Why Invisible Fences Don’t Work

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Published: May 16, 2018

Invisible fences for dogs are advertised as being a relatively inexpensive way to give dogs safe access to the outdoors, but is that actually the case? Let’s look at the dangers associated with invisible fences and some better options that give dogs the freedom and enrichment they need.

What Is an Invisible Fence?

I am using the term “invisible fence” to refer to any containment system that includes a border created by a buried wire, a transmitter and a receiver collar that can produce audible signals and electric shocks. Many different brands and models are available, but they all work on the same theory—that dogs can be trained to avoid crossing a boundary when they  hear a warning beep followed by an electric shock if they fail to turn back. Often the strength of the electric shock can be turned up or down to suit the dog’s responsiveness.

What Can Go Wrong With an Invisible Fence?

As a veterinarian, I’ve observed five common problems associated with invisible fences.

1. Dogs put up with the shock when the “reward” is great enough.

Even at the highest settings, the shock collar will not always stop highly motivated dogs from running past the boundary. If your dog loves to chase rabbits or really wants to play with the other dog walking past your yard, a few seconds of pain is a small price to pay.

2. The system can malfunction—sometimes with the dog’s help.

The collar runs on batteries, which, of course, will eventually wear out, but even if you are meticulous about checking on the functioning of your system, some dogs learn to outsmart it. I personally know of one Border Collie who would sit within the “beep zone” until her collar’s batteries worn out and then calmly stroll out of the yard.

3. The prongs on the collar can injure the skin.

An invisible fence collar delivers shocks through two prongs that need to be in close contact with the skin. Manufacturers typically recommend that these collars be removed regularly to prevent skin injury, but even so, dogs have been known to develop nasty wounds and infections. Longhair breeds are at an especially high risk.

4. Invisible fences do not prevent outsiders from coming in.

Wild animals, cats, other dogs or even people (especially children) can easily wander into your yard, which can result in injuries to everyone involved. Invisible fences also do little to protect dogs from being stolen or harmed by people with bad intentions.

5. Electric shocks can induce fear, anxiety and aggression.

While the goal of the invisible fence is to teach dogs to associate discomfort with approaching a boundary, some dogs fail to make that link. They may connect the pain they experience with something else going on at the time—like a person walking by—and subsequently be afraid of and/or aggressive towards passersby. When dogs see the shocks as random events, it’s not unusual for them to develop generalized anxiety.

Alternatives to Using an Invisible Fence for Dogs

A physical fence is usually the safest option for allowing dogs to safely explore the outdoors. There are many options ranging from large, imposing and expensive full-yard fences to smaller enclosures that are more inconspicuous and cost less. If putting up a physical fence is not possible, teach your dog the difference between going outside on a leash for a quick potty break and going on a longer walk through the neighborhood for fun. Dog parks offer great opportunities for off-leash enrichment for well-socialized dogs. When your dog must be home alone, break out the dog chew toys and dog puzzles and place a comfy chair or bed in front of a window.

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