Debarking Dogs
April 1, 2010

In the nine years since my family adopted Comet, I have heard her bark twice. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t heard her make some noise! Whenever we drive up to Comet’s favorite park to take her for a walk, she presses her nose against the window, wags her tail, and cries in excitement. Her high-pitched whine is earsplitting, but as soon as we clip on her leash and get her out of the car, she is silent again and just happy to be outside enjoying the fresh air. However, Comet’s not your typical dog. We’ve all seen (and heard) dogs who seem incomplete without a constant “woof” or bark, and though it can be cute for the first few minutes, after a while the noise gets on everybody’s nerves. Thankfully, Comet doesn’t have that problem, but many dogs do.

Lately, there has been some talk in the news about “debarking,” a surgical procedure which permanently prevents dogs from barking. At first this might seem like a good idea—especially if you have ever tried to get to sleep with your neighbor’s dog barking next door. But this procedure is not just an easy fix to an annoying problem. Debarking, also called convenience devocalization, is certainly not “convenient” for the dog (or, sometimes, the loud meowing cat). The procedure must be performed under general anesthesia and involves cutting and removing tissue from the animal’s vocal cords.  The result of this surgery is that instead of a bark, the animal will be silenced or only be able to utter a quiet raspy or hoarse sound. And to make matters worse, the surgery can be complicated and painful. Undergoing anesthesia for an unnecessary surgery is risky, itself. However, scarring and regrowth of tissue can force multiple surgeries, more pain, and more risk to the animal.

For a human, this is the equivalent of someone taking away your ability to talk just because they think you talk too much or they find your voice annoying. Can you imagine someone taking away your primary means of communication? Dogs communicate, in part, with their vocal chords, too. If this means of communication is taken from them, they may become very anxious. And because debarking does not get to the root of the primary issue—that many dogs bark because of a behavioral problem—the animal may develop destructive behaviors as an outlet for their frustration. When dogs feel bored, scared, anxious, or threatened, or when their guardians leave them alone, they may bark incessantly. Instead of going to the extreme of silencing a dog, the problem behavior needs to be identified and then modified with proper training.

Most reputable veterinary hospitals, including our very own Angell Medical Centers, will not perform devocalization surgeries. The MSPCA strongly supports laws banning this inhumane procedure. But it is a controversial subject. Noisy pets can make for unhappy neighbors and in turn lead to eviction for families who can’t curb the barking. Sometimes people are forced to choose between leaving their homes and getting rid of their pet. Devocalization might seem like a quick solution but it is actually a drastic measure that involves maiming a beloved pet and one that does not address the original behavioral issues that will still remain.

Three Things You Can Do:

Suggest training. If you hear of anyone having trouble with their noisy pet, suggest that they contact a trainer, veterinarian, or local animal adoption center where they can get solid information about retraining their pet. There are DVDs, books, magazines, and on-line articles that address many common behavioral issues. Explain that devocalization is inhumane and offer alternatives.

Write to your legislators and local newspapers. Many states, including Massachusetts, have active bills that are being considered. Writing to your state representatives and senators expressing your desire to ban devocalization will keep the bill moving in the right direction. In fact, a Massachusetts teenager is a driving force behind legislation that has already passed in the House of Representatives! Additionally, letters to the editors of newspapers will educate the public on the horrors of devocalization and gather support for this legislation.

Read. Keep up to date with animal welfare issues by reading as much as you can. The MSPCA’s website has a heap of information, as does your local library and various other animal welfare websites.

For more information, check out these articles and websites:

Bark Magazine (http://www.thebark.com/content/talking-training-victoria-stilwell)

Best Friends (http://network.bestfriends.org/9935/news.aspx)

Dear Dog Ma (http://deardogma.wordpress.com/2009/02/02/teen-works-to-make-debarking-illegal/)

NY Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/nyregion/03debark.html)

TimesUnion.com (http://blog.timesunion.com/mydogbandit/massachusetts-house-votes-to-ban-de-barking/4475/)