The Shocking (Fence) Truth

This was another piece written for Northern Virginia Today – print edition – newspaper.  Since I do not get paid for my writing, I am able to share works on line after publication.  This was submitted in January of 2014.

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Rocco was a young adult retriever.  He used to be out of control, but friendly.  Now he was out of control and aggressive.  As a puppy, Rocco was taught to grab people and pull them over.  It was how a previous owner taught Rocco to greet.   Over time the owner got annoyed with the behaviors and decided Rocco must go.

Rocco was given to relatives. The relatives’ property was not fenced.  Here was the problem: Rocco loved people and would tackle pedestrians.  He was too strong and out of control for the new owners to manage on leash.  Rocco kept escaping the property. To save pedestrians from line backer tackle greetings, Rocco’s new owners installed an electric shock fence.

His owners followed the training regiment as per the installer. For a few weeks, Rocco seemed alright but then it all went to Hades in a handbag.  It is common for undesired behaviors to show up days, weeks, even months after installation.  Rocco’s behaviors changed from over-exuberant greetings to no longer approaching in a friendly manner.   He would go to the boundary and growl.  The shock fence was a major component in Rocco’s declining behaviors and here is why.

Rocco associated people with the shock.  Therefore, Rocco worked to get rid of the things on the walk that caused his pain.  I watched him violently charge after pedestrians only to scream in pain when he hit the boundary.  This reinforced that people passing the yard equaled bad things.  The more Rocco tried to chase them off, the more he was shocked.  The more he escalated the charges. It did not matter that the owners were refreshing the boundary training.  It did not matter what we thought, it mattered what Rocco percieved: people are near the property and I will get hurt.  Eventually he would go through the shock line and no one would be safe.

I worked with Rocco and his owners on and off for almost two years.  I recommended safer options for Rocco that would allow for better rehabilitation.  No, they did not want any alternatives to confine Rocco.  This limited what I could accomplish.  There was no way I could change Rocco’s associations if the action of the shock fence kept reinforcing people = pain.

Good trainers and behaviorists realize risks shock fences pose. I have observed and worked with a variety of issues:  fear to step on grass, fear of wearing a collar, excessively nervous behaviors, and human/animal aggression.  I evaluated a dog afraid to move off a single small spot in a one acre, shock fenced area because she forgot where the boundary was.  She wore a thin path to the center of the yard where she stood and shook until called in. Her owner thought it was funny that the dog forgot where the boundary was and refused to move.

Behavioral changes are not the only concern with shock fences.  Here are others:

  • The collars can malfunction leading to constant shocking or none at all
  • No protection for your pet from other animals or humans
  • No protection for people or critters from your dog if the line is crossed by your dog or people accidentally step inside the boundary
  • No power, no shock
  • Electronic devices on the same frequency can trigger the collar
  • Electronic sounds similar to the warning tone can cause stress for the dog as he anticipates a zap
  • Dogs need frequent retraining of boundaries and at that they may not remember the boundaries
  • Many dogs learn to ignore the shock and willingly escape the yard
  • If your dog escapes and you call him from inside the shock line, he will be zapped upon return
  • Not all community laws consider shock fences as confinement.  If something happens you need to know your liability

Ask yourself: are these confinement systems worth the risk?  Would you put your dog in a position where he can escape, be stolen, attacked and/or develop aggressions?

For most of us I hope the answer would be “no.”

Karen Peak is owner/operator of West Wind Dog Training in Prince William County, founder of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project, a published author, wife, mother and the manager of a multi-dog, multi-species household.

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