I’m a wimp when it comes to dog surgeries. I don’t own a cropped or docked breed; I agonize about dewclaws. I avoid spaying or neutering my dogs unless essential. I’ve never had a dog debarked — but I’m not sure that means I never would.
Debarking is one of those flashpoint words. I can bet several readers are stretching their typing fingers right now, ready to lambaste anyone who might stick up for the despicable procedure.
I bet they’ve also never had an incurable barker.
A long time ago, I lived next door to a dog I’d have been perfectly willing to try some home debarking on in the middle of the night, as she barked and barked and barked and barked and — OK, so I wouldn’t have actually done it, but I might have paid for her owners to get it done. But here’s the thing: If I, a dog lover, was stirred to such thoughts, what about the neighbors who didn’t even like dogs? Dogs have been poisoned for less; in fact, when I was a kid, our neighbor’s Schnauzers were poisoned, probably because of excessive barking.
It’s not just poisoning, or even neighbors. The Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue website presents four Shelties who wouldn’t stop barking. The first, Karmie, had oven cleaner sprayed in her throat to quiet her. “It took extensive surgery to repair all the damage. In addition to much of her throat tissue, she also lost 11 teeth. The gums had been burned away and bare roots were exposed.” The second, Lady, was found with her throat slit because of her barking. It took four hours of surgery to sew her back together. Alissa was found with her muzzle wired shut with bailing wire. She still bears the scars. Millie had already gone through three owners, each of whom gave her up because of her barking. She was just one year old.
PETA’s website says there are better ways to stop barking than debarking: Bring the dog inside, hire a trainer, put the dog in daycare, or hire a lawyer once the courts order debarking or euthanasia. Just a hunch, but I bet many responsible dog owners do let their dogs in the house (but would also like them to enjoy the yard), have tried training, and can’t afford or can’t find daycare. They may also prefer being considerate of neighbors over hiring a lawyer. What about these people?
But what about training? Yelling at the dog doesn’t work, of course. He just figures you’re joining in on the fun. And what kind of a relationship is that, anyway, if you’re yelling at your dog all the time?
Shock collars strike me as a pretty unpleasant solution. Citronella collars are a little better, but again, these are training with punishment. Karen Peak, who has worked as a dog trainer and behavior consultant for more 30 years at her West Wind Dog Training facility, says barking dogs are one of the top three issues she sees. She doesn’t advocate debarking as a first choice, but says in almost every case where owners have tried shock or citronella collars, the dogs developed new adverse behaviors such as fears, aggressions, pacing, shivering and panic. She’s even seen dogs with neck burns and ulcerations from shock collars.
In contrast, she’s never seen any undesired secondary behavioral effects from debarking — and she has seen hundreds of cases. “The dogs are able to communicate; it’s just not as loud or offensive to neighbors,” she says. “Other methods (shock and spray collars) are similar to slapping a child every time the child speaks.”
Peak says barking is one of the major reasons dogs are given up. “Add in secondary behavioral damage created by the use of shock collars and a dog stands less of a chance of staying in the home. Bark softening is nothing trainers take lightly, but it is something we need to keep in our toolbox in case of emergency.”
Several states have already taken away that emergency tool, and more may be following. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio have laws banning debarking under certain circumstances. New York is currently considering Assembly Bill 1204, which would outlaw devocalization.
With debarking banned, what happens to the dogs? More punishment, more banishment, more surrenders, more euthanasia, more poisonings by neighbors, and maybe more unspeakable acts like those reported by Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue.
No, devocalization should not be performed just for convenience. It’s not a solution so you can watch your TV unbothered, or have a house full of dogs nobody knows about. It’s not a first solution. It’s a last solution.
Boredom barking can be combated by giving the dog things to do, and making sure he has other dogs and people to interact with. Engage his mind with interactive toys. Make him brain-tired with training and body-tired with exercise. If he barks while alone, don’t leave him alone. If it’s separation anxiety, work on the problem. If he barks at passersby, don’t let him see or hear them. If he barks unnecessarily, work with him to reward quiet behavior and to let him know barking is not appreciated.
But not all dogs are alike. Some breeds were bred to bark. The Finnish Spitz, for example, is such a gifted barker a King Barker is crowned in Finland each year. The Collie and Shetland Sheepdog use barking to control and herd flocks; it’s part of their lives. What works on most dogs just may not work with them. It’s part of their genetic behavioral repertoire. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and some dogs gotta bark! Know your breed!
By the way, I’ve often heard the claim that show dogs are debarked so they don’t bark in the ring. Tell that to Uno, the Beagle who barked his way to Best in Show at Westminster! Barking is not frowned upon in the dog show ring, and in fact, some consider it cocky showmanship!
Nobody likes performing elective surgery on her dog. But most people opposed to debarking advocate elective surgeries to remove their dogs’ testicles or ovaries and uterus — even though they are probably responsible enough owners to prevent pregnancies, and even though the pain and danger is probably much more in a spay than a debark, and even though spaying and neutering may have some detrimental health effects.
Why do most people spay or neuter? If not to prevent pregnancy (and folks in Europe manage to keep intact dogs without rampant litters), or for health reasons (that’s a whole separate article!), then it’s for convenience. And I freely admit that having an intact male or especially female, or having both together, is inconvenient. Really inconvenient!
As I said, I’m a wimp about surgery. I’d hate to be in a situation where I’d tried everything and finally had to choose between debarking or rehoming. But if that ever happened, I’d choose debarking. And hope I still had that option.
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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.