Probably the most controversial aspect of modern dog training is whether or not we are justified in using different types of punishment to train dogs. And of all the ways to punish, possibly the most controversial is electric shock.
Shock training in dogs is generally applied in two ways: as an "invisible fence", where a dog is shocked if he crosses an invisible boundary, or by a "remote trainer", where the trainer uses a remote control to send a signal to the dog's collar. In this installment I will discuss the invisible fence and tackle the remote collar next.
People just love invisible fences because they are relatively cheap and easy to install. These electronic fences do not work to contain all dogs. Some dogs are too pain-resistant or too motivated to get out of their yards, but for many dogs, this is a very effective way to keep them contained. No doubt many lives have been saved by these devices because they keep dogs from running out into the street and being hit by cars.
However, there are also significant potential problems. A big one is that while your dog may be prevented from leaving your yard, other animals will not be prevented from entering it. Think how that could feel to your dog if the invading animal was a threat. Unsafe. Scary. Your dog might start to spend all his time scanning the environment for danger. This could promote aggression; in fact, aggression could be promoted very quickly even by a friendly dog or person on the other side of the "fence". Here's the sequence:
This is not far-fetched. This happens, although it is usually not recognized that the shock (which likely went unobserved, while you were at work and your dog was in the yard) was the cause. The dog is just deemed aggressive, end of story. End of dog, usually.
I've never used an invisible fence but I have used an electric wire along the top of a fence that wasn't high enough to contain a dog that jumped. With mixed results. I was extremely happy when the dog jumped the fence and received a shock mid-air. She tried it a second time, then never again. It likely saved her life as we live along an active road.
On the other hand, another of my dogs inadvertently received a shock when jumping up on the fence to greet a new visitor. The dog became extremely aggressive toward the visitor, who was an arriving houseguest. The dog also reacted violently to the presence of the guitar which the guest had been carrying. After a solid week of work to counter-condition the dog to the guitar, he finally accepted that it was not dangerous. However, he remained aggressive towards my houseguest, whom I finally had to ask to leave earlier than planned. Imagine what a predicament I would have been in if this man had been a new boyfriend instead of a short-term guest!
I know of several instances where, after receiving an initial shock from an invisible fence, the dogs began to cower in the house when invited to go into the yard. Unlike the aggressive dogs described above, these dogs associated the pain of the shock with the yard rather than a person. Since they had never been shocked in the house, they decided it was safe inside, unsafe outside. Another dog made the association between the shock and the hot dogs her owner had been feeding her at the time, and she became terrified of hot dogs!
I always recommend that owners bite the bullet and install a solid fence rather than go with invisible fencing. If cost is an issue or you are just renting and don't want to build anything elaborate, remember that you don't HAVE to fence your entire yard. Select a smaller area (I suggest that it connect with a back door so that you can easily let the dog out to potty and won't have visitors passing through) and fence appropriately for your dog. A solid wood fence is better than a wire fence in that it blocks your dog's visual access to passing dogs and won't promote barking and barrier aggression. But a wire fence is much better than an electric one. You can also use a wire tether if it is used only with your supervision and the dog is not left outside tied up (which can cause lots of problems too). Here is an article from Whole Dog Journal on dog-friendly fencing.
Fear and aggression are very difficult problems to solve once they have taken hold, and they can be created in the blink of an eye with a tool as powerful as shock. Don't risk it.
Shane Windatt, CTC, CPDT
Pawsitive Spin Dog Training and Boarding
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