How to make sure you are using your invisible fence correctly!
DON'T DO IT
Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
Alright, I apologize if that answer was a bit glib. I apologize even more if you came to this page genuinely looking for information about using invisible fences, including pros and cons, so please allow me to defend myself and my view point.
When I am talking about invisible fences I am talking specifically about electric fences where there is a buried wire, and if your dog attempts to cross the boundary they are delivered a shock in an attempt to keep them in. There are many brands of these fences out there, but they're all the same as far as I'm concerned.
So, let's go over some pros and cons for electric fences.
Allowed in most HOAs
It pains me to admit any potential "pros" for electric fences, but unfortunately there are some; if there weren't they would be obsolete. Lots of people like the look of a wide open yard, unhindered by fencing. I totally get that. But it goes without saying, this should not be your number one priority when it comes to containing your dogs. Prioritizing how your yard looks over your dog's safety and emotional well being is not the right choice.
The next pro is convenience; when I say convenience I mean that it's more convenient for humans than the alternative options. Typically, if you do not have a fence around your yard you have to put in extra work on a recall, use long lines, tethers, and tie outs to manage, and you can't just "let the dog out" without thinking. I get it, it is inconvenient to have to deal with that!
The last two pros are the price of electric fences, and that they are allowed even in most Home Owners Associations. Electric fences are, unfortunately, less expensive than real, physical fences. That's true, objectively, so you're not gonna get arguments out of me there. And they are permitted by most HOA's, which sometimes puts owners in a rough place where they feel they have no choice because they do not allow physical fencing.
Alright, now for the cons:
Increased risk of aggression
Increased risk of noise aversion
Increased risk of barrier frustration
Increased risk of fear in the yard
Safety for your dog
Safety for your neighborhood
Not fool proof
The number one, most critical reason that I advise against using electric fences are those first four points. Using electric shock to contain your dog inside of your yard can often cause behavior problems or exacerbate existing behavior problems; I would also posit that it almost ALWAYS causes a decrease in overall general welfare for the dog, as coercion and compulsion are known to do. This is me speaking anecdotally from what I see day in and day out, but the vast majority of dogs I work with who have been trained on an electric fence started to develop behavior problems soon after the fence was installed and they were "trained" to it.
Dogs can easily associate the shock of the fence/collar with something other than your intended association. The goal is that your dog learns that when they approach the boundary they will be delivered a shock, which will keep your dog clear of the boundary. HOWEVER, since dogs don't speak English and we can't sit down and explain this process to them, it's possible that your dog learns other, unintended associations with the shock, which can cause severe and sometimes scary behavior problems down the road.
I have met dogs who developed a generalized fear of their entire yard because they were shocked ONCE. In these cases there's often a total regression in terms of the dog's potty training; the dog starts to soil in the house because they associated the entire yard with the shock, not their behavior of approaching the fence line, and they are afraid to go out in their yard for potty breaks.
I have met dogs who became afraid of any and all beeping noises (the microwave going off, a truck backing up) because they learned that beeping predicts the shock. This fear of one sound can generalize to fear of new and changing sounds, and I have seen owners end up with dogs with generalized noise phobias that started with just that beeping.
Lastly, I have met dogs that learned that someone or something approaching the fence line (a person, kid on a bike, other dogs, etc.) causes the shock, and that they should be defensive and aggressive towards whatever that "thing" is. What starts as happy, affiliative approaches where the dog wants to say "hi" turns into dogs barking, lunging, and behaving aggressively in an effort to make the "bad" thing go away and hopefully prevent what, in their minds, causes the shock. Again, your dog has no idea why they're getting shocked, it's a guessing game for them. So unintended emotional fallout is a very likely result.
Does this type of emotional trauma happen every time? No, I'd be lying if I said it did. But it's not a risk I would ever take with a member of my family.
Using invisible fences, especially in the front yard, and allowing your dog to constantly run up and down the unseen boundary can also cause pretty significant barrier frustration, which sometimes lead to aggressive behavior due to the stress that constantly seeing something and not getting access to it can cause.
When it comes to safety, electric fences are NOT it. With no physical barrier, electric fences do not prevent anything or anyone (other people, other dogs, coyotes, other wildlife) from entering your yard, so when your dog is in their yard and potentially scared or threatened by something else they feel stuck and have no option to "flee" because of the fence.
Lastly, despite what the companies who sell electric fences say, electric fences are NOT fool proof. Plenty of dogs will run through the electric boundary in pursuit of prey or other highly motivating things, "taking" the shock, and then once they've chased the squirrel up a tree, if you're lucky they want to return to the yard and they're faced with the option of "taking" the shock again to go back into the yard, or just hang outside of the boundary line, which is obviously not a safe option. Guess which one dogs will choose?
Alright, so there ARE pros to electric fences. And there are very obvious cons. But the real question is: are those pros more valuable to you then your dog's mental and emotional well being? Because that's a very real thing that needs to be considered.
Are you willing to play Russian roulette with your dog's emotional welfare?
If you feel stuck because physical fencing isn't an option financially or for the location where you're at, please do not despair! There are certainly other options available, it just takes some creative thinking, and luckily Kristi Benson, an amazing dog trainer and behavior pro in Canada, has assembled a comprehensive, creative list of options to use if you don't want to use electric fencing: http://www.kristibenson.com/blog/2019/11/4/good-alternatives-to-e-fencing-dog-training-experts-weigh-in
I understand completely why folks use electric fencing, and I also think that the companies that sell this product are intentionally dishonest with their customers, which is absolutely unforgivable. But there are other options out there, and while it may not be super convenient to use these other solutions, your dog will thank you for it.