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.