How Boundaries Can Set Us Free

Training a golden retriever on an underground electric fence offers larger lessons on life.

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Posted in , Apr 15, 2016

Edward Grinnan trains Gracie on an underground electric fence and learns some lessons about boundaries and freedom.

No one wants to intentionally hurt their dog, least of all me, I like to think. I never use harsh discipline. Never hit. Most of what I need to communicate, positive and negative, I do with tone of voice and the occasional lecture. But this weekend I had to deliberately administer corrective pain to my sweet, one-year-old golden retriever, Gracie. Believe me, now I know what parents mean when they say to their misbehaving kids, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Except Gracie wasn’t misbehaving. I was setting her up and putting her in a situation where she would be punished by a jolt of electricity through no fault of her own.

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It was time to train her on the underground boundary fence that we’d put in for our late golden, Millie, eight years ago that delivers an electric shock through a special collar if your dog wanders too close. It defined about an acre or so of land where Millie was allowed to roam free. Back then the fence guy did the training as part of the installation. He had no emotional investment. He went around test-shocking dogs all the time. It was his job to show them their boundaries. I just watched. And still it was difficult when Millie yelped. It only took once but I couldn’t bring myself to even look. Now I would have to do it myself, and I wasn’t sure I could. It felt like a betrayal of Gracie’s trust in me, hard-won trust as any dog owner knows.

I kept telling myself it was the right thing to do, a small price to pay if it meant keeping my dog from dashing out in the road and being hit by a car or roaming up into the woods and having a nasty run-in with a porcupine or a pack of coyotes. Gracie is so innocent. She’d assume a skunk would just love to play with her. Still, I was beginning to feel more and more like a coward when it came to taking the final step.

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First I had to restore all the marker flags along the fence line, about a hundred and fifty of them, a number of them way up in the thorny thickets in the wooded hillside above the house. There were stretches where the old flags were completely gone and overgrown. To locate the fence line in those areas I brought along the dog collar with the battery pack and prongs that transmit the shock. When I felt the shock I knew where to put a new marker flag. I must have shocked myself a dozen times—it hurt—finding the wire, a kind of pre-penance, I suppose. In a perverse way it felt good. I deserved it. It felt just. I felt like behaviorist B.F. Skinner himself.

Then came the first part of training. This involved putting Gracie on a leash (but not the electric collar) and then charging a group of flags and yelling “No! No! No!” as we got up close to them and rushing her back. I then hugged her and praised her to the skies. I liked this part of the training so much I kept doing it long after Gracie got the point, which was after maybe three times. Finally she refused to charge, looking at me as if to say, “I get it already. You don’t like the flags. Now I’m bored.” I believe dogs often think we humans are crazy but I think Gracie thought I was crazier than usual that morning.

That was enough for one day, I decided magnanimously. Gracie and I hiked up East Mountain and had a late lunch at the top. I imagined I could see the little red flags fluttering down on our property and thought about boundaries that are placed on us…by our parents, our teachers, our families and communities, our jobs and professions, our marriages and friendships, the boundaries we place on ourselves. And especially the boundaries God imposes on us. What are the Ten Commandments if not a definitive set of boundaries for our behavior? Where would we be without boundaries? And that jolt of guilt when we cross them, isn’t that our conscience sending us a corrective reminder, a little zap? 

I knew where Millie had gone without boundaries, by the way. The underground electric fence worked like a dream with her, and I assumed she had fully internalized the limits of her yard. She had a GPS map in her head. She never had a problem. Smart dog. Good dog. Perfect dog. I always put the zap collar on her anyway and checked the system before letting her out. The whole thing seemed like a formality, though. Until one day when she was a mature seven, and I ran into a neighbor from down the road who couldn’t wait to tell me how nice it was that Millie was coming to visit her new puppy in the evenings.

I marched right home and confronted my golden. “What are you up to?” I demanded.

I called the fence guy who said the battery in the collar was probably dead so I put in a new one. That night we let Millie out as usual. A few minutes later I heard a distant yelp. A few minutes after that Millie stalked into the house with what I swear was a look of supreme indignation on her face.  So even the sainted Millie had a sneaky and deceitful aspect to her, perfectly willing to test limits and break boundaries…and doing it at night so we couldn’t see her! I couldn’t have been more surprised yet it pleased me no end that Millie had a mind enough of her own to explore the status quo in secret. I was glad she wasn’t perfect. I respected her for it though she was never going to get away with it again.

The day after flag practice it was time to apply the “correction.” I hated the word because Gracie hadn’t done anything wrong that required correcting. I put the collar on her, adjusting it so the prongs made contact with her skin, apologizing like a fool and promising many treats. I led her up to the flags near the driveway. She looked at me like, “Not this again.” I moved her closer, closer. She didn’t yelp. Instead she leapt up in the air, this 70-pound pup, about a foot off the ground, like a startled cat. I caught my breath. She shot me an urgent look, a knowing look, rushed to my side and pressed hard up against me, tail swishing slightly, as if to say, “Oh, that’s what the big deal is about the flags!”

No anger. No fear, even. Just this kind of understanding, as if all the pieces had fallen into place, as if she had been wondering about this flag madness all along. I took her leash off and set her free. She glanced at me a couple of times questioningly—what, no leash?—then took of flying around the yard in joyous circles, running, running, running.

I sat in the weathered seat of an old wooden swing attached to a high branch of an ash tree and began to swing. Gracie gamboled around the yard. At one point she veered a little close to some flags and changed direction quite athletically in mid-stride. Beautiful, simply and utterly beautiful to behold. I swung higher and higher, perhaps pressing my own boundaries, seeing her turn circles from above, delirious to be running wild. Only then, as I kicked my legs and reached the upper limit of the arc of the swing, did it finally strike me that it is sometimes boundaries that set us free.

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