Eleven years ago, Linda Teasley and her husband wanted to give their two puppies — Goldendoodle Noodles and English Bulldog Sheba — access to their yard so the dogs could run around and play. But in order to do so, they wanted to make their half-acre property safe.
Having previously suffered through their local association’s laborious design-review process when they planned to build an addition to their Northern Virginia home, Teasley didn’t want to revisit the process to build a fence. “They just make it very difficult if you do something they don’t like,” she says.
So, instead, the couple installed an electronic fence—a so-called containment system in which dogs wear collars that send electric shocks to their necks if they attempt to cross a buried wire.
Today, many pet owners in the U.S. are making the same choice, as an increasing number of homeowners’ associations, as well as cities and counties, are putting restrictions on the types of fencing allowed—physical and electronic alike—and where they can be built.
Interestingly, there’s a pretty fierce debate as to the safety and efficacy of these systems. Thousands of American pet owners swear by them, but many others would like to ban shock collars, which would effectively end the use of electronic fences. Shock collars are already illegal in a number of other countries, including Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Wales, and in some states in Australia.
Let’s look at how the system works.
Electronic containment systems can range from a DIY kit that costs a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000 if you go with a full-service product that includes professional installation and dog training.
To start, the sensor wire is buried along the perimeter of the area in which the dog is to be contained. Then, little flags are placed along that line so that the dog can see the boundaries. Different techniques are used to teach the dog to stay in the yard, but basically, for the first few days, the shock feature on the collar isn’t used. Instead, the dog hears a warning beep from the collar and then the owner shouts, dances, sings—whatever it takes to get the dog to retreat from the line and go to his person for some tasty treats and praise. Essentially, the dog is being trained to do a recall when he hears the beep.
Once the dog is reliably retreating from the beep, a consequence for ignoring it is added: if he ignores the beep and crosses the wire, he will receive a shock. Ideally, the dog only has to be shocked a handful of times before learning to respect the beep and retreat. But, no matter how well the dog learns to stop when he hears the warning beep, for the system to be effective, the collar must be worn at all times when the dog is in the yard.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, let’s peek behind the curtain.
Shock collars are an aversive tool, which means they use pain and/or fear to motivate the dog to stay in the yard.
Proponents describe the shock the dog feels as similar to the zap we get when we touch a TV after walking on carpet. They say the dog isn’t hurt, that the sensation is minimal. But pain and fear threshold levels are different for each animal, just as they are for each person.
So the question isn’t whether that sensation scares or hurts us, it’s whether the shock scares or hurts the dog enough to keep him from leaving the yard. That pain or that fear has to mean more to the dog than chasing squirrels or feral cats or kids playing soccer or whatever exciting adventure lies beyond the invisible line. That’s how aversive the shock has to be.
Some dogs are motivated to stay put, some dogs become so afraid of the shocks that they won’t go out in the yard at all, and some dogs don’t care a bit and fly through the shock.