Electronic fences are a control device. That said, electronic fences can be a blessing or a curse – not only for the dog but for the human as well. An ‘electronic fence’ is a set of devices, usually underground wire and transmitters, that deliver a noise, shock or unpleasant spray via a collar to a dog approaching the boundary. The wire is buried a foot or so under the ground along a perimeter of 500-1000 feet and as the dog approaches it a signal is sent to the collar, activating the deterrent. Electronic fences are expensive, but some Home Owners Association rules or city ordinances forbid regular fences leaving few options. Useful for those who want to avoid or can’t erect a regular front yard fence, it becomes even more desirable for those with no back yard fence at all. The potential downsides, though, are many. Sometimes viewed as a substitute for needed training, dogs require careful instruction in dealing correctly with an e-fence. Shocks or disturbing noises aren’t automatically and instantaneously interpreted correctly by dogs. They have to be taught to associate the shock or noise with the limit of allowed movement. Systems can be shorted, by lightning strikes (unusual) or by careless digging at the perimeter (less unusual). Flags mark the boundary after initial installation, but they’re intended to be removed after the dog has been trained. Sometimes, though, they’re left in place and get knocked down or dragged away by lawnmowers, kids and other causes. Once down their tips can point up and have the potential to produce a harmful puncture. Particularly assertive or unintelligent dogs chasing ‘prey’ will sometimes barrel past the barrier, oblivious to the temporary shock. Being on the wrong side of the fence discourages voluntary returns home. And, of course, many reasonably believe that electric shocks are a cruel or at best counter-productive way to solicit desired behavior from a friend and companion. But, everything in life has risks that need to be weighed. Dogs confined solely indoors except when leashed don’t experience needed opportunities to run. In some locales, dog parks or other areas that make possible free running can be hard to find or far away. And running is a deep-seated need of almost all dog’s natures. Frustrate that need and you produce a maladjusted dog. Fences of standard height can be forded by large dogs, but accidents can produce punctures from chain link and scrapes from wooden fence tops. Even when the initial wound is minor, dogs have a tendency to worsen them by biting and scratching, producing hot spots. That means a trip to the vet. Sometimes an electronic fence is actually safer in the end. No ‘one-size-fits-all’ recommendation is likely to be satisfactory given the wide variety of living circumstances, breeds and individual dogs and training regimes. The best that can be said is to consider all the facts, not least of which are the physical and psychological health needs of the dog. Then make an informed choice. Just be prepared to disable the fence if it proves to do more harm than good.
Debate continues unabated about whether or not crate training dogs is healthy or harmful. ‘Crating’ involves placing a pet in a cage, usually plastic or metal of roughly the size of the dog, for a period of time during the day or night. Proponents argue that crating gives the dog a sense of ‘property’, a place it can call its own. In this little home within the home, the dog feels safe surrounded by familiar smells and objects. Here, the dog can retreat from fearful noises or boisterous children. Those who favor crate training assert that potty training is much easier when combined with use of a crate. Dogs, they say, will naturally avoid soiling their ‘den’ and ‘hold it’ until they’re released to go outside. Opponents counter that locking the dog into a cage barely large enough to turn around in suppresses its natural desire to roam. It removes the dog’s ability to explore its environment at will and to soak up stimulating sights and smells. Those against the use of crates point to the frequent instances when puppies will play in their own waste and simply soil themselves worse. Locking the dog away, they say, is more for the convenience of the owner than the well-being of the dog. As with any debate of this kind, there are no doubt good and bad points on both sides. Objective studies on the issue are sparse and equally divided. Provided certain ‘rules’ are observed, there’s probably no harm, and possibly some good, to be had from crate training. Even proponents recognize that excessive lengths of forced crate time is bad for the dog. Any dog locked up in a small space is not getting needed exercise and may be restrained from eliminating for longer than is healthy. So, keep the crate time to no more than two hours maximum. Opponents worry that crated dogs can injure themselves through a natural desire to escape or rowdiness inside the cage. Make sure that the collar won’t snag. Check to ensure there are no sharp edges on the crate, and that construction is strong enough to withstand the dog’s normal jostling and pushing on the walls. Above all, make sure it can’t tip over. Advocates assert that crate trained animals will do better on car, train or plane trips. They’re used to the confinement and they have a familiar-smelling environment with them during a time of stress. For owners who have to take their pets on long trips, there may be some value in this view. Critics suggest that (except in cases of permanent re-location) it’s best to leave pets at home. Apart from short trips to the grocery store or vet or to a neighbor’s house, animals fare better in familiar territory. But, if you must take them, be especially careful to do so in a well-constructed crate. Make sure no objects can fall into, not just out of, the cage. Though the debate isn’t likely to be settled anytime soon, exercising common sense is the best way to judge the actual net effect – good or bad – on your particular pet. Try leaving the door open after a few weeks of training and see whether they seek or avoid the crate. Let the dog weigh in on the question.
Sometimes the distinction between training and control is too easily lost. Using commands and hand gestures, with leashes or treats, to solicit desired behavior is training. Using choke or ‘no-bark’ collars, electronic fences and similar devices is for control.
Control isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dogs naturally have and seek a social hierarchy in which one is the alpha (leader) and in any human-dog pair the human has to take that role. The alternative is property destruction, unsafe conditions for dogs and humans, human frustration and a maladjusted dog.
Choke collars were invented to assist in gaining control. Dogs, like humans, are individuals. Some are naturally more assertive or slower to learn. For ones that don’t respond to a normal leather or nylon collar, a metal choke collar can provide extra discouragement from pulling and leaping.
The potential downside is that, used improperly – all too easy to do – they can be counter-productive and even dangerous. Choke collars fit only one way and when fitted should allow from one to three fingers gap between the neck and the collar. Three for larger dogs, one for smaller. Generally a collar two inches longer than the neck circumference will do.
Used improperly, though, choke collars can pinch the skin – producing hot spots that scratching will make worse. They can also accidentally compress the trachea. An instantaneous pull-and-release isn’t harmful, though by design produces discomfort, but for dogs that tend to pull against the leash this movement is difficult to do. Generally not recommended, especially for smaller dogs.
Prong collars are less dangerous than they appear, but – in this trainer’s view – have almost no positive characteristics. The only good aspect of the design is their limited diameter – they can only close down so far. However, an animal with such a strong tendency to pull that prongs look attractive needs more than a quick fix consisting of choking and poking. That animal needs committed attention and behavior modification training.
Halter collars, which wrap around the neck and the muzzle, but don’t prevent panting or impair drinking can give extra control. The downside is, since they don’t restrict biting or grasping, half their potential value is gone. An ordinary leash and collar, or even a chest halter might be preferable.
‘No-bark’ collars can sometimes help with those animals that persist in barking long after the initial impetus is gone. Barking is a natural response to potential threats and is also used to attract attention when one becomes separated from the pack. But, for reasons not well understood, some individuals continue barking for long periods or at the slightest provocation.
Electronic collars that discourage barking come in two types: noise and shock. Noise collars produce a short, unpleasant sound that distracts and tends to discourage continued barking.
Shock collars generate a short but painful electric shock that can be repeated and lengthy during prolonged or persistent barking. Objective tests of their effectiveness show varied results, though. As with prong collars, any dog needing one would benefit more from careful, professional help.
Sometimes quick fixes are tempting and useful… until they become substitutes for more beneficial (both to trainer and dog) long-term training. Taking the time to learn to get your dog’s attention and compliance without excessive reliance on control devices is preferred. The results are saner trainers and happier dogs.