Escaping Dogs: Some Fences Are Better Than Others

Dogs are more likely to escape from electronic fences, and there are other reasons not to use them too, study shows.

A dog peers over a physical fence - which is the type of fencing with fewer escapes, according to this study of escapes and dog bites
Photo: Cora Mueller (Shutterstock)

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The survey, by Dr. Nicole Starinksy (Ohio State University) et al, asked 974 dog owners about how they kept their dogs confined to the yard, whether they had escaped – and whether they had ever bitten someone.

The results showed that an electronic fence was the least effective method of containing a dog: 44% of dogs contained by one had escaped. Dogs were less likely to have escaped from a tether (27%) or from a see-through fence (e.g. chain link or slatted wood) (23%) or a privacy fence that is not see-through (also 23%).

The report states,
“Regardless of their level of training, dogs are never 100% consistent in their responses. An electric shock from an electronic fence system may be a sufficient deterrent to prevent a dog from escaping under normal circumstances, but may not be when the incentive to escape (eg, the chance to chase another dog or person) is particularly high. In addition, electronic fences are liable to fail because of power outages, battery depletion, or other technical problems, potentially leading to an increased rate of escape.”
The method by which the dog was trained on the electronic fence had no effect on the rate of escape. 73% were trained by a trainer from the fencing company, 19% using the manual, and a handful by other trainers or not trained.

The survey found that 4.6% of the dogs had bitten a person in the past, and 7.7% had bitten another dog, according to the owner reports. The type of containment method was not linked to whether or not the dogs had bitten someone.

However, there were some behaviours that were linked to the dog having bitten a person: growling, snarling, and/or trying to bite another person.

The implication for dog owners is that if your dog is displaying any of these behaviours, it would be a good idea to get help before the behaviour escalates to an actual bite.

Don’t punish the dog for growling, because this does not address the underlying reason why the dog is growling and may put people at greater risk. It would be a good idea to seek professional help (see my article on how to choose a dog trainer).

The survey found 12% of owners left their dog alone and unsupervised in the yard when they were not at home. These dogs were more likely to have bitten another person than dogs that were never left unsupervised. Of course, it’s possible some of these dogs had been obtained because of guarding tendencies. Another risk factor for biting was having unknown people come into the yard on an everyday basis.

The scientists write
“To prevent bites to people, owners should consider keeping their dogs indoors when they are not home and unable to supervise their behavior in the yard and prevent frequent uninvited visitors from passing through the yard. Additionally, owners of dogs that display aggressive greeting behaviors should seek professional assistance because these dogs may be more likely to bite.”
Dog owners were recruited for the study at 8 pet stores in Columbus, Ohio, so this is not a representative sample of dog owners, but it is a large one. A physical fence (see-through or not) was the most common method of keeping a dog in the yard (78%). 14% used an electronic fence and just under 8% used a tether.

A little dog peers out of a fence - and study shows a physical fence is the best way to confine your dog as more dogs escape from electronic fences
Photo: dezi (Shutterstock)

While this study found that dogs escape from electronic fences at twice the rate of a physical fence, there are other reasons not to use electronic fences too: other research shows there are welfare concerns with using electronic shock collars on dogs

I think it’s important to note that all of these figures for escapes are quite high. It shows it’s essential for dog owners to ensure their dog has up-to-date identification to help them get re-united in the event of a lost dog. A collar with a tag and a microchip can make all the difference to getting a pet back.

Don’t forget to ensure the microchip company has your up-to-date details. Teaching your dog to come when called is also essential and will help if you happen to witness an escape (more advice on teaching recall here).

In Ohio, where this study took place, there are no laws against tethering a dog, but in many places there are laws against tethering dogs for more than a certain period of time and/or using certain collars (like prong collars) with a tether. For a summary of the law on tethering in US states, see this table provided by Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Centre.

Dogs that are tethered for any length of time often develop behavioural issues, are restricted in their movements in a way that may interfere with the Five Freedoms, and are at risk of neglect. For more information, see the BC SPCA position statement on tethering of dogs.

For these reasons, even though the escape rate for tethered dogs was not as high as for an electronic fence, it is not a good alternative even if it is legal where you are. A physical fence of some kind had the lowest escape rate and would be a much better choice. A physical fence keeps the dog in, and is also the only way to keep other dogs and wildlife out. Alternately, of course, you could always leave the dog inside the house, which is the best choice of all.

Another finding of note in this study is that there was no association between breed group and bite history. This is in line with previous research that any dog can bite if it is anxious or threatened.

The results of this research suggest a physical fence is the best way to keep your dog in your yard.  To prevent bites, the dog should not be left unsupervised and uninvited people should not have access to the yard.

These results also show the importance of ensuring your dog has up-to-date identification, and of dealing with any aggression problems sooner rather than later.

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

What do you think is the best way to keep your dog in your yard or garden?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Starinsky, N. S., Lord, L. K., & Herron, M. E. (2017). Escape rates and biting histories of dogs confined to their owner's property through the use of various containment methods. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 250(3), 297-302.

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