Electronic Containment System or Ambush Predator?

Much has been written about electronic shock (training) devices in their various forms. With all models a dog wears a collar fitted with an electronic device with two metal rods touching the neck of the dog, delivering electric shock.

Just a tingle, or a terror?
Just a tingle, or a terror?

Delivery systems fall into three categories: 1) A person must press a button on a handheld remote control to initiate the shock; 2) The collar has a microphone to detect (barking) sound and trigger shock; 3) A buried wire emits a signal detected by the collar, triggering shock.

I will address the third category known as Electronic Containment System (ECS). It is sometimes called invisible fence, hidden fence, buried fence or some variant of that theme, making it sound less threatening.

I prefer to call them devices designed to ambush a hapless dog that comes close to the trap. They relieve the owner of direct responsibility for delivering shock. “The dog can avoid the shock by staying away from the boundary” they rationalize.  “It’s not my fault, the dog did it to himself.”

Consequences of electronic shock are well documented in the Pet Professional Guild “Position Statement on The Use of Shock in Animal Training” including 26 references.

I consider ECS an ambush predator due to the insidious nature of the beast. During installation a wire is buried just under the surface in a boundary perimeter which the dog is unaware of.

Dogs are unaware human beings consider little parcels of the natural world their property and then divide claims with the aid of professional surveyors who measure a residential lot. Dogs do not read documents prepared by attorneys with legal descriptions of the precise boundaries of said property.  They just live there.

All a dog knows is that it depends upon and trusts a human caretaker to be a faithful steward. Stewards have a responsibility for those entrusted in their care to keep them safe and sound, so man’s best friend does not suspect their caretaker has laid a trap that he cannot see, buried beneath a property boundary he cannot conceive of.

In a process purportedly meant to “teach” a dog the boundary so he learns not to cross it, the owner leads his trusting furry family member to the edge of the yard and intentionally forces him into proximity so the collar delivers a shock.  Yikes!

Would any rational parent lead a toddler into the street to be struck by a car to “teach” the toddler to stay out of the street?  Dogs, after all, are much like toddlers in terms of cognitive and emotional development.

Some models deliver an electronic sound such as a beep prior to the shock. At first, the beep is just a meaningless sound.  Since the owner is setting the dog up to fail, the dog learns a lesson through associative learning: beep predicts shock, equals pain and fear.


For owners who proudly declare they “only” use the beep function and never shock their dog (again) I must report the beep has the same physiological and psychological effect as the shock. It triggers a startle response.

If indeed they shocked their dog “just once” and it learned to fear the beep, that constitutes a one-time learning event which is based in the primitive part of the brain.  Yes, fear is a powerful teacher.

In other words, the flight-fight system is activated. An intensely frightening experience can produce a lasting memory in a dog, or a human for that matter.  In fact PTSD is an example of that process.  PTSD permanently changes the brain, as we know from human psychiatry.

If I close my fist, draw back my arm and punch you in the face I may do that
“just” once…and you will develop a conditioned emotional response of fear. I might even boast that now I “only” need to make a fist and must no longer hit you in order to inhibit your behavior.

You will remember. So does a dog.

Recently I learned the consequences of such events in conversation with a client, Krista DeBellis, founder of Wisconsin Reactive Dog Support Group. It is one thing to intellectually consider research data reported by objective scientists, and another to hear real-life consequences affecting dogs and their families.

Krista bought a home in 2005 and the seller related an event that occurred just prior to closing the transaction. The seller had two Westies and installed an ECS in the front yard. As per the “training” process the owner took his little dogs to the edge of the yard.

One of the Westies froze in terror when it was shocked, entering a state of learned helplessness. It remained in place, continually being shocked with electricity.

As the seller explained to Krista, the dog refused to leave the house ever again. Krista saw evidence of this when she observed the carpeting stained by dog waste and numerous scratches on the inside of the door, left by tiny panic-stricken paws.

The dog remembered.

Krista had a five-month Cocker Spaniel and never used the ECS with Monty. He was “the star of the neighborhood” and enjoyed meeting people and dogs during daily walks. One of his regular social visits was a house down the street where a Boston Terrier and a newly acquired Labrador puppy lived.

Star of the neighborhood!
Star of the neighborhood!

When Monty passed by the house his Terrier and Labrador friends happily met him along the sidewalk and they got along famously…until the homeowner installed an ECS.

Krista quickly saw changes in behavior as both dogs began pacing the yard in a state of high arousal whenever Monty approached. The pacing grew more intense with the passage of time and the Terrier was profoundly affected, eventually lunging and rushing the street.  He rushed toward the electronic boundary, yelped in pain, and retreated in fear.

The Terrier learned to associate pain and fear with the approach of his friend, Monty.

This continued for some time and then one day Krista walked Monty past the house and the Terrier passed the invisible “barrier” and attacked her dog.  When a dog is highly motivated an invisible “barrier” no longer serves that function after all.

As I heard this my mind raced to a study published by Richard Polsky in Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science titled “Can Aggression in Dogs Be Elicited Through the Use of Electronic Pet Containment Systems?

If you need a hint, in animal research when scientists want to elicit aggression in lab animals, they use shock.  Pain and fear can teach an animal, but what does it teach?

Monty was lucky and the Terrier caused no real physical damage. On another occasion the Terrier burst past the boundary and was lost for days.  Some time later the owners got rid of their Labrador telling Krista they “could no longer control him.” I wonder how adoptable the Lab was once the damage was done?

People who were mauled while passing by dogs in yards with ECS were not so fortunate, as reported by Polsky in his research. None of those dogs had any aggressive history prior to their exposure to ECS.

Those dogs learned too.

One of the tricky things about any form of shock is that while we know punishment causes fallout we cannot predict exactly what will happen, or when, or how severe it will be. To use shock in dog “training” is to spin the Wheel of Misfortune.

In my experience with clients I learned how another Labrador puppy responded to ECS “training” in his back yard with such fear that he refused to go outside, and he was not yet housetrained. Good luck with that, Mr. pet owner.

Another poor dog client lived in a condominium with a small back yard and an even smaller front yard, both of which had ECS. The owner, who taught psychology at a local college, even set up ECS barriers within her home. Her dog was restricted to a couple of rooms with slippery wood floors and the ECS was sometimes active, and sometimes not.

That dog could never have known which space in his environment was safe and which was not, which probably accounted for the extreme instability I observed in his behavior.
On top of that he was left alone nearly 12-hours each day, six days a week with no mental stimulation or exercise. All he could do was peer out the back window and watch happy dogs passing by with their owners on the walking trail at the edge of the lawn…where the ECS lay ready to ambush him.

Sadly, he learned all too well what it means to live with shock.

I do my best to inform dog owners of scientific data and impress upon them the real-life consequences for pet dogs, and am grateful to Pet Professional Guild for continual development of educational materials for pet owners.  Thanks to Project Trade for enabling me to offer discounts in my services for aversive gear surrendered to me.

Project Trade Swap Box
Project Trade Swap Box

With help from colleagues in PPG I strive to empower more people make the transition from an attitude of ownership to stewardship. Remember folks, you are your dog’s best advocate!

About Daniel Antolec

Daniel H. Antolec, PCT-A, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA completed a 30-year police career which included several years as an instructor of two tactical fields. In 2007 he took a job in a dog daycare and began studying canine behavior and training, which led to credentialing as a professional trainer and behavior consultant. In 2012 Antolec founded Happy Buddha Dog Training. His Labradors (Buddha and Gandhi) are registered Pet Partners therapy dogs.


  1. Hi, We’re new homeowners in a somewhat rural area. Lots of woods and wildlife. My rescue dog is 10 and we previously lived in a condo. She’s accustomed to lots of leashed walks, which we still do in our new home. Sometimes we would like to be out in our yard gardening, working, relaxing, etc. with her but without the hassle of a leash. Challenge being that she has a very high prey drive. Bunnies and squirrels beware! She is never left outside alone so my question is about time when she is “supervised.” Most of our neighbors have electronic fences but I’m not a fan. My dog was clearly abused many years ago before I got her and she’s still pretty sensitive to sound and storms. The flip side being fencing in our entire yard is not really feasible. Any suggestions? We just want to spend time with her outside and not worry about her safety. thanks.

    1. Hi Tamara. My wife and I moved from a city to a home in the countryside. We have had five Labradors and three were reliable off-leash, one was not reliable until he was too old (12 years) to run off and explore the countryside and another is pretty reliable while supervised, but is often on a long lead…just to keep him safe. He was a lost dog that we adopted, and he also has a strong drive to chase critters. This is just my opinion, but I think putting your dog on a long tie-out cable while you are in the yard with him gives you a safety net (tie-out) and the opportunity to work with him by interrupting prey drive behavior and rewarding disengagement responses such as Leave it, Look and Touch. My high prey drive Lab is very responsive to these training cues. While it may not be possible with every dog, I have had great success teaching my dogs to disengage while chasing bunnies, birds, squirrels, opossum, raccoons, skunks, deer, turkeys and coyotes. Another option is to fence as much of the yard as you can afford. I was able to build my own fences and have a one-half acre dog paddock that is safe and allows my dogs considerable freedom. Doing the work yourself is much less expensive, if you are able to do so. Best wishes!

  2. I have quite a few training clients that have invisible fences. i don’t typically comment on it unless it comes into conversation. Then I do my best to educate them about the possible fallout when using shock to train. None have changed their minds and usually tell me how much kinder the fences are compared to 30 years ago and how the companies come out and train your dog so they won’t get shocked multiple times. My litmus test is like yours, I ask them if it would be okay to correct a toddler using shock. Honestly, they still don’t care. The excuse is that they can’t afford to fence in their yard or the neighborhood doesn’t allow fences or something similar to that. I’ve lost every one of those battles as the invisible fence companies have such slick advertising and appeal to the homeowner who doesn’t want to fork out the cash to fence in the whole yard with a wooden fence. I will never shut my mouth about it but it is an uphill battle for sure and I don’t see that changing any time soon.

    1. Thank you Heather. Denial and belief perseverance are powerful cognitive errors that may shield pet owners from cognitive dissonance. They want to be kind to their pets, yet they are willing to shock them. They are informed of the harmful consequences, yet they cling more tightly to their belief system. It would be painful to recognize the harm they have done, or may yet do to their pets. Yes, the industry that profits from shock devices are good at marketing, and that inspires me to improve my own marketing. I participate in Project Trade and have steadily added to my collection of shock devices, including a couple of ECS collars. In a few other cases I was able to educate pet owners and they chose not to buy an ECS in the first place. I am willing to continue fighting uphill battles in order to advocate for the welfare of pets. Thank you for doing your part!

  3. So, I have some questions about ECS…. I don’t use one and I probably wouldn’t due to the nature of the breeds I have. What I would like to know (and I guess I’m playing “devil’s advocate” here) is: with so much advancement in the product, why is it still “frowned upon”? I know people who use them and they use the name brand companies, not the do-it-yourself ones. As I understand it, the company comes out and does training with the owner and dog. They teach boundaries; the collars now used have multiple levels from sound to vibrations to various levels of shock. The training takes weeks and the reps come out frequently. Now, I’m curious… If the reps from the company finds a dog to be fearful/timid, do they suggest to the owners that the ECS may not be a good choice? Is there education regarding this? Or if the dog happens to be one of those who’ll break the boundary because what’s outside the fence is of such high value he’s willing to “take the hit” so-to-speak, will the fence company address this as not a good choice either? I am of the mindset that your dog should be trained to the boundaries of the property and have a solid recall if they are left off lead, but I’m also aware that this is rarely the case. So, if you have a ECS candidate that would do well with this type of situation, why not use it? I feel that the companies don’t just put the collar to it’s highest setting straight away so the dog “knows” what’s
    coming…. if they do, you obviously do not want to use them! If the ECS properly used, the dog has been trained appropriately and is a good candidate, why is this so bad? My friend has Airedales and in no way would she compromise the physical AND mental well-being of them- they are on ECS and they do absolutely fine with it. They’ve never had to be jolted like so many think has to happen.

    Thanks for hearing me out, I look forward to hearing what you have to say 🙂

    1. Hi Michele. Thank you for your comments and I am glad this has sparked conversation. As this is shared on Facebook I see comments from a veterinarian I know who sees the physical damage caused by shock, from pet owners who see the physical, emotional and behavioral damage, and from trainers who must then attempt to repair the damage. I am glad that we are all discussing this, and doubt that employees of manufacturers/installers of ECS engage in this sort of transparency.
      I rely upon science for factual information and invite you to read the (Pet Professional Guild) Position Statement on the Use of Shock in Animal Training; the link is in my blog. The position statement includes numerous references and resources, most of which have links to source documents. The data on shock devices is clear, which is why esteemed board certified veterinary behaviorists such as Dr. Karen Overall have supported the PPG position of “taking shock off the table.” I just attended the Applied Animal Behavior Conference in Madison (WI) and all three veterinary behaviorists repeatedly instructed the audience to never use punishment and never use shock, prong or choke collars in particular. Their presentations focused on anxious, fearful and aggressive behavior in dogs. As studies have already shown, those are among the fallout which dogs can experience with aversive methods and equipment such as shock.
      Education is available to those who want to learn.

    1. Hi Jeff. I have met Pat Miller and respect her knowledge and experience. At the Applied Animal Behavior Conference in Madison (WI) last weekend all three veterinary behaviorist were very clear in their warnings about using shock and other aversives. One of them frankly described resorting to punishment as “the lazy approach to training” and then went on to describe the emotional, behavioral and physical damage done by shock devices. All three speakers agreed scientific data shows no advantage to using aversive, and considerable risk of harm.

  4. Daniel,
    thank you for this extremely concise explanation. this is probably one of the best I’ve read. It is always a challenge getting clients to understand what these devices do to their dogs. the key is stopping them before they spend the money to install the fence. this article will definitely help. thanks for the resource!

    1. Hi Susan. Thank you. I meant to bridge the gap between scientific data (which some folks find hard to visualize in actual application) and the real-life experience of a family I know. Just a few days ago I met a client who adopted a puppy and sought training. Their first choice was a “military style” trainer who uses shock and choke collars. The family rejected the use of a shock collar on their dog…but was considering installing ECS. They did not see the connection between the two until I gave them a preview copy of this blog and we discussed the risks and alternatives to using shock, in any form. They were relieved to learn about ECS before harming their puppy and are a great family, dedicated to good stewardship for their new family member. Now we are teaching their puppy force-free and are seeing great results.

  5. Thank you for this article. We adopted an Australian shepherd in May 2015. It was not known to us at the time of adoption that her original family contained her with one of these invisible shock fences. Honestly, if I had known, I would not have bothered to meet her as I know the fall out that can happen. We found out a month later, when I emailed with the rescue group and the person who did her evaluation. Of course, by that time I was in love with our dog.

    She is a conflicted dog on leash, partly fearful of other dogs and also interested in them. The bigger fall out is the reactivity she shows in her fenced yard. From within the house, her barking is the normal alert barking – hey, someone’s here. But, from within her yard, it is ferocious sounding – but it is all fear. She is telling people and vehicles to stay the heck away. I’m working with a PPG trainer, but it is very slow going. We live very rurally, so it is not predictable when someone might show up. If I know someone will, I keep her in and we work below her threshold from the house. I am working on training people to tell me if and when they are coming over!

    Our sweet Suki has not been shocked since at least 2014, and yet this is still such a problem for her. I hate these fences and think they should be illegal.

    1. Hi Erin. I am sorry Suki was subjected to shock and still suffers the consequences. Thank goodness you adopted her and are working with a PPG trainer. One of my clients just founded a Facebook support group to ease her own sense of isolation and was amazed that in the first week over 112 people had joined. The exaggerated alarm response trainers call “reactivity” is common. Dr. Amy Pike, a board certified veterinary behaviorist with many years experience, stated at the Applied Animal Behavior Conference that she has seen a dramatic increase in such cases. Now she virtually exclusively sees 100 “reactive” clients each month. Other behavior experts have stated to me their practice has seen a dramatic increase in such cases in the last couple of decades. Perhaps more pet owners are seeking help, but they were of the opinion that the problem is also growing. Hang in there!

  6. There is one other scenario that I have seen. Being in a semi rural area we do have coyotes etc. That predator can get into YOUR containment area but you dog has no where to go – so basically you are setting the dog up to be killed. Great article!!

    1. Hi Sandy. Yes, and I would have cited such an example in my blog but it was based on the experience of another family. Their 25-pound dog was kept in the back yard within an ECS…until a coyote dragged it into the bush and tried to kill it. The little dog fought off the coyote but was seriously injured. It remained out of sight for two days, unable or unwilling to cross the ECS boundary to return home for help. In my view ECS does nothing to protect a pet, and gives the owner a false sense of security.

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