Debarking Debate

Posted: Sep 5, 2017
Views: 3411 - Comments: 6

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Ventriculocordectomy to de-vocalize dogs should be a procedure abandoned and lost to history. So…are we really still having a debate about the legitimacy of de-barking procedures? Sarcasm is not my usual state of being so the incredulity in my tone may seem out of character, but there are few issues that have such clarity and little to no nuance. Unfortunately the answer is yes, we are still having this debate, sparked by an Oregon appellate court’s recent decision to uphold a ruling that mandates the debarking of dogs in a nuisance dispute between neighbors.

The opinion from the appellate court states that “The court’s findings were supported by evidence that the barking continued…and evidence that defendants had not employed effective measures to eliminate the barking.”  What this ruling grossly ignores is that elimination of barking is an undesirable, ludicrous and unattainable objective. Barking and other vocalizations in canines serve important functions.  Farm dogs charged with the security of herd animals use barking as an alarm and a protective mechanism. Using barking as a signaling mechanism is also an expectation many pet owners put on their household pet dogs. Vocalizations serve social functions in dogs that live with other dogs. Perhaps most notable, vocalizations enhance the human animal bond. For all these reasons the elimination of vocalizations and barking would not be desirable.

If the court’s objective was to eliminate the barking entirely then they have mandated an ineffective solution. De-barking is a misnomer; this procedure does not eliminate barking or vocalizations. The procedure alters normal anatomy, changing the way air vibrates through the structures of the larynx. It eliminates the ability of the dog to effectively control how air moves through the larynx. This results in barking that is different in pitch, altered in character and often described as hoarse, but not non-existent. In some dogs, very little change is noted in the sound of the bark. As we all know the larynx is the gateway to the trachea and lungs. Safe-guarding the ability of dogs to both move air and protect the airway is vital. De-barking is a procedure with risks of airway scarring, and laryngeal dysfunction without efficacy. Many including myself hold the opinion that de-vocalization is medically unnecessary and without any diagnostic, therapeutic, or preventative benefits. Fortunately veterinary curricula have largely eliminated instruction on this procedure.

I will concede that continuous barking can be a nuisance but behavioral modification through positive re-enforcement, training and redirection are the appropriate measures to take. Why didn’t the courts mandate a complete behavioral assessment of the dogs by a board-certified behaviorist rather than an ineffective surgery? I suggest that it is because they are ill-equipped to make these medical recommendations. It is the sole role of veterinarians to prescribe medical and surgical procedures to animals based on a veterinary-client-patient relationship. We partner with our clients to find solutions that work for their families. By “prescribing” this non-efficacious surgical procedure the court disregards the sanctity of the veterinary-client-patient relationship.  Veterinarians hold themselves to the practice ideal of informing and educating clients about the side effects, effectiveness, and potential outcomes of recommended diagnostics or therapies. This decision sets precedence for courts to mandate medically unnecessary, ineffective procedures as “quick fixes”. It devalues the ideals of practice we veterinarians hold sacred.

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Boris Miller's picture

Debarking (or ventriculocordectomy) is a surgical procedure; all surgical procedures, if used incorrectly or abused, can earn themselves a bad reputation. Sometimes there isn’t enough time or an opportunity to train your dog. My personal experience: after 2 days of listening to my dog bark, my landlord gave me an ultimatum—24 hours. Either get rid of the dog or move out. I had him debarked the next day, and I have not regretted this decision. It has been 10 years ago, and he is still with me. Yes, his voice is not completely gone, but my neighbors cannot hear him now. I have been told over the years by some of my coworkersthat I have not been fair ( and other nice things)—my point, loose the sarcasm. I have been lucky to have enough self esteem not to care, but for some people this type of attitude towards a solution to a problem can cause them their member of the family.

Rachel Medo's picture

The court ruling here in Oregon has sparked quite a bit of conversation around this topic. While our hospital doesn’t recommend or perform debarking procedures, we do appreciate you sharing your perspective and feedback with us.

Seanne Cottle's picture

I feel like this debate is far too in line with the declawing debate; people will always take the option to surgically alter their pets as opposed to part with them. However, like declawing its cons outweigh its pros; personally if we altered the vocal chords of every annoyingly loud animal most humans would be mute. I personally capped my pets claws (yes soft gel caps were beneficial) it dealt with the cat until he learned that he can not play with people with his claws extended. sometimes we just need the extra time. I am curious though about the egg that lets off a high pitched frequency to quiet barking dogs?

Boris Miller's picture

This device works on some dogs, but unfortunately not on mine—he barked right through it and ignored it completely. As I mentioned before, this option (debarking) is often misrepresented as barbaric—it is a medical procedure that if done appropriately, both technique and situation-wise, can be beneficial for everyone. Time is a luxury that is not always available.

Lori Paul's picture

I absolutely agree that the case in Oregon is unacceptable on several levels, including a failure to determine exactly why the dog was barking "nonstop" and to then to impose serious effort to remedy the situation. It is not natural for a dog to bark reflexively and constantly! Even dogs that legitimately alarm bark in response to a suspicious noise or an intruder do not carry on for hours, and certainly do not bark for hours at a time, day after day. It is frequently the case that non-stop barkers are neglected or abused in some way, such as permanent exile outdoors in isolation, lack of water, being kept out in freezing cold or in pain, etc. The condition of any dog that barks loudly and constantly should be investigated and a cause determined. Even in cases where the barking dog is *only* a nervous and easily stimulated, excessive barking indicates an individual that is under sustained stress of one sort or another.

That said, a barking dog is not merely a "nuisance." As an RVT and one sympathetic to animals and tolerant of many behaviors, I can attest from personal experience that a loud, frenetically barking dog can absolutely ruin one's peace and quiet, lower property values, and even cause neighborhood-wide insomnia. Marathon barking is literally nerve-wracking and becomes intolerable for those exposed to it again and again. Excessive barking over time needs to be recognized as a serious and aberrant behavior that requires intervention by authorities and thorough evaluation to resolve. Too few communities and animal control organizations take the frustrating and intrusive barking of a dog seriously. Worse, once one dog goes off over a prolonged period of time, that dog can encourage neighboring dogs to also begin barking... the so-called "bark fest" effect.

De-barking has its place as a temporary, short-term emergency measure to dial down the hostility of disturbed neighbors and to buy the dog's owner(s) time to identify why their dog barks and to do something about the situation. A skilled veterinarian can moderate the surgery such that the dog can still vocalize, but the resulting bark or yapping will not carry as far and will be of a more tolerable pitch. Certain breeds, such as shelties, can have unfortunately shrill "voices" and their barking and yodeling can be particularly disturbing. Surgery can lower the pitch of such dogs to make their barking less piercing. For this reason, debarking... as a last resort in an emergency situation... has its place in preserving the dog, reducing hostility from highly disturbed neighbors, and buying time for the owner, authorities, and veterinary specialists to evaluate and treat the abnormal barking.

Lee Herold's picture

Your perspective highlights one of my primary points specific to the Oregon case. Notably efforts to determine the cause of barking or other triggers to barking were overlooked in favor of a quick solution without consultation with a veterinarian. A procedure mandated by a court without consultation with a skilled veterinarian to discuss the pros and cons as well as the objectives of the surgery or other treatment options disregards the importance of the veterinary-client patient relationship.