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All Dog, No Bark: The Pitfalls of Devocalization Surgery

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Editor's Note: This post contains graphic video that may be disturbing to some readers.

Too often, we jump to take extreme measures to try to "fix" dogs, rather than changing their environments -- and our standards -- in order to better accommodate their natural tendencies. Take, for example, a common issue I hear about at my dog training school: nuisance barking.

Barking is not a dog problem -- the four-legged set is generally not bothered by vociferousness of any kind. Rather, it is a human problem. It's a problem to us because we find it annoying, but it's also a problem we have largely created. Dogs descend from wolves, who don't bark. One of the roles that humans very likely played in dog evolution is to have selected for barkiness. Up until just a few generations ago, a majority of dogs were working dogs, and one of their main jobs was to warn off intruders. They excelled at this task. Today, we unwittingly encourage this trait we selected for by putting dogs in dwellings full of human-caused noises that trigger them to alert us to danger: sirens, UPS men in the hall, door bells.

As a dog trainer, I do what I can to help people see barking as a modifiable behavior, and silence as a behavior, too. The more you reward your dog for the behavior of keeping quiet -- you can use a pinpointing tool like a clicker or a marker word to "capture" those quiet moments, which sometimes may come and go very quickly -- the more your dog will be likely to keep his mouth shut. However, the difficulty of untraining barking is that barking is a behavior that is rewarding in and of itself. Your dog might learn that he'll get bacon for being quiet when the mailman knocks, but the joy of barking may win out over bacon.

For this reason, I preach the virtues of problem management: If you have a crazy barker, don't force him to live in an environment full of stimuli. Have guests call you instead of ringing your doorbell; keep your dog confined to a room that is far away from the noisy hallway. In the very worst cases, I might suggest an owner consider finding a new home for their dog -- somewhere that isn't full of triggers that are going to make him go hoarse. Otherwise, you're just fighting an uphill battle against more than 10,000 years of evolution.

Getting rid of a dog that barks is a sad and unfortunate thing to have to do.  But I think it's a management approach that is far kinder than another unfortunate route that I've seen people take: cutting their dog's vocal cords.

This surgical procedure, which is called debarking, devocalization or ventriculocordectomy, involves removing a dog's vocal cords with an incision made either through the mouth or the neck. It doesn't stop a dog from barking -- obliterating their ear drums would probably be more effective. Debarking just makes the barks harder for your neighbors to hear. I recently fostered a dog who had been debarked. She sounded like a veteran smoker who'd swallowed a tincan of coins. It was painful to listen to and far more annoying than run-of-the-mill barking. Several potential adopters told me they couldn't take her because the sound was just too gut-wrenching. I had to guess that her talkativeness led to her previous owners performing the surgery, and probably to their relinquishing of her. Had they taken the inevitable step of giving her up before they'd taken away her voice, she might've had a better chance of finding a home.

Silencing a dog isn't just sad -- it can also lead to other behavior problems. A bark can be a dog's warning signal to people and dogs that are too close for comfort. Deprived of the ability to alert in a natural way, a dog is likely to revert to another form of saying "back off" -- biting. Ohio actually prohibits devocalizing dogs that are considered "dangerous," since their barking can be crucial in warning someone who might otherwise get close enough to be bitten.

Some other problems with devocalization: It can lead to a buildup of scar tissue in the larynx, compromising a dog's ability to breathe and/or swallow food without choking, it can lead to chronic irritation and coughing that can cause infection, and it can lead to swelling of the throat and other obstructions of the airway that can cause heatstroke.

Fortunately, there seems to be an increase in awareness about the problems that this surgery can cause. The governments of the U.K. and 18 other countries have signed the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals into law. This convention also prohibits ear cropping, tail docking, and declawing (in cats).  In 2010, Massachusetts outlawed the procedure, following a bill filed by a teenager. New Yorkers are hoping a similar bill will be passed next year. 

In the U.S., however, many vets defend debarking -- a 2010 New York Times article featured a vet who did it to his own dogs, as well as a Q&A with a vet who is in favor of the procedure, calling herself one of its "big, big, big proponents." It also quotes Westminster Kennel Club host David Frei talking about the frequency of the procedure in the show dog circuit.

Indeed, there are plenty of breeders who defend their choice to debark their dogs; some even offer it as a service to their clients, in tandem with services like ear cropping and tail docking. Perhaps they fear that an infringement on their "right" to subject dogs to debarking could impede their ability to do perform kinds of voluntary and cosmetic surgeries. Some claim that it helps keep dogs out of shelters, since problem barkers might otherwise be relinquished. Studies, however, suggest that's not necessarily the case. The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy's research on the subject indicates that barking is not one of the top five reasons people tend to give for dropping off their dog at a shelter. What's more, a devocalized dog may require additional medical care and attention. That, on top of the terrible sound, is enough to make many a potential adopter pass over a silenced dog in favor of one that still has its voice.

Those wanting to take a stand on this issue can sign a petition asking the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to change their stance on debarking.  Currently, AVMA condones devocalization as a "final alternative" to owners dealing with barking issue, but that designation is often misconstrued as encouragement. I'd say a more appropriate "final alternative" might mean either finding more tolerant neighbors or investing in some good earplugs.

Thanks to Gretchen Icenogle for assistance with this post.

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