To Fence or Not To Fence…

The Decision

dog-questionI’ve had many clients over the years install invisible fences for various reasons. Sometimes it’s because an HOA won’t allow physical fences in the neighborhood. Sometimes an invisible fence seems like a better option because it’s less expensive than a traditional fence. Here’s the rub; invisible fences can cause serious behavioral problems.

The reason is simple; invisible fences are electric and send a message to the collar worn by the dog to shock the dog when a line is crossed. Yes, there is a warning tone preceding the shock but the dog has to be shocked in order to learn what that tone means (just as a dog has to be given a treat after hearing a click to associate the sound of the clicker with food). So, when you install an invisible fence you are agreeing to shock your dog as many times as is necessary to teach them to fear the line.

The Problem

reactive dogI have a plethora of reasons as to why I am adamantly against the use of shock in training but I will focus on the most common result I have seen in the use of invisible fencing: reactivity towards people and/or other animals. Here is the scenario: your dog has been trained to “respect” the line of the invisible fence and no longer approaches it under most circumstances. Then, one day, your friendly dog sees someone passing by on the sidewalk. He runs toward the new person in order to greet her. Just as he gets close, ZAP!

How do you think many dogs interpret that experience? I’ll tell you. A new person walking by the yard means that they are going to be shocked. This belief results in a new behavior – reactivity to people. Your dog now lunges, barks, growls, snarls and snaps at people passing by the yard in order to make them go away before he gets shocked. And it works. Every time. So he continues behaving this way and until you contact a professional force-free trainer (aversive trainers will NOT be able to help in this situation because your dog developed his issues through aversive methods i.e. the shock collar for the invisible fence) his behavior will only get worse.

I have seen this scenario play out more times than I’d like to remember. I get calls from people who had wonderfully social, friendly dogs who now are acting aggressively toward any new person (or dog) they see. This behavior can, and does frequently, translate to other reactivity issues such as leash or barrier aggression. Leash aggression can be made even worse if the dog is being walked on a pinch/prong collar since if they lunge and hit the end of the leash the prong collar will result in a correction similar to the invisible fence. The correction will only serve to convince your dog that he needs to react more aggressively to make those awful new people go away so he doesn’t receive more corrections.

Reactivity and aggression are behavioral problems which require significant investments of time and money to resolve. Wouldn’t it make more sense to prevent this sort of behavior in the first place? Of course it would!!

The Solution

20130501_131951If your dog has developed reactivity issues, stop using the invisible fence IMMEDIATELY. Instead, use a leash and walk your dog. Yes, I really did say that you need to go out WITH your dog EVERY SINGLE time he needs to go outside and you should NOT leave him outside unsupervised EVER. I know it’s not as convenient as opening a door and letting him run out and stay out for 30 minutes while you get ready for work in the morning or while you and the family eat dinner in the evening. The choice is simple, though, if you don’t want him to eventually bite someone you MUST leash walk him and supervise him AT ALL TIMES when outside. No tie-outs, no more invisible fence. A leash and your company is what will help your dog in the beginning.


You will still need to consult a force-free dog professional for help to improve his reactivity and prevent him from being a bite risk. People’s safety around your dog is your responsibility. Please take it seriously. A professional dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist will be able to give you sound advice on how to manage the situation in the beginning and how to work with your dog to improve his reactions and decrease his aggression. It is absolutely essential to seek professional help when dealing with aggression.

The Conclusion

20130118_124043In my mind it is clear that invisible fences can, and often do, lead to serious behavioral problems – I’ve rehabilitated many dogs that developed aggressive reactivity after being put on an invisible fence. I NEVER recommend them or any other type of electric/static/shock device as training tools. The potential for creating dangerous behavior is simply too high.

If you are considering whether to install an invisible fence I hope you will decide against it. If possible, install a physical fence (wood, vinyl or chain link). If a physical fence is not an option for you, simply walk your dog on a leash. If your dog pulls on the leash, use a management tool like a Freedom Harness instead of a prong/pinch collar to prevent additional reactivity problems. Your dog will enjoy the time with you and you will have ample opportunities to teach your dog how you want him to behave! Dogs are learning 24/7 whether we are deliberately teaching them or not. Shouldn’t we try to stack the deck a little more in our favor? Spend time with your dog. You won’t regret it!Enzo Smiling

Helping Hounds Training’s owner/head trainer, Erin Wigginton, has extensive experience with resolving aggression and can assist owners of reactive dogs. If your dog has developed reactivity or aggression please contact us by phone (314-369-6557) or email (

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