The Problem With Electric Fences
I was exercising a client's dog last weekend, enjoying the peaceful morning sun and appreciating the dog's calm, relaxed energy. When all of the sudden, I was rudely jolted from my blissful state by a crazed little Yorkie bounding toward us at full speed, barking like a banshee. Didn't take me long to realize that the poor little guy was contained via the modern day canine torture device known as the electric fence. This highly over-stimulated pooch would race toward the edge of the yard, get a shock, leap up and backwards in the air and repeat this dance of insanity over and over and over. My heart went out to him, because after all, he's just being a dog. But if I could have had some words with the owner...well....this is what I would have said.
Electric fences are one of the best ways to increase your dog's chances of becoming high strung, overly excitable, highly reactive, poorly socialized and consistently stressed. Sound good? Hope not! Electric fences were created in order to give dogs "freedom" to roam in a contained area without the necessity of a fence or gate, or supervision. Good in theory, horrible in practice. A dog contained by an electric fence is provided with almost constant stimulation - cars driving by, people walking past, dogs, squirrels, sounds, smells, SO MUCH! Providing stimulation is a wonderful thing to do for your dog, but only if you also provide an appropriate outlet for releasing that energy. With an electric fence, dogs will become increasingly frustrated as they are repeatedly prevented from getting that all important release. They see the person, but are not allowed to greet them. They see the other dog, but are not allowed to sniff each other or play. They see the squirrel on the other side of the street, but all they can do is stand there and watch anxiously as the little creature calmly goes about his business. This equates to one big tease for the poor dog and is very detrimental to their mental balance. When a dog is consistently over-stimulated in this way, it contributes to chronic stress and all kinds of problem behaviors can result.
One of these problem behaviors is aversive reactions to people and/or other dogs. Dogs that spend a lot of time in yards with an electric fence are inevitably going to observe many people out walking their dogs on a daily basis. Say Spot wants to go over and greet these two friendly strangers, or perhaps he is a bit more on the territorial side, and decides to march right up to the edge of his domain and let them know who's boss. Spot is simply following his instincts, and out of nowhere - ZZZTTTTT!. He has no way of making sense of this mysterious sensation, other than equating it with the presence of the human, dog or both. When this interaction is repeated over and over, a strong association begins to develop, and now we have a dog that associates strange dogs and/or people with the negative experience of being shocked. If Spot exhibited territorial, anti-social, fearful or aggressive behaviors to begin with, you can bet that those behaviors are going to get worse...probably much worse.
Another reason why I do not condone electric fences is because typically the dog is left outside unsupervised. This can be problematic, particularly if you are dealing with a dog that has any kind of behavioral issues to begin with. Leaving a dog unsupervised provides countless opportunities for negative behaviors to be reinforced. The more these behaviors are repeated, the stronger they become, and the harder they are to replace with more appropriate behaviors. So let's say that I have a dog, we'll call him Tiger, who gets hypermanic and works himself into a frenzy every time he sees a cat. I am working Tiger through a desensitization program in order to change his state of mind when he is in the presence of cats. In order for the desensitization program to be effective, I have to be able to control EVERY interaction that Tiger has with a cat. So if I'm putting him outside on an electric fence every day while I'm doing housework inside, and there are cats roaming around in front of him, I've put Tiger in a situation that I cannot control, and it is highly likely that the negative behavioral and mental patterns will be reinforced. So it becomes extremely counter-intuitive to my training efforts.
There is also the issue that all too often in my line of work, I find that people are using "outside time" as an alternative to structured exercise. When I ask how much the dog is exercised daily, I'm told "Oh, he's outside all day long in the back, he gets plenty of exercise!" Any dog trainer worth their salt will tell you that this doesn't count as exercise. Structured exercise includes things like walking, running or biking your dog, agility work, lure coursing with a tool such as a flirt pole, having the dog carry or pull something, etc. There are tons of activities that count as structured exercise - the key thing is that the dog is required to focus and work within a controlled situation. Structured exercise will ultimately help calm and relax the dog because it fulfills the dog's needs on many levels, while "outside time" will stimulate the dog's mind and senses, and ultimately make him more restless.
Sadly, it seems that the electric fence was created with people's needs more in mind than the dog's. So if you are considering buying an electric fence, or if you already have one, do yourself and your pup a favor and go for a nice long walk instead. You'll both be healthier for it, and you'll get some good quality time together. What's not to love about that?
Christine Fasan is the head trainer and canine behaviorist for K9 Holistics. She specializes in German Shepherd Dogs and healing reactivity in dogs of all breeds. K9 Holistics offers dog training and behavior modification in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County. We also offer pet care services including dog walking and pet sitting. Please contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org