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Is Your Dog Traumatized by the Electric Fence?

Dog Traumatized by the Electric Fence

A dog traumatized by the electric fence is not at all unusual. Countless dog owners report negative consequences when using electric fences, and it ultimately, shouldn't come as a surprise. While often advertised as preventing dogs from escaping, and a cheap alternative to erecting an expensive fence, electric fences can come with a high price tag in terms of negatively impacting a dog's emotional well-being. A dog traumatized by the electric fence may need effort and time in the rehabilitation process.

Wandering dog wearing an electric fence collar.

Wandering dog wearing an electric fence collar.

Facts About Electric Fences Suppliers Don't Want You to Know

Also known as underground fences, electronic fences, Invisible Fences™ or pet containment fences, electric fences offer a barrier that uses electric shocks to deter dogs from crossing a boundary.

In a nutshell, electric fences use an underground buried wire which radiates a radio signal detected by the collar worn by the dog. As the dog approaches the boundary, the collar emits a warning beep, which, if ignored, produces shock.

The ultimate goal is to therefore have a dog who stays nicely put within the yard, because through trial and error, the dog has learned where the boundary lines are located.

Electric fences are appealing to many dogs owners because they seem to offer a win-win situation: dogs are free to romp and explore their yards, and owners don't have to dish out thousands of dollars in erecting a costly fence. Electric fences also offer a compromise for dog owners living in places where homeowners' association rules do not permit the installation of a regular fence. However, when it comes to selling their products, marketing companies don't reveal several drawbacks about electric fences. Following are several drawbacks.

Dogs may still escape. This may sound surprising considering that the main purpose of an electric fence is to keep dogs within a boundary. While it is true that some dogs remain confined, sometimes dogs become so highly aroused by stimuli they see outside the boundaries, that they don't sense the temporary shock as they would when being in a calmer state. On the other hand, there are also determined dogs who may willingly decide to tolerate the shock in exchange for the exhilarating sensation of freedom.

Once out, these dogs may chase and attack animals, scavenge for food, meet other dogs and people, and these outdoor adventures will gain a strong reinforcement history causing these dogs to have a stronger and stronger urge to escape. However, once these dogs have calmed down and are no longer in an aroused state, they are fearful of returning into their yard because intimidated by the threat of receiving shock.

Countless animal control officers are quite familiar with finding dogs wearing their electric fence collars and wandering about their neighborhoods. Dogs who escape are of course in peril: they can be run over by a car, be stolen, or they may ingest toxic plants or products. Electric fences give a false sense of security to dog owners who may come to rely on them to give their dogs unsupervised freedom in the yard.

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Electric fences do not keep other animals/people out. Sure, in an ideal situation, a dog will stay nicely put in the yard, but what about other animals or people coming inside the fence? Other dogs or wild animals may come in the yard and attack the dog or cats or other small critters may be killed by the dog. Small children may also trespass and get injured by a frustrated or aggressive dog, or strangers may tease, injure or even steal the dog.

Electric fences can malfunction. There are reports of dogs being shocked when safely within their boundaries and dogs not being shocked when beyond their boundaries. There are reports of collars breaking apart or causing electrical burns. The electric fence also appears to not work properly if there are hills, slopes or anything that can block the signal and create"blind spots." Also, "environmental interference" (caused by large metal objects between the collar and transmitter like cars, boats, RVs or any other types of storage buildings or electric devices such as garage doors opening or closing) may cause interference and shocks when the dog is perfectly within his "safe zone."

Electric fences can cause redirected aggression. According to a study, electric fences have been found to potentially cause instances of redirected aggression in dogs. Five cases involved severe attacks on humans by dogs being trained or maintained on an electronic pet containment system. In these cases, the pain caused by shock, has likely caused these dogs to react aggressively and redirect to a proximate target such as a person nearby.

On top of redirected aggression, electric fences may exacerbate the tendency of dogs to use aggressive, distance-increasing displays to protect their territory. Dr. Nicholas Dodman claims: "If you put an electric fence on a small plot and your dog has something of an aggressive, territorial nature and will not like being unable to deter “interlopers” from entering his terrain, it’s sort of like turning your dog into a loaded handgun."

Electric fences can potentially traumatize dogs. What marketers of electric fences also fail to reveal is that electric fences work because they induce in dogs the fear of pain. Dogs avoid the fence because it has caused a frightening sensation and dogs tend to avoid it. There is a very thin line between making the boundary unpleasant enough to deter the dog from approaching it, and not traumatizing the dog to the point of affecting his well being. There are countless reports of dogs being traumatized by the use of the electric fences.

"Electronic pet containment systems are effective because they operate on the established principles of escape and avoidance conditioning. In escape conditioning, a dog withdraws from an area—in this case the signal field— because of painful stimulation. Subsequently, the dog learns to avoid the area due to the negative associations."~(Polsky, 2010)

Is Your Dog Traumatized by the Electric Fence?

Is your dog a porch sitter?

Has your dog become a "porch sitter?"

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If you have a dog traumatized by the electric fence, rest assured, you are not alone. There are countless stories and many dog trainers and behavior consultants are aware of this problem. Dogs can be traumatized by the electric fence and this can impact their lives in many different ways. Sometimes, all it takes is one negative experience to transform a happy dog to a dog secluded to the porch.

It's important to recognize that each dog tolerates pain at different levels. There are dogs who can care less about getting their jabs at the vet's office, while others are yelping in pain. Same with the electric fence. Some dog owners report their dogs are literally yelping and jumping high in the air even when using what should be the lowest settings. Even with dogs who "seem" to tolerate pain better, there can be long term emotional repercussions.

Dogs live in a world of associations. When they are shocked, they may therefore end up associating the shock with just about anything. Some dogs start associating the shock with the yard. One of the first signs suggestive of this is a sudden reluctance to stay in the yard and wanting to stay in the house. Next, a perfectly house-trained dog may start pooping and peeing in the home, because the yard has become a scary place to be and they want to avoid being there.

In other cases, if the owner is nearby initially doing the training, should the dog become scared of the shock, he or she may associate the shock with the owner. Affected dogs may become reluctant to come near the owner and may shake or cower.

There are also reports of dogs becoming noise sensitive (being sensitized to the beeping sounds predicting the shock) and startle when they hear similar beeping sounds in the house (such as those coming from microwaves, coffee makers and watches) or outdoors (construction vehicles backing up, car door locks etc.).

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Dogs may also get deeply traumatized when they receive repeated shocks for no reason when the system malfunctions or has interferences. Affected dogs may start crying and going in circles and may become scared of even moving. Rehabilitation requires undoing the negative associations using counterconditioning and positive reinforcement training. Of course, it takes time to undo the damage. It's a slow process to rebuild trust and instill confidence to the point that the dog feels that the yard is a safe place again.

"The concept of invisible barriers is unnatural to animals. Although humans understand the concept, it would still be highly disconcerting for you to walk down the sidewalk and suddenly smash into a barrier that you could not see. Imagine how dogs feel when they can't even understand the concept to begin with."~Dr. Lore Haug, veterinary behaviorist

dog treat

Tips to Help a Dog Traumatized by the Electric Fence

If your dog was traumatized by the electric fence, it is crucial to find an alternative form of containment. Another traumatic event will have longer lasting repercussions because it will more deeply consolidate into the dog's mind that the yard is once again not safe and should be avoided at all costs.

The safest option to contain a dog remains a secure solid fence which keeps your dog in and intruders out. If erecting a solid fence isn't feasible, keep your dog safely inside your home and take him out for regular potty breaks and walks, or hire a dog walker to do so. You owe it to your dog to ensure his safety and well being, while ensuring priceless peace of mind. Following are some general tips to help a dog traumatized by the electric fence.

  • Don't force your dog outside, progress should be on the dog's terms, no forcing.
  • Provide high-value treats for any signs of progress.
  • If your dog won't go outside to potty, you may have to provide a temporary indoor potty area.
  • If there is an alternate exit to let your dog out, this may provide a good starting point. You can try to use that exit and then go on a walk or car ride (if your dog loves these activities) and then you can try to return into the house from the backyard door.
  • Create positive associations with the outside starting from the doorway. Open the door, praise and let treats fall to the ground. Close the door and all the treats and praise ends.
  • Progress slowly to having your dog eat his meal scattered on the porch (treasure hunt-style) and then closer and closer to the lawn.
  • Consider removing anything that the dog could have associated with the shock. Use a harness instead of a collar. The collar may have assumed negative connotations. Remove the flags, as dogs may associate them with shock.
  • Invest in calming aids if necessary. DAP diffusers, calming music, Thundershirt.
  • For difficult cases, consult with a dog trainer or dog behavior professional using positive, force-free methods,

Did you know? Dogs who are traumatized by the electric fence and just stick around by the porch area are referred to as “porch sitters” by those in the industry.

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  • Training Dogs With the Help of the Shock Collar: short and long term behavioural effects(Schilder, van der Borg) Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85 (2004) 319–334
  • Can aggression in dogs be elicited through the use of electronic pet containment systems? (Polsky, Richard) Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2010 Vol. 3 No. 4 pp. 345-357
  • Tufts Your Dog; Is an Electric Fence the Way to Go?, September 2015

Photo Credits:

Flickr, Kain Road Cul de Sac, Wandering Dog 049 Attribution 2.0 Generic(CC BY 2.0) modified to format picture. 

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