Animal Exuberance

Voices Raised Against Debarking

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar.

If you’ve ever heard the bark of a “debarked” dog, you’ll probably remember it. In the best of circumstances, it can sound like the muted, raspy shout of a longtime smoker who has something urgent to tell you from the other side of a locked door. In the worst, it sounds like someone trying to dislodge a tin can from her throat - trying and repeatedly failing.

Let me say at the outset that I have deep personal sympathy for those who sometimes think life could be much less stressful and more pleasant if their dogs would just shut the hell up. One of my own dogs - a tightly wound, extremely excitable and anxious kelpie-mix named Pazzo - works on his bark the way some guys work on their biceps and pecs. You’d never believe that such a muscular sound could come from such a skinny, no-account fella, until he made your ears ring.

I also sympathize with those who say that training can’t solve every barking “problem” because I know this from experience. The problem is that barking isn’t a problem for Pazzo, only for the rest of us. My husband and I can and do reinforce what we want all the time: quiet. And thanks to our efforts, we enjoy long stretches of… nothing. Unfortunately, those beautiful silences are punctuated by blasts from our canine bullhorn, and there’s little we can do about it.

For Pazzo, barking supplies its own rewards. It vents his uncontainable excitement about the existence of such things as squirrels in the world. It acts as a “turbo charge” for our car engine and gets us to the park faster. Plus it sounds amazing, like a Ducati tricked out with a carbon-fiber muffler!

Our boy is in love with the sound of his own voice, and my sympathies finally fall with him. Maybe it’s the writer and the wiseass in me. There are few things more precious to me than the right to speak up, to say inconvenient things at inconvenient times and at inconvenient volume. I work on my bark every day - if it ever gets as strong as Pazzo’s, I’ll be more than a local nuisance.

These aren’t the only reasons that I support the efforts of the Coalition to Protect and Rescue Pets to end debarking (a.k.a. devocalization, a.k.a. ventriculocordectomy). It’s not just that I can’t square “I love my dog” with “I want to rob him permanently of his ability to express himself freely and tell me things I don’t particularly want to hear.” It’s not just that I’m sure I’d find the sorry sound of a “debarked” Pazzo far more disturbing than anything I’ve heard from him yet. It’s also that I would put his health and happiness at risk through this supposedly “simple” procedure.

To be clear, most dogs make it through the surgery “just fine,” meaning that they don’t become sick or die. But a few are not so fortunate. Even the least invasive methods (going in through the mouth rather than the throat) can lead to a buildup of scar tissue in the larynx, compromising a dog’s ability to breathe and/or swallow food without choking. Chronic irritation and coughing can cause infection; an obstructed airway can cause heatstroke. As you'll find if you watch the video below, many of the veterinarians who most vociferously oppose debarking are those who have treated ensuing complications. Those who work in shelters have seen that debarking does not prevent dogs from being relinquished. On the contrary, the new annoyance of an unnaturally hoarse bark can sometimes cause a dog to be surrendered. (As can the need for expensive medical intervention.)

These vets are clear that debarking is a form of mutilation performed strictly for the convenience of human owners. So are the governments of the U.K. and eighteen countries where the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals has been signed into law.

The convention also bans ear cropping, tail docking, and declawing (in cats) as unnecessary and inhumane. Here in the U.S., breeders are some of the most strident defenders of debarking, in part because they recognize that their “right” to subject dogs to cosmetic surgery of any kind could be at risk.

I fervently hope so.

Good boy, Pazzo. Thanks for the spell of quiet.


Thanks to Anna Jane Grossman, editor of TheDogs, for suggesting this post.

Dog Training Without Dogma

Her royal bunkness, Barley. Queen of my heart.

Her royal bunkness, Barley. Queen of my heart.

Like a (happily growing) crowd of others, I take shelter under the "positive trainer" label. If you asked each of us to define that term, you'd get a wildly varying array of answers, and I think that's a very good thing. Imagine polling a roomful of people on their definitions of "good parent" or "loving spouse." You might hope to hear some significant overlap in their respective definitions, but if they all started parroting each other and delivering recipe-like formulas, you might get seriously creeped out. I would, anyway.

Whenever we're navigating the tangled world of relationships (and animal training is certainly part of that world), I think we're wise to respect their living mystery. If we don't want to invite a smackdown in the cosmic game of whack-a-mole, we've got to acknowledge that none of us will ever fully figure this shit out. And then we've got to keep trying all the same.

So that's part of my definition of being a positive trainer - staying humble and staying awake. If I had to pick a two-word phrase to substitute, I might choose "loving pragmatist." When I enter a training relationship, I try to shed the assumption that my human identity confers some special moral status. (It turns out that even God thinks we're overrated.) I don't believe in dominion as a spiritual concept, only as an evolutionary fact: these days, we're pretty much running the planet (running it right into the ground, unfortunately). We have the misbegotten power to decide what lives or dies, what flourishes or withers.

Thus many of the species that continue to thrive do so because they have evolved or learned to live on our terms - Canis familiaris being one of the most obvious and compelling examples. Dogs have shaped our world in the process of adapting to it, but in almost any relationship between an individual human and dog, the dog will depend more heavily on the human for her well-being than vice-versa. Our responsibility to other animals isn't god-given; it's the product of an inescapable power imbalance. To say that a dog or any other animal "should" act to please me - or to pretend that any training method will bring our desires into perfect harmony - is to dodge the discomfort of our position. To dominate our dogs with brute force is to indulge in a cruel redundancy. Shelter statistics tell the tale: dogs live as we like or they don't live at all. I want them to live - I want them to thrive! - so I'll do what I can to align their needs and desires with those of the people on whom they depend.

When I train, I also try to shed the assumption that my human identity confers some special intellectual status. I like to think I'm pretty smart, but even in the human realm my intelligence has betrayed some major limitations. There are many places you could set me down where I'd be dead inside of a week, and very few where I wouldn't splash around in a panic as I tried to keep my head above water. I'd learn, but how quickly? I know I'd have much less sense than the most pampered dog about whom I could trust to help me swim. However much I learn about dogs, they will never be as transparent to me as I am to them. Thus in my training life, as in so many other arenas, I am bound to get outwitted, and often. I can only learn from those moments if I loosen my attachment to what I think I know.