Underground Fence Systems--Are They Safe for my Dog?

One of the most important decisions a dog owner can make is how to safely confine their pet when outdoors. Because of the frequently cost-prohibitive nature of traditional fencing, more and more owners are turning to underground or electric fencing systems. Before making this decision, consider the following points:

1. E-fences do not protect your pet from roaming neighborhood dogs or wildlife. While meandering, potentially aggressive, or unhealthy dogs may enter your yard, your dog does not have the freedom to leave, putting your pet at increased risk of attack or disease. Traditional, barrier-type fences prevent most unwanted visitors from entering your yard.

2. E-fences do not protect your pet from people who may harm them. Your pet may easily fall victim to people with bad intentions—from pet thieves to children who enjoy your pet’s reaction to their teasing. While the safest place for your pet when you’re away is inside your home, traditional fences with securely padlocked gates add an extra measure of protection for your pet when left outdoors.

3. E-fences do not protect you from the liability of your pet biting or otherwise harming adults, children, or roaming pets. Think how your neighbor would feel if Fluffy the Toy Poodle or Sylvester the kitty became your pet’s personal favorite squeaky toy… Many states do not recognize e-fences as a sufficient form of confinement, so if Bones accidentally knocks down the neighbor or scratches the toddler next door, you may find yourself open to unwelcome legal proceedings. Even the friendliest dog may unintentionally cause harm…

4. E-fences may not deter your pet from leaving the yard—but may deter him from returning. Many dogs eventually decide that the thrill of chasing passers-by, or the fun of joining up with a few patrolling pooches makes the zap of the e-collar worthwhile. Many Labradors are so essentially immune to the tweak of the collar that they will happily take that tweak to chase a cat, loose dog, or skateboarder. Other high-drive, easily bored dogs who may be willing to take the zap in exchange for freedom include German Shepherds, Huskies and other Northern breeds, members of the Sight Hound family, Beagles and other hounds at the mercy of their incredible noses, many hunting breeds, and, finally, many members of the herding family who are on the look-out for something to corral.

Unfortunately, many of the dogs willing to take that zap in exchange for a few hours of freedom, are not quite as happy about the experience when it’s time to come home. Remember, your pet will receive a shock crossing the barrier to come back into the containment zone. With the thrill of the chase already over, many dogs simply will not risk the zap to come home.

5. All animals are born with the “fight or flight” impulse. In simple terms, when confronted with a frightening situation, animals have two primary options—fight, or confronting the perceived danger, or flight, running as far and as fast from the area as possible. “Fight or fight” is not a conscious decision. It’s an instinctive reaction.

The “stim” or zap from the collar of an e-fence can and does invoke the flight response in many dogs. Rather than facing an enemy that can’t be seen, running is an appropriate, self-preserving response.

Does this happen? Yes, it does. My Smooth Collie, Ally, lost a littermate to the shock of an invisible fence. This silly adolescent male puppy absent-mindedly crossed the boundary line of his yard. Upon receiving the unexpected shock, he took off running. After hours of running, he ran in front of a large truck, breaking his back.

6. E-fences can contribute to a wide variety of behavior problems. While in an ideal world, dogs would only associate the correction of the collar with crossing their invisible boundary line, we cannot guarantee that the boundary is truly what their cute little pea-brains connect to the shock.

One area that may become problematic for dogs contained within e-fences is housetraining. Have you ever watched your dog choose its potty spot? A majority of dogs choose an area as far from their playing and living area as possible—the far corner of the yard or far opposite side of the yard seem ideal to Bones because of his highly developed instinct to keep his living area clean. So, now we have Bones, highly distracted by his full bladder, following nature’s imperative to move away from his house. Because of the distraction of his bladder, he doesn’t notice that his tail is hanging over his invisible boundary line. The result? A correction for peeing outside! Bones has just learned that going potty outside may not be safe—better to find a safe place in the dining room or behind the bed in the guest room.

Another potential behavioral issue that may arise from containment within an e-fence is aggression toward both human and animal passers-by. Your pet will be tempted to either greet or warn-off people or animals walking or perhaps riding past your yard. As in the potty-training example, Fido may be too excited or distracted by the person passing by to realize that he is nearing or has crossed his invisible boundary. The result may be a painful zap Fido associates with people, rather than with the boundary line. Fido will be less than happy to see people approaching the next time, so aggressively warning them to stay away from him will seem like a very reasonable idea to him. Unfortunately, most of us live in neighborhoods with people who will be less than happy with Fido’s reaction to their passing. Obviously, we never want to teach pet dogs that people may cause them pain.

While these examples may seem to be nothing more than a remote possibility, they are listed here because of actual behavioral cases that I have treated—multiple times. 

7. The collar your dog must wear as a part of an e-fence system may cause injury to your pet.  While these collars are relatively safe, E-collars have been known to short circuit, causing severe burns to the neck area of many dogs.  If you choose this form of containment, be sure to check the collar on a daily basis to ensure a proper fit and that it hasn't shorted out or caused burns to your pet's neck.  Be especially vigilant if your pet wades or swims while wearing the collar or is outdoors where the collar may become wet from rain.

With all of the potential downfalls of electronic or underground fencing, we rarely recommend it as a form of confinement to our clients. While we do recognize that many dogs have enjoyed a great deal of freedom because of e-fences, we still feel that the risk to your pet’s safety and well-being make the fences a less than desirable alternative to traditional fencing. They are absolutely inappropriate for dogs with fear issues, or any form of aggression.

We do recognize that occasionally e-fences are the only option because of neighborhood covenants, logistical considerations such as lakefront property, or finances. We suggest contacting your trainer before installing an e-fence to discuss whether it would be appropriate for your particular pet, to determine the safest area to contain within the boundary, and to develop a training program which also utilizes positive reinforcement during the training period. While e-fence companies by far and large do a very good job educating their installers, they may not be as well versed as a professional trainer on canine learning and behavior. Ask your trainer to go through the training program recommended by the installation company with you to help tailor the program for your dog’s specific needs.