Ask a Dog Trainer: Electric Fencing

I live out in the country on acreage and have two small dogs that have a habit of running for the road (about 100 yards away) when they are outside. If I see them head down the driveway and whistle, they will come back but if I am inside or busy working outside, sometimes I don’t see them before they are gone. We lost a dog last year when he got hit by a car on the road and I don’t want this to happen to these two. What can I do to keep them off the road? Would one of those electronic fences work?

This is a good question and one I hear frequently in our area. There are several options to try before you consider an electronic fence.

Rule #1: Dogs should not be loose out of doors without supervision of family members. Dogs are like small children. They are easily distracted by anything and everything, even a butterfly or piece of paper. The best trained dog can get distracted when it is loose and running and has no boundaries or limits.

 Rule #2: Teach your dog a Really Reliable Recall – to come when called, the first time called, every time he is called. This is a   recall only used in emergencies that everyone in the family should know and be able to use.

 Rule #3: Use environmental management. Kennels, runs and fences work wonders. They are more permanent and reliable than other options and you do not have to cause your dog pain to use them. You do have to train them.

 So, why not an electric fence as an environmental management tool? As a trainer I have several concerns about electric fencing.

First          The dog learns nothing. In the absence of the fence the dog will still run away. What a shame if you rely on the fence and it fails for some reason. The websites I reviewed all state that lightening storms and anything else that causes power surges can disrupt the fence.

Second      Owners relax. You think you have a guaranteed method. You don’t. See my first point.

Third       You have to cause your dog pain in order to set up the process. Don’t kid yourselves. It is an electric shock and it is an electric shock that has to stop a dog in its tracks when it is running and excited. When dogs are revved up their adrenalin starts to flow the same way it does for long-distance runners. When adrenalin flows pain is not felt in the same way. Runners talk about going through the pain. For dogs, if they were in a fight they could not stop and feel pain – their lives depend on it. So, the pain threshold goes way up. That means if the dog is really running out toward the fence and excited and pumping adrenalin the shock just has to be that much greater.

Fourth    You have to create fear in dog in order to set up the process. The dog learns that the barrier causes pain. They become afraid of it and stay away. They do not learn to ‘respect’ boundaries or anything like that. Dogs do not think that way. Unfortunately anything else that is going on at the time the dog gets the shock might get caught up in the fear. We once had a puppy that came to class happily. When he went to leave the first time a huge noisy truck came past and startled the dog. He ran back inside and after an hour of trying to get him back outside the owner carried him (and he was a big puppy) out to the car.

This continued the next couple of weeks. The puppy has associated going out the door with the big scary noise so even when the noise wasn’t there he was still fearful. We started doing some specific work with him and eventually he ‘unlearned’ his fear and was OK after that. What a shame if you get a fence and the dog gets its first shock while close to your kids and learns ‘the kids did it’.

Fifth         Punishment doesn’t work. Electric fences are punishment. Punishment is something that happens (something bad – an aversive) to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour, for example, the puppy piddles on the floor so you spank her. Most dog owners have already figured out that spanking a puppy, particularly long after the piddle occurred, doesn’t work. Why? Because punishment doesn’t work.

Karen Pryor is a trainer who is internationally known for developing the process of using a mark and reward (Clicker) scheme for training. For forty years she has been one of the world’s leading experts on training. She describes punishment this way;

“Suppose we have punished a child, or a dog, or an employee for some behavior, and the behavior occurs again. Do we say, “Hmm, punishment isn’t working; let’s try something else”? No. We escalate the punishment. If scolding doesn’t work, try a slap” (Pryor, 1984, p. 112).

Trainers hear this a lot. “I tell him no but he still does it, so I tried smacking his bum and he is still doing it. What should I do   now”? What should the owner do? With punishment there isn’t an option but to escalate. What do you try next, hit the dog harder? Hit it with a stick?

What happens if you invest in the electric fence (a punisher) and the first time the dog moves away from it. You think – terrific I got this nailed. The second time the dog doesn’t move away as quickly. Do you increase the shock? What if the dog is running so hard and fast, likely more of a problem for large dogs, and it breaks through the shock? What next?

Sixth       Children and others can get in.  Dogs that are confined may become territorial. They are already possibly stressed and worried about the perimeter of the yard because that is where the shock is. A stranger coming in might just push them too far. An article from a sheltie rescue in Jacksonville FL describes an incident in which a little girl was severely bitten and the dog was destroyed. It concludes with.” But what you can’t argue with is that invisible fencing is basically no protection at all, especially when it is run up to your property lines. It doesn’t protect your dog from animals entering the yard. It doesn’t protect your dog from humans entering the yard. It leaves your dog to do the protecting. And while that little girl, now awaiting plastic surgery, might have petted a dog through a ‘real’ fence and still been bitten, it is doubtful that it would have been her face that was damaged”.

There are other problems that could have contributed to this story. Shocked dogs are often stressed dogs and stress causes a whole series of other issues. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviour has an article about punishment and stress. Connect here Link and click on Punishment and Alternatives or check out Pamela Dennison’s article about the unanticipated effect of creating fearful and neurotic dogs (link below).

All in all, I encourage you to think very carefully before you purchase an electric fence. I reviewed several companies’ websites and the reports are all positive. But keep in mind they are in the business of selling a product no matter how much they say they are in the business of helping dogs. Check out not only the glowing reports from the companies but other sites that provide different perspectives.


Pryor, K. (1984). Don’t shoot the dog: the new art of teaching and training. Toronto, ON: Bantam Books

Additional Reading by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson from their book Animals in translation: Using the mysteries of autism to decode animal behavior by Pamela Dennison author of How to right a dog gone wrong and half a dozen other books on dog training.


3 thoughts on “Ask a Dog Trainer: Electric Fencing

  1. Great article. I am moving to the country and a dog will become part of my life once I am well established there. Living in the country = lots of other 4 legged critters too. An electric fence isn’t likely to stop them from coming into the yard. Good advice. Thanks.

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