Invisible Fences: Do or Don’t?

Invisible Fences: Do or Don’t?

Today, I want to discuss a topic that I (and every other dog trainer I know!) get lots of questions about.

Are “Invisible Fence”-type containment systems a good idea, generally speaking?  Or, would this be a reasonable choice for your particular dog?

Now, first things first.

I want to acknowledge at the outset that this this can be a hot-button issue for many dog owners and trainers, with strong feelings on all sides – and that’s perfectly okay.  It’s fine to have differing views, as long as we’re all respectful of each other.

Regarding what I think of Invisible Fences, personally, the short answer is that I am not a huge fan.  We will discuss the reasons for this below.


My goal for today’s post is not to convince you that Invisible Fences are an inherently evil invention, or to make you feel like a bad person or dog owner if you’re currently using one.  Lots of people use them.  And truthfully, for some of my clients, I have seen them work quite well without any apparent problems.

Instead, what I want to do today is provide a thoughtful, science-based overview of how these fences work, the pros and cons of using them, and potential risks that you should be aware of.  I hope you’ll use this information to help decide on the best choice for your living situation, and your individual dog – whatever that choice might be.

What is an Invisible Fence, and how does it work?

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s start by briefly discussing what we mean when we use this term.

“Invisible Fence“ is actually a specific brand of something called an underground containment system for dogs.  An underground wire is installed around your yard (or other designated area), which emits a signal that is picked up by a collar worn by your dog.  As your dog approaches the boundary line, the collar gives a warning beep, followed by a shock if he continues to move closer.  Ideally, the dog learns where the boundary line is after a few unpleasant experiences, and therefore stays in the yard.

As technology has advanced, there are now some variations available on this same basic idea – wireless systems that cover a circular area up to a certain distance from the transmitter, and even GPS-based models that allow you to “enclose” very large or irregularly-shaped swaths of land.  From your dog’s perspective, these systems all work the same way – using a warning tone, and then a shock, to enforce the chosen boundary.

Why do people use them?

By and large, most dog owners who use an Invisible Fence do so with the best of intentions.  They want to give their energetic pup more off-leash freedom to run and play, or let their older dog have access to the yard for potty breaks when they’re not home.  These are valid goals, meant to make the dog’s life better.

Why not just use a “real” fence, you might ask?  The fact is, this isn’t always possible.  Some subdivisions have strict rules against any type of fencing – homeowners may not realize this until after they’ve moved in and added a dog to the family.  Physical fencing is also quite expensive, as anyone who has priced it knows!  For many families, especially if they have a large yard, putting up a chain link or wooden fence for their dog is simply not an option due to cost.

I understand this, and I have empathy for these situations.  Sometimes, there are no perfect solutions – all we can do is our best.

What are the potential downsides?

Unfortunately, as convenient as they might seem at first, Invisible Fence-type systems have a number of significant drawbacks.  I mentioned above that I personally do not care much for these fences and don’t normally recommend them to my clients.

Here are the reasons why:

  • Risk of aggression or fear response

Although it all sounds great on paper, using shock-based corrections in this way is a delicate balancing act.  We want the dog to find the shock unpleasant enough to deter him from approaching the boundary line, but not so traumatizing that he develops any other behavioral problems as a result.

Unfortunately, the “correct” level of shock for any given dog is extremely hard to predict.  The severity of a correction is very much in the eye of the beholder – which is an interesting topic in its own right, and one that we may explore further in a later post.  Some dogs are relatively unfazed by even a strong, painful shock; others may react dramatically to something we perceive as a mild tingle.

So, ultimately, here’s the problem.  We’re hoping that the dog will associate the correction with his proximity to the edge of the yard, and adjust his future behavior accordingly.  But we’re forgetting something very important – he may also associate the shock with anything else that happens to be nearby at the time, which can result in some unexpected problems.

When I was a teenager, my family made a very short-lived attempt to use an underground fence with our dog Duncan.  The first time he was shocked (on the lowest setting, a “very mild correction,” per the literature that came with the system), he yelped in terror and fled back to the house.

Thereafter, he was too afraid to go into the yard to potty – he stood on the porch and trembled until we let him back into the house.  We threw the collar away and abandoned the entire effort, but it was several weeks before he was brave enough to step on the grass again without shaking.

Dogs can also develop aggression issues towards strangers or other dogs, as a result of being shocked as they approach to say hello.  See my previous post about Heidi the German Shepherd for a particularly striking example of this phenomenon.

It happens.

Does it happen to every dog?  No, of course not.  Some do just fine.  But there’s no surefire way to predict which dogs will develop a problem, and which ones won’t – so you should be aware that it’s a risk.

  • Unreliable containment

As anyone who has worked in an animal shelter can tell you, it’s distressingly common to see lost dogs wearing electronic fence collars.  Despite what the salesman may tell you, no Invisible Fence system is foolproof – dogs can, and do, breach the barrier for a variety of different reasons.

For dogs who are very prey-driven, the sight of a squirrel or rabbit on the other side of the boundary line may prove too tempting to resist.  Dogs with aggression issues towards other dogs or people may become over-aroused and charge across out into the street to bark at neighbors – which can result in a bite.

Some dogs even learn that they can deplete the battery in their collar by standing in the “warning zone” long enough, after which they’re free to leave the yard without consequence.

In many of these cases, the owner feels that the fence is working fine… until the day it doesn’t.

  • Physical safety issues

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s important to remember that an Invisible Fence system is *not* a true physical barrier.  Even if it’s effective at keeping your dog in the yard, it does nothing at all to keep other animals or humans out.

In some areas, this may not be a major concern.  But if you have loose dogs that roam the neighborhood, or in rural areas where coyotes or other wildlife are present, your dog is vulnerable to being injured or even killed in his own yard.  Dogs can also be harassed or stolen by unscrupulous people if there is no physical fence to protect them.

So what’s the bottom line?

As I tell my clients when they ask, I do not recommend Invisible Fences as an ideal first-line option for any dog.  They are particularly unsuitable for dogs with high prey drive, dogs with any aggression issues towards strangers or other animals, and anxious or fearful dogs – but any dog can develop problems.

So be aware.

What if you’ve weighed the pros and cons, and decided that an Invisible Fence is the best option you have?

I realize that there are situations where this might be true.  If you do choose to use an underground fence system for your dog, I would recommend the following:

Never leave your dog outside unsupervised. Many of the risks I mentioned above can be significantly mitigated if you’re there to keep an eye on things – so go out with your pup, and bring him back inside with you when you’re ready to go in.

Complete the training program as advised by the company you’re working with, to ensure that your dog understands where the boundary line is and how to avoid the shock. Don’t cut corners here!  Confusion or lack of clarity are huge risk factors for developing anxiety or aggression issues related to the fence, so take the time to teach your dog properly.

Be aware of what the risks are, and watch for any problems. If your dog reacts poorly to the fence, you may need to stop using it – know this going in, and be prepared to call it quits if necessary.

So if you can – spring for a real, physical fence.  It’s well worth it for your pup’s safety, and your piece of mind.

If you can’t, then make the best decision you can.  You know your dog better than anyone else, and you also know what options are feasible for your living situation.  Life is full of calculated risks.  Just know what you’re getting into, and what the possible downsides are.

Your dog deserves your consideration, no matter what you choose.

22 thoughts on “Invisible Fences: Do or Don’t?

  1. Excellent analysis of invisible fence systems. I had an invisible fence for a brief time many many years ago. One of my dogs (with high prey drive) quickly learned if she ran fast enough she could get through the line before the shock. So it was not effective at containing my dog. My other dog was very ‘soft’, and was terrified of getting shocked, and became very fearful in the yard. So the fence hugely undermined the trust my dog had in me…trust that cannot easily be re-established!. I also had a problem with a neighbor dog coming in my yard and attacking my dogs whenever it got loose. So the invisible fence offered absolutely no protection for my dogs from other dogs (or wild animals or thieves), and actually made them more vulnerable, as they had no way to escape the attacking dog. I also had a problem with the system shorting out frequently when there was a thunderstorm. So it was unreliable. And I have come to firmly believe that training a dog with electric shocks is inhumane and totally inappropriate. Yes, some dogs do fine with an invisible fence, but I would never again risk it with any of mine. There are way too many serious risks and downsides. (PS It makes me crazy when the companies and sellers refer to the collar giving a ‘correction’, giving the impression that it is harmless. Call it what it is…an ELECTRIC SHOCK!)

    1. Yes. So sorry to hear about your bad experiences! Your entire story, in a nutshell, is the reason that I don’t recommend these fences. Lots of potential issues.

      And yes, I agree with you regarding the use of euphemistic terms like a “tap”, a “correction,” or a “tingle” when discussing the use of electronic shock collars. It’s a shock, and it hurts – that’s why it works. It has to hurt enough to dissuade the dog from approaching the boundary line again in the future, even if they would otherwise be highly motivated to leave the yard.

      This may or may not be a deal-breaker, depending on your personal training philosophy, but to pretend that these devices aren’t painful is disingenuous at best.

  2. They’re just that. Invisible so nice to not see.

    I’ve fostered dogs for several rescues for ~12 years (~200 dogs) and will NOT place any dog in a home with invisible fencing. It may keep the resident dog/s within the boundaries but it does not keep other dogs or wild predators from entering the area. I’ve known dogs, especially some of the Terrier breeds that, if sufficiently challenged, will take the “hit” and cross the invisible fencing.

    Over the years a number of other fosters and I have discussed the merits of invisible fencing to protect dogs and the predominant conclusion is that it does not.

    I think every breed’s proclivities, abilities and drive, as well as the population of other dogs or predators in the area needs to be considered in choosing fencing to protect your dog/s. In short, you have to do your homework!

    1. Absolutely – that’s really the bottom line. Many dogs do poorly with them, for a variety of reasons. So do your homework, and be aware of the risks.

  3. We installed an underground system for our Lab when we moved to a subdivision that doesn’t allow fences. He was an easy-going, unaggressive dog with little to no prey drive. (He’d bark at the deer until they left the yard, then he was done.) He was never left outside if we were gone, and he never went out alone after dark, because there are coyotes here. It worked like a dream for six or seven years, but eventually he figured out some way to slip through.. We tried multiple times to see where he was getting out, but he’d wait until we were distracted, and then he was gone. Fortunately, he always meandered back after 20 or 30 minutes, but we didn’t use it at all for the last few years of his life. Now we have two very prey-driven standard poodles, that very likely wouldn’t even slow down in the heat of the chase, so we haven’t even considered it.

    1. It’s funny you should say that… I often tell my clients that if there’s a poster child for the kind of dog that has the best chance of doing okay with an Invisible Fence, it’s a mellow, easy-going Lab or Golden 🙂 Friendly, calm, not overly sensitive, not much prey drive. But yes, even these guys can eventually learn how to get out of the yard if they want to.

  4. It was a last resort to add an invisible fence to a 6 foot fence to stop my fence jumper/climber and it is working well.

    1. This is a great point, so thanks for bringing it up! I have seen an Invisible Fence work well for some situations like this, where it’s being used as a back-up measure for an actual, physical fence. Digging and fence jumping can be a huge safety concern, and sometimes there really isn’t a good way to prevent this otherwise if the dog is determined and resourceful.

      I know that ideally, most of us would still prefer to find an alternative that didn’t require causing pain to the dog – a taller fence or a different fence design, supervision when the dog is outside, etc. – but I realize this isn’t always practical. Thanks for sharing your experience, and I’m glad things are going well.

  5. There’s another issue if a dog escapes due to over-arousal, and that is that with many of these systems he will be unable to return to the “safe zone” of the yard once the adrenaline has died down, as he will no longer be able to tolerate the level of pain that is being administered as he approaches the boundary. This means that, if the dog has finished his chase and wants to return home, he’s learning that approaching the area in which you want him contained is a painful experience.

  6. Electric fences are illegal in Europe. the reasons are detailed in all the comments made above. Training shouldn’t hurt and we should never puts our dogs in a situations where they could get hurts never mind a situation where sooner or later they will get hurt.

    1. Agreed that there are significant ethical issues with causing pain or fear to any dog in the name of training. Europe is more advanced than we are here in the US, in many respects.

  7. I am so glad to see such civility in the comments.

    I have had mixed results with clients who use this method of containment. One client called me after the unit inside the house malfunctioned and never shut off, so the dog was screaming under the car and truly traumatized. The vet in that case was worried the dog would end up losing the leg the current traveled to the ground through (nerve damage), but he came right after about 4-6 months. He was also an incredibly smart dog and got the +R training like osmosis.

    In another case, a foster was placed, trained to the fence correctly and still went through it to grab a toy dog on a lead as it passed her property.

    I have several clients who have used them successfully. As you stated, it really depends on the dogs in the equation….both of these dogs are laid back Labs.

    My personal experience has been with 2 Corgis. The first Corgi was an incorrigible fence climber (I have a physical fence), but she learned about the beep zone, and I simply gave up after a few months and managed her by being outside with her or watching her from the house and rapping on a window to remind her that I was watching. Her daughter on the other hand, associated the lead with the zap (since you are to have them on lead when training) and began to hide when I got the lead out. I sold the collar/unit after that as she quit going anywhere near the fence. It was a few months before I had my wiggly, happy girl back around her lead, but she eventually found her balance again. All that said, I presently have a ACD that I cannot keep in my fence if there is someone on the other side she wants to see. Fortunately, she has never met a stranger so she’s a happy fence climber and not aggressive at all. This past fall, I put up $400 worth of coyote rollers, which worked till there was enough snow to get her above the rollers when she jumped and she could hook her front feet in the fence and pull herself up (the fence is livestock panels so very sturdy). I am contemplating another wireless system to keep her off the fence, but am only thinking about it atm. The systems are expensive and I would rather not make my dog associate people on the other side of the fence with getting hurt. Plus there is upkeep…you only know the collar isn’t working when the dog gets out and this dog is smart enough to learn the beep zone so…….I’d hate to spend another chunk of money to have fallout of one sort or another. What I’m really hoping is that as she matures and gets heavier, it will be more difficult to scale the physical fence and she will simply stop on her own (right now she can slide through the bigger holes at the top), but that is probably months (or years) away and I am not convinced (today) that will ever happen.

    1. I met some people once who had a 6′ wooden fence and ran an electrified wire a few inches above and along the top to keep the raccoons out of their yard! Worked well for them.

    2. Yes, indeed. Civility is so important, regardless of the topic being discussed.

      Thanks very much for sharing your experiences. Most of my friends and acquaintances who train dogs professionally have similar stores to tell – a very mixed bag. For me, the risks are enough to make me recommend against using them, but I can’t honestly say that they *never* work.

      And yes, I would agree that using an IF-type system along with (rather than in place of) a traditional physical fence is often less risky for a variety of reasons. There is still the potential for the dog to associate the shock with other things, with all of the possible behavioral fallout that brings, but sometimes it’s the least bad of several less-than-ideal options. The real world is often messy!

      So the bottom line is – buyer beware. Thanks again for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. <3

  8. I am not at all a fan of invisible fences. The danger of the containment failing is just too high, especially if the dog sees some prey on the other side of the fence. I generally see leaving dogs in the yard for prolonged periods of time critically. Money for the invisible fence would be better spent on a dog walker I believe 🙂

    1. I agree that leaving dogs outside alone for long periods is vastly overrated as a means of exercise and mental stimulation – regardless of what kind of containment system is being used. In many cases, a game of fetch, a walk, a training class, etc. would likely be a better option for all involved.

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