e-mail asking for her opinion:

I just finished working on a case where after almost a year of force-free training two dogs still just couldn't resist the [dangerous] urge to chase horses. The dogs have come a long way in terms of obedience, but on the off chance they did break focus, forget it––the poor horses were suffering. One horse ran clear through a fence, and that's when I turned to a colleague of mine who uses e-collars for Schutzhund work. I figured that if I had exhausted all force-free options that I might as well be trained by someone who knows what they're doing when it comes to using an e-collar. I would rather have to learn to use an e-collar appropriately then refer my client into the wrong hands.

Unfortunately, unless we are able to shape and modify the instincts of an animal into something more productive early on (in puppyhood), I hate to admit that sometimes we have to resort to things like e-collars for the sake of safety. And let’s face it, your normal novice, full-time employed dog owner doesn't have the time or desire to spend day after day modifying behavior, especially predatory aggression, towards other animals that live on the premise. Lack of owner compliance in following a strict behavior modification protocol is a reality that even the best positive reinforcement dog trainers face.

Yet morally, I had a big issue using an e-collar because, like you, I view myself as a positive-only proponent. So here’s my approach:

I'm totally against invisible fencing when there is a risk of the dog associating the barrier with passersby, kids, other types of animals (towards which they’d nomally have zero aggression). I once met a dog that had become so terrified of the fence line his owners had installed before consulting a professional that he wouldn't leave the property. If you even tried to carry him over or walk him past the line he would start screaming––and that just broke my heart.

The most important thing to remember when using any kind of e-collar is that you have to first teach your dog what it means. You can't just put it on and wait for them to get zapped — that's downright mean. When used properly, e-collars are not to be used as punishment, and should always be used at low levels. If you ever want to be able to take off the e-collar and [have] your dog still behave appropriately in the face of challenging situations, it's important to properly desensitize your dog to the collar first. This requires the dog wear the collar for an entire month before the first stimulation is ever experienced.

So invisible fence and e-collar users beware. If used improperly you risk being downright mean, or having a dog that really hasn't learned anything except that being zapped hurts. In fact, today I met a malinois that lunged at me when I picked up my car keys. Her owner said, "Oh, sorry about that. When she was a puppy we used a shock collar on her because she always tried to bite us. I think she thought your keys were the remote." UNBELIEVABLE!

No, not so unbelievable. I’ve seen worse. Which is why I’ve not yet decided which tack I’ll take with Miss Pinky. But one thing I am sure of is this: If I do elect for "invisible" fencing with the use of an e-collar, I will be availing myself of the services of an experienced trainer whose philosophy meshes well with mine before I take on the project, and I will not be willing to say "no" if it doesn’t work out for my own dogs.

I know you’ll have a lot to offer on this post. Pro or con, I don’t care. Recent posts have proved you're not shy. Let me have it if you think I deserve it.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: "Over the Garden Fence (dog style)" by OakleyOriginals