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“Heel. Sit. Whisper. Good Dog.” On debarking in dogs

Posted Feb 02 2010 10:00pm 2 Comments

Spied on the front page of The New York Times this morning: “Heel. Sit. Whisper. Good Dog.” Surgery to cut the vocal cords of barky dogs is losing favorit reports. Amid such current front page news as food coupons for hungry Haitians and Gates’ POV on “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” comes the “news” that debarking is no longer on the “in” list.

While I’m gratified that the New York Times took the time to write about the problem of excessive canine vocalization and the less-than-favored status of the debarking procedure among veterinariansI can’t help but wonder whether the debarking procedure actually gained some cred in the telling. After allamong vets the procedure is currently considered so outdated that no practicing colleague I know of will perform it.

Even my local veterinary surgeonsafter declining to “devocalize” several dogsadopted a strict policy with the idea of stopping the questions at the front desk. Having to discuss the issue on an individual basis led to some hand-wringingit seems. Because nobody wants to start down that slippery slope.

Except maybe the NYT by telling the tale of Néstlethe Dachshund-ey apartment dweller who hoarsely announces the arrival of his master (a veterinarianno less)the presence of a neighbor down the hallthe beep-beep of a backing truckthe burp of a Taxithe toast’s status...

We all know dogs like this. “Extreme vocalizers” we call them. They’re just highly attuned to sensory inputs (particularly auditory cues) and to having their say whenever they feel the urge (which is often). In many cases it’s perfectly appropriatethis barking. Sometimes it’s exactly what the breed was bred to do. Or the stress associated with an indoor-only lifestyle and the separation anxiety some of us know so well.

There are ways to deal with the problem via training and behavior modificationbut for many it’s an issue most easily solved through lifestyle change (LOTS of exercise does work)moving to the suburbsor finding the dog a new place to live. Only rarely does debarking come into play. And when it doesowners tend to keep it a secret. They don’t want their friends and neighbors to know they’d do something most of us now perceive as cruel.

Truth be toldfrom an animal welfare standpoint I don’t view it as any worse than declawing (which I’ll concede to do on rare occasions if I’m convinced an owner has tried everything else first). But debarking is another story for three reasons:

#1 It’s never been widely accepted (except by certain factions in the show dog arena) which makes it [socially] far easier to refute as a necessary procedure.

#2 The procedure is not taught by veterinary programs so few veterinarians have learned how to perform it. That means that when we do we have to contend more acutely with the following:

#3 Due to its sensitive location and the nature of the procedure (cutting the vocal cords in the larynx)it’s a complication-intensive procedureeven for boarded veterinary surgeons. Bleeding can cause life-threatening aspiration pneumonia in the short-termpost-op swelling can lead to asphyxiationand scar formation can chronically complicate breathing in the long term.

All that...and they still sort-of bark. Some even vocalize more annoyingly than before.

Then there's the issue of the stealth attack dog: Some sadistic owners would have their dog play the "silent" predator after having them debarked. No noise. No warning. No retreat. No escape. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement for either the bad actors who ask to have their violent dogs debarked...or the veterinarians who may knowingly support more injurious canine behavior.

Just as for claw use in catsbarking is a normal dog behavior and needs to be addressed within the context of “this-is-what-they-do.” So if you don’t want a barkerdon’t get a notoriously barky dog (like a Dachshund). And don’t even think of a beagle.

Here’s the upshot: Buying or breeding dogs with the certain knowledge that you’ll have to devocalize them––as the Dachshund-owning veterinarian and the sheepdog-breeding exhibitor in the NYT piece have done––is just plain stupid. Yet given their stature as dog-experts of sortsI can’t help but think it somehow lends credence to their defense of the procedure.

So sad. More so because a front page pet story shouldn’t stoop to attract the gee-whiz audience. I meanif I weren’t so annoyed at the topic’s unintended consequencesI’d be really PO’ed at being pandered to.


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Debarking  (Bark Softening) - Myths and Facts

Animal rights groups attack life-saving debarking procedure

By Charlotte McGowan

There is a move around the country by animal rights interests to outlaw the practice of debarking dogs. So much misinformation about this procedure abounds that it is truly time to set the record straight. As a dog breeder since the late 50’s, I can tell you that debarking in the hands of a well trained veterinarian is a very useful tool for breeders and owners and it saves lives. I have had many dogs debarked over the years and the usefulness of this procedure should not be ignored. I know friends who have used debarking for decades with no ill effects on the dogs. Rescue groups for noisy breeds have used this procedure to save the lives of dogs that might otherwise be euthanized.

Q: What is debarking?
A:This is a minor surgical procedure to reduce tissue in the vocal chords. Some vets use a biopsy punch to remove a small amount of tissue. . Other surgeons use a laser for the same purpose. The vocal chords are not removed! The goal of the surgery is to lower the volume of the dog's bark and the ability of the bark to carry over a wide area. This procedure is sometimes referred to as devocalization but it does not remove the dog’s voice. It is more accurately called bark-softening. The actual procedure is quick and recovery is also quick.

Q: Does debarking remove the dog's ability to bark?
A:No. Debarked dogs continue to bark. What debarking does is to lower the volume of the bark so that it does not carry for miles around.

Q. Is it true debarked dogs cannot communicate any longer?  
A. No. This is a prominent myth. Debarked dogs continue to bark, whine and vocalize in all the ways dogs do.  

Q: Is the surgery always successful?
A: Sometimes scar tissue forms and heavy barkers will become louder than when  first debarked. The skill of the veterinarian is also a factor. Some vets do not know how to perform the surgery so it is necessary to find a vet who knows how to do the procedure.   

Q: Is this a "cruel and barbaric procedure?"
A: No.  People with little or no experience raising naturally noisy and talkative breeds may tell you this. People with breeds like Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties) can tell you that this procedure is simple and that it saves lives of dogs that might otherwise be dumped in the pound for their barking. Debarking is a more simple procedure than removing the uterus in spaying or removing testicles in neutering. Many dogs that are herding dogs, working dogs or small dogs can bark a lot. Many mixed breed dogs can also be heavy barkers. In modern society with heavily built up neighborhoods sometimes any barking can cause problems between neighbors.

Q: Do dogs suffer emotionally from debarking?
A:It is a huge myth to suggest dogs are emotionally disturbed by debarking. Debarked dogs can bark. Even if reduced sound comes out of their mouths, they don't seem to notice that their bark is softer.  Debarked dogs that are not being constantly disciplined for barking, in fact, tend to be much happier dogs!

Q: Is it true that only criminals and drug dealers debark dogs?
A:This is the biggest myth about debarking! The majority of people who debark dogs are responsible dog owners at the end of their rope with dogs whose bark is so piercing that they can be heard for miles around. To be breed specific, Sheltie, Collie and other herding breed owners are the people most apt to do this. Herding breeds, by nature can be very vocal in their work. They also are joyful in their barking. They bark at squirrels, strangers, in play. They bark just to bark. Sheltie and Collie breeders are not criminals and drug dealers!

Q: Is it true you can train any dog not to bark?
A:I defy some of the so-called new wave of dog behaviorists to train a group of Shelties not to bark! Shelties in numbers larger than one love to do group barking. It is part of who they are. This can be true of any group of dogs.

Q: Isn't debarking a hazardous procedure?
A: Any procedure that requires anesthesia, whether it is a dental cleaning, spay, or debarking has intrinsic risks. The key to success is good veterinary skill in all these procedures.

Q: Animal rights activists have said that dogs can be debarked by shoving a pipe down their throats. Is that possible?
A.  This is an oversized myth. If someone shoves a pipe down a dog’s throat they might kill the dog. This urban legend has continued in the media.

Q: Do people debark just to avoid training their dogs?
A: The majority of people who debark have run out of options and are trying to be good neighbors. We are not talking about people who are irresponsible and leave their dogs out all night or ignore chronic barking. We are talking about people who are faced with having to move or having to give up the dog. It is a procedure of last resort. A piercing bark,  even on limited occasions, can be enough to cause a war in built up residential neighborhoods. Animal rights interests have painted debarking as a cruel quick fix when in fact it is something no owner does lightly.

Q: Is excessive barking due to bad breeding?
A: Here's another myth. Shelties  kept birds of prey away from lambs on remote Shetland. They also kept livestock out of the crofters meager gardens and protected fish drying on the beach from eagles and other raptors. Barking is a useful tool for this work. It also helps let the owner know where the dog is. Unfortunately, in modern life, neighbors are not impressed when  dogs bark.

Q: Do breeders debark dogs to hide them so they don’t have to license them?
A: No. Many breeders own more than one dog and good breeders who want to be good neighbors sometimes debark a really loud dog. Being a good neighbor is part of being responsible. 

Q: Anti debarking legislation is being put forth around the country as part of anti dog fighting bills. Isn't this a good idea?
A: Criminals pay not attention to laws. They are not going to license their dogs in the first place, let alone report any that may be debarked. The people impacted by anti debarking laws are responsible owners, especially people with talkative dogs. Animal rights interests want to outlaw any procedures they deem unnecessary. Responsible and compassionate veterinarians should understand that debarking can save lives by keeping dogs out of shelters and in homes. While some dogs, especially when they are the only dog in a home, can be trained to reduce their barking, others cannot be trained to the point where neighbors will not be annoyed.

Q: Do you debark ALL your dogs?
A: No. Some dogs are less noisy than others. I last debarked a dog ten years ago. This was a dedicated  squirrel chaser with a high pitched voice.  The squirrels are always going to be out there. I wish I could train the squirrels to move to another neighborhood but that's just about as hard as training a sheltie not to bark.

Charlotte McGowan is the author of The Shetland Sheepdog in America and is an honorary Life Member of the American Shetland Sheepdog Association.  She has bred dogs for over 50 years.  She has been an AKC dog show judge for over 30 years.
This is obviously an animal rights vet and not someone who has the pulse of the field. I am deeply concerned about the exaggerated problems because this means that she does not know how to do the procedure correctly. You do not cut the vocal chords. You enlarge the opening so that the bark is less high pitched. The same as when you flatten a ballon opening the wind screams as it passes out. But if you open the opening wider there is no scream also the wind goes in and out easier.  I am surprised that a professional would put politics and a cult movement above her professional training. It is clear she has no sympathy for the animal that will be sent to the shelter because it barks too loud.
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