Electronic Pet Containment – The Battle Rages On

We live in some heated times here in the United States, if you haven’t noticed (an understatement). It doesn’t take much for Americans to be at each other’s throat. You want to start a fight on social media, it’s pretty easy to do. Pick any topic – politics, religious beliefs, stances on taking a knee at football games, the list goes on. But as a dog person, I’ve never seen more outright bashing of another human than when it comes to topics concerning dogs. These are the most zealotous of zealots. Top 10 topics that cause arguments between dog zealots are:

  1. Type of training technique (equipment used)
  2. What you feed your dog (raw vs. kibble)
  3. Type of heartworm treatment to use
  4. Ways to go about vaccinating your pet
  5. Crate or no crate
  6. Breeders vs rescues
  7. Spay/neuter or keep the dog intact
  8. Grooming techniques/styles
  9. Which flea/tick preventative to choose (holistic, topical, oral)
  10. Pet containment

This blog entry tackles the last one – pet containment, focusing on electronic fence systems. Everyone has an opinion about this, and this is mine based on personal experience. This is what I learned and how I learned it. I’m writing this because there are rescues who refuse to adopt out to people who have electronic fence containment systems, forcing potential adopters to go to breeders to get their next dog. Another side of the issue, anyone who is a member of their local pet “lost and found” page will see how many dogs that are found with their electronic fence collar still on them. What in the world is going on with this topic that we can’t get the truth communicated to the consumers and get dogs on a path to a safe, successful life? I’ll tell you why…it’s the dog version of the “Peyton Manning vs Tom Brady” conflict, and no one wants to touch it with a 10′ pole because of the blowback they’ll get. I’m going to break it down for you in this very detailed blog so that people can better educate themselves when considering any form of containment for their pet.

Let me start off by saying “no form of pet containment is perfect.”

  • People have fences and yet dogs still dig a hole under them and get out, or they learn to jump/climb over it, or someone leaves the gate open and they take off.
  • People have a complete, structurally fenced-in backyard as required by some rescues and the dog gets out the front door when company comes to visit, the kids don’t shut the door all the way when they go in or out, or the dog darts out between a person’s legs as they’re bringing in the groceries (no threshold control taught).
  • Even if you live in the middle of a 300 acre farm, your dog will still run off.
  • Dogs break through electronic fence because the battery in the collar is dead, or the power goes out, or the collar somehow comes off, or they build up enough nerve/or panic enough to run through it.
  • Dogs slip off their tie-out or pull the anchor out of the ground. Some dogs left on a tie-out have jumped over an object and hung themselves.
  • Dogs escape (dig under/go over) outdoor kennels.
  • Dogs slip out of collars and harnesses.
  • Owners accidentally drop the leash and the dog takes off down the street with leash in tow or with the big-honkin’ plastic flexi-leash “handle” apparatus bouncing off the pavement (making the dog run faster to get away from it as it hurls/retracting through the air towards the dog’s neck/face, scared to death).

All dogs can escape from each of these situations and get hit by a car/killed. Can we just end the superiority argument right here with one phrase: “JUST TRAIN YOUR DOG TO RECALL AND HAVE A RELATIONSHIP TO WHERE IT DOESN’T WANT TO BOLT AWAY FROM YOU AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT.” But if you refuse to do that (because you’d rather spend your time watching Netflix) and still need pet containment to establish a false sense of security, then read on.

First, I’d like to point you to Temple Grandin’s take on electronic fence. Keep in mind her book Animals in Translation was first published in 2005 (a fantastic book, by the way), so she is referring to the old style of electronic fence systems: Temple Grandin’s opinion on electronic fence systems

Many years ago when we got Jaxon (our Doberman), we lived in a neighborhood that didn’t allow fences. Jaxon was our first dog, it was our first house. Our house was situated on a very large, baseball diamond-shaped lot at the end of a cul-de-sac, it was private and awesome. The property line at the back wasn’t a straight, easy line across the back, it came to a point in a “V” – left side of the point was a wooded nature preserve, the right side was a huge berm surrounded by trees that had on the other side of it what turned out to be a very busy road back to a popular 800 acre park.

No fence allowed + dingy young Doberman + green dog owner + busy road back to massive park = Invisible Fence purchase.

The Invisible Fence installer/instructor we had was wonderful. He knew exactly how to set a dog up for success using Invisible Fence. After some assessment, he found the static correction level that was ideal for Jaxon (it’s not one level for all dogs. Back then there wasn’t as many levels as there are now, and Jaxon’s was on the low end. Tough dogs like Labs would be higher.) He suggested planting trees or installing flower gardens around the boundary so that Jaxon could easily see them as a marker to know when to stop/not go any further. He was honest with us when he said it would take a few weeks to teach Jaxon the fence – you can’t just throw the dog out there and expect it to figure it out. That means a few weeks of me actively walking Jaxon on a long line around the backyard, approaching the flags and saying, “NO!”, pulling/recalling him away from it and giving him a treat/praise for backing away from the flags. (They’ve changed this training technique – it has a far more positive approach now.) This teaches the dog that when they hear the tone, they are to get out of that area and go into the safe zone. People assume the dog just gets shocked, boom, done, but in fact a properly trained dog to the fence allows the dog to avoid a correction. Of the 4 years we lived at that property with Invisible Fence, Jaxon only got through it once (he got spooked over something and we still can’t figure out what it was. Steve swears it had to have been a Sasquatch.) This isn’t quite the instruction we received, but you get the idea: Introduce Dog To Fence Boundary

So here’s the part the militant animal rights activists are waiting for…

The Pitfalls of Electronic Fence

  • The worst feature of electronic fence, regardless of the brand, is it doesn’t keep things out of your yard. Your dog is NOT protected. Anything can come in and mess with, tease, kill, or steal your dog. Here are a few stories:
    • A German Shepherd owner called me horribly upset. They kept their GSD outside on their electronic fence while they were at work during the day (I know, I know…we’ll get to the Dos and Don’ts of electronic fence in a minute). Neighbor’s Chihuahua was running loose in the neighborhood and came into the GSD’s yard, charged the dog, GSD won. The Chihuahua was killed. The Chihuahua owner, knowing full well the animal control ordinances and leash laws (and like many people we all know, somehow he thinks he is above said laws), was furious and talked openly about suing. Chihuahua owner started a grassroots effort with other neighbors to spread rumors and get them on their side to go after the GSD owner (or at the very least turn them against them socially). The GSD owner whose dog never left their property and was obeying pet containment laws was demonized. Kinda hard to live in a neighborhood after something like that happens, would you agree?
    • Dog thieves wait for you to put your $2,500 English Bulldog puppy or $1,500 Labradoodle puppy outside on electronic fence so they can easily run up to your unfenced/zero obstacle yard and swipe your dog, sell it on CL or a FB yardsale group. (See my Dog Flipper blog if you want to be horrified.)
    • Watch this video (excuse the language) and tell me how insulting it is to the two brown dogs that reside on this property when the black and white dog freely takes a dump (totally “in their face” marking) in their own territory. Can you blame them for their reaction? Would you like it if your neighbor came over and destroyed your master bath with their BMs on a daily basis?
    • Check out this article where a dog was attacked by a deer: Wheaten Terrier mix on electronic fence attacked by deer

 

  •  All the research on dog aggression/anxiety (read Temple’s book segment if you haven’t already) and overall poor behavior, and not one trainer or vet behaviorist asks if your dog has electronic fence in the front yard. What do the majority of electronic fence owners do? Put the line all the way up to the sidewalk where stimuli goes directly past, i.e. people walking dogs, children on scooters/bikes/skateboards, joggers moving quickly, trash guys stop to (loudly) collect trash at the curb, mailman puts mail in the mailbox, etc. (I have to take a minute to say – I feel so bad for mail carriers that have to put a package on the front porch of a house with a dog on electronic fence in the front yard. Every time I see that, I stop and watch how they handle it. These are the world’s true canine behaviorists. Did you know that the mail/package delivery drivers are educated on how to handle this exact situation? Ask any UPS, FedEx, USPS, DHL delivery person you know if they have a dog bite story – believe me, what comes out of their mouth will give you a whole new perspective on what they deal with on the job.) I was the typical electronic fence customer and had it in my front yard to maximize Jaxon’s use of my yard, and Jaxon was going ape. That’s when I met my training mentor, Sam (who hates electronic fences because it’s yet another tool for lazy people to not develop a proper relationship with their dog), and at the start of our training said, “IF you’re going to use electronic fence, never put it in the front yard. Have the guy come out and pull it back from the street to where it only allows Jaxon to stay in the backyard. And ask yourself why you would want your dog to live in a constant state of anxiety?” Jaxon adored hiding behind bushes and then darting out and barking his head off at people walking around the neighborhood for exercise; one person in particular, a very pregnant woman who Jaxon almost scared so bad she darn near went into labor right there in the cul-de-sac. It was awful, and being a green dog owner I couldn’t stop him from doing it. This creates an ingrained aggressive/anxious response to stimuli, and typically the owner is never outside to control the dog and therefore the dog is making their own house rules. Here I was struggling at the start of training with Sam because I was telling Jaxon that suddenly his house rules didn’t apply. Rerouting the Invisible Fence wasn’t too tough – I had to retrain him, set up the flags again, removing every other one for weeks (left one or two in the landscaping so he never forgot it had been shifted back), until he finally learned the new boundary. So he was punking people out in the front yard, what kind of behavior do you think he was doing when I took him for a walk? Exact same. He always had anxiety in training class, then I pulled the Invisible Fence line back to the backyard and it made a notable difference in his behavior/stress levels. I know there are pro-electronic fence dog owners out there thinking this is ridiculous, but next time you’re out walking around your neighborhood with your dog, watch closely which neighbor dogs are the ones that your personal dog alerts to/doesn’t trust when you approach their house. Your dog already knows the front yards that have electronic fence. (The neighbor dogs I dog-sit/walk approach with caution the same exact yards that my dogs/fosters do!) You’ll see your dog start to look at that front yard a few houses down as if to say, “is that crazy dog outside today?” And if they are outside, notice how they are going from side to side, barking their fool head off, chest puffed out, daring your “Red Rover To Come Over” that electronic fence line. Here is a blog written by a dog walker, my experiences have been identical.  (Note: these yards are excellent training grounds if you’re working on your dog’s reactivity to aggressive dogs. If your dog can sail past one of these dogs on electronic fence with zero reaction and total focus on you/their handler, you can pass the CGC. Caution: The building of anxiety could very well cause the dog to dart through it in an adrenaline rush and bite, so use caution.) Examples of electronic fence stress/anxiety:
    • This guy (who is probably the nicest guy in the world for all we know) is showing how well his electronic fence works with his GSDs. But look at the face/body language of both dogs. Listen to the sounds they’re making. What happens if he keeps teasing them by petting the cat (prey in these dogs’ eyes) and then the cat crosses the electronic fence line? Mincemeat, guaranteed. By the way, a stray cat knew exactly where Jaxon’s Invisible Fence boundary was and would sit outside of it and groom itself, just to tease him. That didn’t help his opinions of cats, and made his anxiousness go through the roof. https://youtu.be/dGaUGbeeE7U
    • Dogs are territorial animals, but the breeds that are exceptionally keen to their territory (like Jaxon who was a Doberman) have a particularly wild time on electronic fence in the front yard: https://youtu.be/WQ2ODyJT6P0

 

  • No battery backup on some brands if there’s a power outage. Dogs are keenly aware of their surroundings and know when there’s a power outage. I was in a Walgreens close to my house one day after a thunderstorm. Evidently I had just missed some commotion and the cashiers were laughing at something. I asked what got them so tickled, and they said, “there are these two Labradors that live in the neighborhood directly behind our store that are on electronic fence. When the power goes out, they instantly know it, and we can expect them to waltz through our automatic doors any minute. The moment they come in they are soooo happy to see us! It’s like they say, ‘power is out, time to go to Walgreens!'” The owners are lucky they typically head over to Walgreens instead of crossing the dangerous highway that runs right along the store.

 

For this article, I interviewed Carol, the franchise owner of Invisible Fence in Southern Indiana. It was a fascinating phone call. She caught me up on the latest technology that Invisible Fence has to offer. (Feel free to call them anytime if you have questions.) The Invisible Fence brand of electronic fencing is expensive, and there’s a good reason why that is – you get what you pay for. Here are a few points that will help those anti-electronic fence people better understand the concept of pet containment (and if you’re considering electronic pet containment, this is a good foundation to begin your research).

Invisible Fence brand of electronic fencing:

  • Come out and interview you and your dog. If your dog is aggressive, or if you aren’t going to train your dog to the product, then you don’t get their product installed. They will not set a dog up for failure, nor will they put the public at risk. Not all dogs/owners pass their test for installation (much like we rescues don’t just adopt a dog to any home, we match the dog to the adopter to ensure success.) But pretty much anyone can buy the electronic fencing at the store without a care if the dog is dangerous and without training the dog to it at all/hope the dog figures it out on its own. 
  • Come out and train you and your dog. Back in the day we got 2 sessions, now you get 3-5 sessions with a trainer. They start by using a trash can (something the dog should be avoiding) and start the boundary/communication process with that, then transfer it to the yard. If that sounds too complex (it’s really not), there are options available where you can have the trainer take the dog out into the yard and train it for you if you don’t think you can train the dog yourself. They keep coming out and make sure it works. The technology tells them when your dog tests the boundary so they can track it and use that information in the training. There’s a warranty, they are invested in making sure it works. If you buy the electronic fence products at the store, you do not get any of these features. You get what you pay for.
  • Spend a lot of time working with you and your dog. Many years ago when Jaxon was trained to Invisible Fence, there were only a few hundred combinations of warning beeps/static corrections. Today there are thousands of combinations that can be tailored to the dog. The trainer finds the correct level to set your dog (often starts out low, and over time will come out and adjust the level if needed), versus the dog owner with the cheap store-bought, self-installed electronic fencing that only has a handful of settings (in my research I’ve found products ranging from 5 levels of correction to 99 levels). When it comes to the store-bought versions, desperate owners crank the correction up to the highest level and don’t care what kind of damage they do to the dog. (Which is why electronic fencing is illegal in some countries.)
  • Years ago, if the dog got out, it couldn’t get back in. That feature has been fixed so the dog can cross back into its yard no problem. This is not the case for the store-bought electronic fencing (which is why you see so many dogs running loose with pet containment collars on them.)
  • Invisible Fence has battery backup in the case of a power outage. Others do not.

 

Electronic Fence Dos and Don’ts

  1. Do NOT just throw the dog out there with some flags and expect it to figure it out. They NEED TRAINING to understand the boundary. Otherwise you will get dogs too afraid to leave the porch, as seen in this dog trainer’s break/fix video where he has to rehab a poorly trained electronic fence dog (note: I’m not condoning his training technique AT ALL, wow): Electronic Fence Gone Bad
  2. Do NOT put electronic fence in the front yard. Just encircle the back yard away from stimuli to allow your dog to use the front yard as the buffer zone to anything that might overstimulate it.
  3. Do NOT leave your dog outside on electronic fence while you’re gone, ever. Just like leaving it on a tie-out in a wide-open yard, anything can happen to it.
  4. DO keep an eye on your dog while it’s outside on electronic fence. Never trust that your back yard is perfectly safe from anything coming in to harm your dog (as you read the stories above).
  5. DO plant flower gardens, trees, bushes around the boundaries so your dog can easily see the property line. This plays a huge factor in making the training a success. Dogs do think, “don’t go past that bush, okay got it.”
  6. Do NOT install electronic fence if you have an aggressive dog. You are begging for a catastrophe.
  7. Do NOT install electronic fence if your dogs are intact. Heat cycles draw in dogs from all over, and if your intact female dog is out there alone, what do you think is going to happen….she’ll blow a rape whistle and you’ll come running? Wrong, they’re animals, they’re designed to reproduce, you have to be smarter than the hormones. Or get your dog fixed.
  8. DO make sure you go with a product that has some kind of power backup in case there’s a power outage.
  9. If your dog chews through collars, then electronic fencing probably isn’t going to work for you since the collar has to stay on them.
  10. DO make sure you get into a solid routine and install batteries/charge batteries for the collar unit on a regular basis.

 

Do I adopt out to homes with electronic fence? It all depends on the dog, and it definitely depends on the adopter’s intelligence, competence, and property setup/design. I have them walk me through how they will train the dog to their yard . As well, it helps if the foster dog has electronic fence knowledge from their previous home. I’ve rejected many adopters with electronic fence (as I will probably get angry emails now that I wrote this saying, “HEY! You rejected my application but then you go and write this!”), but I have adopted a handful of dogs out to homes that have the perfect setup/design where the dog will be successful and safe.

Electronic fence isn’t perfect pet containment. But that’s because nothing is. The only thing that might be closest to perfect is a structured, solid privacy fence coupled with Invisible Fence to make sure fence jumpers/climbers/diggers can’t get out, but people who go to those lengths and spend that kind of money to protect their dog are few and far between. And still, that would probably not keep in the high-drive working dogs like the gun dog breeds, or dogs in heat that are determined to seek out a mate. People typically settle for tie-out, electronic fence, taking the dog out on a leash, or just have the dog use pee pads to avoid letting them outside at all (ugh, don’t get me started). And reality is, less than 1% of dog owners train their dog beyond the “kitchen sits” (which isn’t training, I call that a trick – that’s not muscle memory or considered “relationship building” at all; the dog is just performing a quick little task). In a perfect world, all dog owners would have turn-on-a-dime recall with their dogs, but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in. If the majority of dog owners are just going to do the bare minimum with our dogs, you need to know the facts.  And if you’re a rescue that’s going to deny a good, skilled adopter the adoption of a dog that needs a home, you need to educate yourself as to why.

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