The Electronic Fence
by Michael Mifflin

“Can you come help us find Fred and Ethel?” Hysteria bubbled beneath the steady voice on the telephone.

I opened one bleary eye, attempting to focus on the bedside clock’s digital numbers. “What time is it?”

“5:45. I know it’s early. I waited to call you because I didn’t want to wake you too early, but Fred and Ethel are gone.” A choke snuck out of Rita’s throat. “Bob put them outside before he made coffee and took his shower, and now they’re gone! We’ve searched for 45 minutes but can’t find them. Can you come help us look? They could be in the woods or out on Route 83. They could be anywhere.” The anguish rose in Rita’s voice until she cried.

Fully awake, I dressed as we talked. A missing dog immediately awakens you from a sound sleep. “I’m on my way. Where do you want me to meet you?”

This was my introduction to the pitfalls of invisible fencing.


An electronic fence consists of a wire buried around the perimeter of the dog’s area and two metal prongs that extend from a small transmitter on the dog’s collar. This transmitter responds to a radio or electronic signal emitted from the underground wire. A warning beep informs the dog that the fence is near and he needs to stay back. If the dog continues toward the fence, he gets an electrical stimulus. That’s how the electronic fence sales people describe it. Let’s call it what it is: The dog gets an electrical shock through the metal prongs into the neck. That’s the first problem with underground fences.

Besides the electric shock, the other major problem is that they do not keep other animals or stray children out of the yard. Foxes, coyotes, and other dogs do not wear a collar that responds to the wire, so they roam at will in and out of the dog’s territory while the dog is contained by its collar. The dog is in danger of a predatory attack.  For this reason, yard supervision is necessary for a dog with an invisible fence. People forget that many types of animals have unrestricted access to their dog when there is no above ground fence. Some animals may be small, like raccoons, skunks, and possums, but they carry the threat of diseases passed through faces (think parasites) or bites (think rabies!). These same animals can get over or under a visible fence; however, like humans, animals will take the easier path. Why use the energy to get inside a fence when they can effortlessly trespass invisible fencing and get to the garbage can?

Research facilities purchase dogs stolen out of the dog’s yards or the thieves may keep the dogs for themselves. Which tempts these unscrupulous people more: removing the collar and walking away with the dog, or lifting a collie over a four or five foot fence?


Underground fence companies use these points to sell their product:

  • Underground fences require less maintenance than an above ground fence
  • Electronic fences are easier to install than a regular fence
  • Hidden fences cost less than a visible fence
  • Invisible fences do not obstruct landscapes or scenic views
  • Electronic fences are used in conjunction with a regular fence to keep escapees in the yard
  • Hidden fences work most of the time compared to boundary training
  • Dogs skin resistance is 20-25 times greater than that of humans so they don’t get hurt
  • Many dog owners who have underground fences report that nothing has gone wrong yet.   

There are logical arguments to each of the eight points listed above as to why it is better to install an above ground fence:

Underground fences require less maintenance.

Three to four times a year an above ground fence needs checking to ensure that the boards and posts are secure. Lawn mowers and other yard care equipment inadvertently hit and loosen the boards. A couple of nails in the loose ones, and the fence is once again secure.

Invisible fences require constant checking on batteries and wiring to guarantee the system is functioning properly. A regular battery testing schedule maintains the functionality of the collar transmitter. Without the batteries, there is no punishing electrical shock. Without the punishing electrical shock, there is no dog.

Monitoring the hidden fence wire guarantees it is intact and has power. Landscapers and utility people are famous for cutting through the wire when working, then leaving without notifying the homeowner. Many a dog owner discovers a non-functioning wire when their dog dashes into the neighbor's yard to play ball with the kids or tails a squirrel into the street.

Thick-coated dogs, i.e. collies, huskies, other artic breeds, etc., must have a small patch on their necks shaved regularly for the collar’s shock to work properly. The prongs carrying the electrical shock must make contact with skin for the correction to take place. If dog owners allow the patch of hair to grow back, the prongs will no longer give the punishing zap, and the dog goes off chasing rabbits.

An underground fence relies upon electricity to maintain the dog’s boundaries. During a power outage, it will not work. Even if the owner has diligently maintained the components---checking the batteries, ensuring the wire is in one piece, and keeping the patch on the dog’s neck shaved---the fence will not contain the dog until the power returns.

Electronic fences are easier to install than a regular fence.

This refers to do-it-yourselves. Installation requires a small trench, in which the wire lays, dug around the dog’s area, as well as underneath any sidewalks and driveways within the. The electrical connection completes the fence. Unless one is well versed in electricity, this is best left to an electrician, and there goes the budget and cost savings of doing it yourself.

In addition, there are reports of self-installed hidden fences not being as trustworthy as those installed professionally. This may be a sales gimmick by the companies, or it may be that doing one’s own electrical work is not as safe as using a professional electrician. Either way, do you want to place your dog’s safety in jeopardy by using less than reliable fencing?

Hidden fences cost less than a regular fence.

Visible, above-ground fences vary in price, depending upon the material from which they are made (e.g., plastic, wood, aluminum, or chain link), and the fence design, including height and number of boards per foot. Additional features, (for example, webbing through the chain links, cut out shapes in the boards, or fancy post tops) increase cost. Price is also based upon how large are area is being fenced in. This is true of the underground fence as well. The smaller the area being fenced, the less the price.

An underground fence is cheaper if one compares materials and installation only.  A dog does not innately understand that the beep he hears means he will get shocked if he continues toward the edge of the yard. Purchasing the training portion of the system is desirable so the dog understands the electronic system. This supervised training can add up to $1500. Although, it is possible for owners to train the dog themselves, it is best to buy the fencing company’s training program to assure correct training at the outset to avoid having to retrain them.

In addition, the dog needs to know and consistently respond to basic obedience commands, (e.g., sit, down, stay, and come) to make fence training easier. If the dog is not responsive to basic commands, fence training turns into a game because the dog gets major attention from the owner, who is calling or chasing him to no avail.

The fencing company personnel only show the owner how to educate the dog to the hidden fence. The owner must instruct each time the dog goes into the yard until the dog comprehends that the beeping collar means “get back.” Even with knowledgeable supervision by the fence people, instructing a dog to respond to the invisible fence boundary can take up to eight weeks, sometimes longer based upon the amount of time the dog’s owner devotes to daily training.

How much money is saved over the cost of an above ground fence after adding the training cost to the installation?

Invisible fences do not obstruct landscaping or scenic views.

How shallow we humans have become. Is it such a hardship to sit on a patio or sun room and view a yard surrounded by a visible fence? Isn’t it better to be thankful for having a life that includes owning one’s home and yard, and sharing a life that includes the beautiful companion and friend we call dog?

There are subdivisions that do not allow above ground fences. What is most interesting in these subdivisions is that while they will not allow visible fences, most homeowners surround the perimeter of their backyard with poplar or pine trees, arborvitae or junipers planted so close together that they cannot see past their own boundaries, nor have their neighbors see them. So, why not allow attractive above ground fences?

Electronic fences are used in conjunction with a regular fence to keep escape artists in the yard.

A dog determined to get out of a yard will. Regardless of how many obstructions are placed in the path of a canine Houdini, it is not possible to leave him outside unsupervised with any type of fencing. Save your money by not installing two fences. An enclosed area with six to eight foot sides and an attached top works best for a dog that jumps fences.

Hidden fences work most of the time, compared to boundary training.

Boundary training involves repeatedly walking the dog on leash around the perimeter while repeating a recognition phrase like "in your yard.” This does not mean that the dog can be left on its own to survey the area as it pleases. The call of the wild is too great. At the first sign of a squirrel, bunny, or another dog, off goes the high-prey boundary trained dog. It is true that a hidden fence works better than no fence at all; however, the “most of the time” should make dog owners question just how good invisible fences are at keeping the family pet in its yard.

Dogs' skin resistance is 20-25 times greater than that of humans so they don't get hurt.

Is this an argument for invisible fences? The shock must negatively reinforce the dog for getting too close to the fence, thus keeping it in the yard. Isn’t it logical that if the dog continues to go over the fence, the installer will increase the voltage until the shock is felt? If the dog’s skin is 20-25 times thicker than that of humans, won’t the electricity have to be a corresponding 20-25 times greater to make the dog realize it’s being zapped each time it nears the yard’s edge?

Many dog owners with underground fences report that nothing has gone wrong yet.

"YET" is the operative word in these reports.

The potential problems with a hidden fence are rarely told to prospective buyers and are certainly explained away to encourage the purchase of a hidden fence.

Besides the above listed caveats, collars sometimes roll so the prongs that deliver the shock face away from the dog. The transmitter collar can travel around the neck so the prongs contact the fur rather than the shaved skin area that feels the zap. Either of these scenarios allows canines to leave their yard since no deterrent exists for keeping the dog within its territory.

The more dogs in the confined area, the less effective the fence becomes. When playing, dogs may ignore the audible warning and go over the fence. Two or more dogs rough housing have a greater potential to roll the collar so the prongs are away from the dog’s body.

Frisbee or ball playing also can become a problem for those of us who enjoy a good game of fetch but lack the skill to keep tossed objects inside an invisible fence. Our neighbors can hear me yell to my pack at least twice during a play session, “I’ll get it!” as we all watch the Frisbee or soccer ball sail over our four-foot wooden fence. Quigley and Bevan become so enthusiastic when playing, they would charge over the invisible fence’s wire and get jolted. In all likelihood, play in the yard eventually would stop altogether, since it would be painful.

Once the dog is on the outside of the yard, he cannot return without being shocked again. After the first escape, the dog it realizes freedom is possible. This was the case with Fred and Ethel. Fred learned that the shock lasted for only a few seconds, and so, he regularly walked through the fence ignoring the punishment. Ethel, although she found the shock unpleasant, followed Fred because she wanted to be with him, wherever he went.

Some system’s collars automatically turn off 20 – 30 seconds after they pass over the wire. Then a dog can return to its yard. However, a dog can travel a long way in half a minute when chasing squirrels or other critters, not to mention a male on the scent of a dam in heat. If the dog is a couple of blocks away from home, it won’t matter that the collar is shut off; the dog is nowhere near the wire…or the safety of home.


Under what situation would a loving dog owner deliberately harm his canine friend? Running an electric shock through an animal is cruel and is not acceptable under any circumstances. Yet, people think nothing of confining their dog in the yard with electric shocks.

The psychological and physical damage done by the electric current is difficult, if not impossible, to correct. People have reported collars shocking their dog when the collars picked up signals from universal remote controls, garage door openers, electrical wiring and pipes within the house, and even low flying aircraft, usually while taking off or landing. While you are changing the TV channel, the dog is inadvertently zapped for napping on the floor in front of the couch. From the dog’s perspective, it’s being punished for sleeping.

A dog with medical conditions (e.g. heart problems) can have severe reactions to being shocked. Irregular heartbeats can lead to no heartbeat at all.

Reactions to electrical fences can exhibit themselves in emotional disorders and misbehaviors. The electric fence corrections have made some dogs fearful of their own yards. This fear becomes so great in some that they start eliminating inside the house. The guest room becomes the dog’s urinal because the dog refuses to go outside. When this happens, the owner must retrain the dog to use the yard, if possible. A dog may take up to six months to housebreak again, while the owners convince the dog that the yard is not a scary place where it gets hurt.

Owners sometimes forget the electric collar is on. They drag the dog across the electronic fence, causing dog to get shocked as they set out for a walk. Problems then develop with taking the dog for a walk. How many times does he have to be shocked before he decides that going for a walk is an unpleasant experience? It will differ for each dog. By the second pre-walk shock, many dogs, not surprisingly, do not want to go for a walk.

Finally, for those who have more than one dog, the level of shock can be substantially different if the shock intensity is set at the ground unit of the wire fence rather than on the individual collars. A large dog may require a greater shock than a smaller one, such as a collie versus a Maltese. A more dominant, alpha dog may need a greater shock than one with a sensitive, submissive personality. In the scenario where the dogs receive equal shock strength, behavior disorders will exhibit themselves in unacceptable ways (e.g. biting, submissive peeing, furniture chewing, or aggression).


People undecided about electronic fencing have attached the shock collar to an arm or leg and approached the wire fence to feel firsthand the shock administered to their dog. DO NOT PUT THE SHOCK COLLAR AROUND YOUR NECK to experience the shock. You may end up in the middle of the yard, flat on your anatomy, staring up into the sky, having been knocked senseless.

As humankind has become more technologically adept, we have tried to make our lives as uncomplicated and easy as possible. There is nothing easy about sharing life with a dog. The commitments are as demanding as those in human relationships. These commitments to another living being deserve a responsible owner who respects the dog as companion, protector, and family member. Our dog reveres us as the best of the best in the pack. He overlooks our mistakes. What other family member immediately forgives us for our bad moods and tempers, and all of our foibles, sticking with us through tears, laughter, and everything life throws our way? Respecting another spirit, who gives so much and asks so little in return, does not include running an electrical shock through the neck or doing anything that is negative and harmful. The best way to train a dog, or children, is with positive reinforcement. How much quicker will these individuals learn when given praise and a treat for acceptable behavior rather than punishment?


One invisible fence customer, who is also a dealer, quoted his brand as having 99.4% containment nationwide and that very few problems have occurred with his customers. When asked, “Can my dog get out?” He responded, “If the initial training is done properly, this will rarely happen.” Do you want to be among the rare .6% of customers who call your dog to find it has escaped the fence and is missing? Or among the rare .6% of customers who may answer the knock at the door to find a stranger asking, “Do you own a Lassie dog? I accidentally just hit and killed one with my car. It was running loose on the street.”

Michael Mifflin is a freelance author of dog-related articles for Collie Rescue of Greater Illinois and can be e-mailed at


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