By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008
To some suburbanites, good fences don't make such good neighbors when you can't see them.
That's the issue facing the Town Council of Somerset, an incorporated enclave within Chevy Chase, which will consider next month regulating the placement of invisible electronic dog fences. The devices confine pets to their home turf with a low-wattage cable buried along the perimeter of a yard.
The proposal would require setbacks of at least three feet from sidewalks and 14 feet from curbs without sidewalks.
With several houses adding the systems in recent months, town leaders want to make sure that unknowing pedestrians aren't upset, or upended, by the sight of dogs charging toward them with no visible means of restraint.
The community is just one of several in the country that have taken regulatory notice of the systems, which are becoming more common in tightly packed suburban neighborhoods. Albuquerque, for example, has banned them, and Louisville allows them only for dogs that have been spayed or neutered.
"We've got a number of them in the town now," said Somerset's longtime mayor, Walter Behr. "On most of our streets, we only have sidewalks on one side, and you can't avoid these yards unless you walk in the street. It can be frightening if the dogs are too close."
It was frightening for Somerset resident Alison Fortier, who was walking her Labrador retriever along Dorset Avenue last year when two barking dogs suddenly came running from behind a nearby house. With no owner, chain or fence in sight, the animals charged toward Fortier with, as far as she could see, nothing to stop them.
The dogs pulled up short, right at the edge of the sidewalk, Fortier said. But not before sparking a barking lunge from her lab that nearly pulled Fortier off her feet.
"I could have broken something," Fortier said. "I found it very unsettling. For somebody who's older, or a child, it can be very scary if you don't know they are going to stop."
Owners say the systems are more affordable and visually cleaner than chain-link or masonry, not to mention easier to mow around. They are particularly popular in neighborhoods where traditional fences are forbidden by zoning or home association rules.
Sally Shea, another Somerset resident, said she and her husband chose an electronic fence recently because it maintained the open feel of their corner lot, didn't require a building permit and was easier to have installed than a solid barrier.
"It seemed like a speedier solution for our house," Shea said.
The systems require that the dog, or cat, be fitted with a transmitter-equipped collar that delivers a small shock whenever the animal roams too close to the buried wire. With training, the pet learns to treat the invisible boundary as a strict no-go line. Animal control experts say the devices are effective when the animals are properly fitted and trained, but they don't recommend them for aggressive or dangerous dogs.
There have been few complaints about the fences in Montgomery County, according to the police department's animal control division.
"The problems are usually with batteries that go down or collars that are not adjusted to fit the dog correctly," said Lt. Paul Starks, a police spokesman.
Elsewhere in the region, the District does not regulate electronic fences. A District animal control spokeswoman said the office has received no complaints.
In Arlington County, the devices aren't regulated, but the animal control contractor recommends against them.
"What if the power goes out? There's no way to make them 100 percent effective," said Kay Speerstra, executive director of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, which handles animal enforcement for the county. The group also will not let dogs be adopted by households that rely exclusively on electronic barriers.
Several companies market versions of the system, which range in cost from under $100 for do-it-yourself models to thousands for installed deluxe systems. No one tracks the popularity of the devices, many of which are sold over the Internet. But Invisible Fence of Montgomery Country in Darnestown, the county's only authorized dealer for the original brand of electronic fence, installs more than 500 a year, increasingly in closer-in areas such as Chevy Chase and Bethesda.
But as the systems have become more popular in dense neighborhoods, their shortcomings have attracted more attention. Poorly trained pooches, or those with thick fur, have been known to race across the zap line in spite of the shock. Fortier recently found a shock-collar-wearing husky in her yard. She led the dog back to its home, several houses away, crossing the electronic border.
"I know the fence was operating because when we went up the driveway, she yelped," Fortier said.
Several communities throughout the country require minimum setbacks for the fences from streets and sidewalks; others allow them only within the perimeter of old-fashioned solid fences. And because the devices keep the home dogs in but don't keep visiting dogs out, including those with romantic intentions, Louisville recently made it illegal to keep a dog within a electronic fence unless it has been spayed or neutered.
Last year, Albuquerque banned them within city limits, saying they didn't fulfill the city's legal standard for the secure enclosures required for outdoor dogs.
"We just felt, all in all, that invisible fences don't meet our criteria for protecting the public or the dogs themselves," said Sally Mayer, the Albuquerque council member who sponsored the ban. "I'm a dog lover, and I don't automatically assume a dog is going to attack. But it can be terrifying to walk with small children because those dogs come running and you're never 100 percent sure that they're going to stop."
Inevitably, the devices have become a popular sub-genre on YouTube, where dozens of videos show young people gleefully zapping themselves and friends with the electronic collars. But some animal lovers object to intentionally shocking a pet, no matter how mild the buzz. Parts of Australia have banned shock collars used for training, and Britain might consider similar legislation this year, according to news reports. An alternative method that uses a startling burst of compressed gas instead of a shock to train dogs is becoming popular in Europe and Asia and slowly gaining ground in the United States, according to its manufacturer, Multivet of Montreal.
Neil Fortin, a law professor at Michigan State University who drafted a set of legal guidelines on the use of electronic fences, said they are ripe for further regulation.
"I'm surprised we haven't seen more communities enacting regulations, given how popular they've become," Fortin said. "It was getting very difficult to walk a dog in my own neighborhood with all these dogs charging down to the sidewalk."
Such regulations could be a problem in closer-in suburbs, said Brian Murphy, owner of Invisible Fences of Montgomery County. His installations include training for the animals, posting yard signs to alert neighbors and, usually, a setback of several feet from streets and sidewalks. But some city lots are too small to allow for a wide buffer, he said, and a mandated setback could make the system unworkable for some houses.
"If we can't allow for a fair yard for the dog, I'm not going to put it in," Murphy said. "The one we just did in Chevy Chase, if we'd had a bigger setback, the dog would have been sitting on the porch."