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New York Times looks at debarking

What do some Westminster show dogs have in common with some drug dealers’ attack dogs?

They’ve been debarked.

The surgical procedure, which critics label outdated and inhumane, has been around for decades, but continues to fall out of favor, especially among younger veterinarians and animal-rights advocates, the New York Times reported this week.

There are no reliable figures on how many dogs have had their vocal cords cut, but veterinarians and other animal experts say that dogs with no bark can  be found in private homes, on the show-dog circuit, and even on the turf of drug dealers, who are said to prefer their attack dogs silent.

David Frei, the longtime co-host of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, acknowledged that some show dogs have  the operation. “There is no question we have some debarked dogs among our entries,” he said.

Many veterinarians refuse to do the surgery on ethical grounds, and some states have banned it, except for therapeutic reasons, including New Jersey. Similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts.

In the surgery, vets anesthetize the dog before cutting its vocal cords, either through the mouth or through an incision in the larynx. Dogs generally recover quickly, veterinarians say, and while they usually can still make sounds, their barks become muffled and raspy.

But Dr. Gary W. Ellison, of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, said the procedure can lead to complications, such as excess scar tissue building up in the throat of dogs, making it difficult to breathe.

Ellison said the procedure is no longer taught at the University of Florida’s veterinary school.

Banfield, the Pet Hospital, with more than 750 veterinary practices across the country, formally banned the surgery last summer.

“Debarking is not a medically necessary procedure,” said Jeffrey S. Klausner, the hospital’s senior vice president and chief medical officer. “We think it’s not humane to the dogs to put them through the surgery and the pain. We just do not think that it should be performed.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that the surgery only be done “after behavioral modification efforts to correct excessive vocalization have failed.”


Comment from Christine
Time February 5, 2010 at 11:14 am

Talk about a slanted piece lacking in objectivity! Bark Softening is a procedure that is used as a last resort to keep noisy dogs in homes where they are loved. The animal rights people who find this cruel apparently have no problem killing dogs that can’t find homes because of barking. This article should have referenced the very well written piece that appeared in the NY Times ANSWERS ABOUT CANINE DEVOCALIZATION

Comment from anonamous
Time February 5, 2010 at 11:22 am

Bark softening is not cruel….if that is you are looking at it from the point of view of the dog. The procedure is quick and painless (unlike spay/neuter) and the dog gets to keep it’s family. You might be able to modify the behavier of one dog, but not several. None of my bark softened dogs appear to be aware that they are no as loud as before. However, my neighbors are.

Comment from manuel
Time February 5, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Bark Softening?! You have got to be kidding! It’s called a Vocal Cord Cordectomy and there are plenty of complicatons including death: http://mycockerspaniel.com/forum/content.php?13-Complications-of-debarking-surgery

Comment from Joyce
Time February 5, 2010 at 1:17 pm

It isn’t unusual that general veterinarians do not do specialized procedures. Thats why there are specialists in all fields of Veterinary care. No one is up in arms that a general vet would refer a pet owner to a specialist to have a dogs tonsils removed. So is the case with the traditional Biopsy Punch Debark/Bark Softening procedure. I would always choose to take my dog and refer others to a specialist that has done hundreds or thousands of these procedures. It gives me the assurance of zero complications and a quieter happy dog that can bark its head off if it chooses while allowing me to be a good neighbor. Why is it that AR’ist would sling mud at a simple procedure that would allow dogs to stay with their families and in their homes unless their goal would be to eliminate dog ownership altogether? Oh wait a minute, that is HSUS’s Wayne Pacelle’s stated documented position, isn’t it? Think about it…..

Comment from DorothyC
Time February 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I feel I must object to the supposed ‘facts’ of this article. Alter barking is neither a dangerous nor a painful surgery when done by a competent veterinarian. Debarking is not a correct term for the procedure as the dogs are not made mute. They can still bark, whine, howl, yelp or vocalize in any other way a dog communicates. The only difference is the volume is much softer and the sound does not carry. But in no way are the dogs silenced. Note, I said competent vet. There are some who will remove the entire voice box but that is mutilation, not debarking and not approved by anyone who knows the correct procedure. Those people should be charged with a crime. The correct and usual way is to go down the throat and with a biopsy punch, remove one or two small pieces of the vocal cords. This is done under anesthesia and is a very fast surgery. The dog can be in by 9 and out by noon, up and ready to eat, play or yes, bark. I have never seen a dog act surprised when that first soft bark came out. As far as they know, they are barking and the whole world can hear them. The risks in this type of surgery are less than spay/neuters which everyone is so hyped to do.

I run a national breed rescue. Self-styled behaviorists feel that training can make any dog be mute. Sure, if you beat it, strangle it, throw things at it–that will make a dog be quiet but it also makes it fearful and neurotic. You can also pour lye down its throat or wire the muzzle closed–rescue gets all those dogs. Many times a dog will come in because the neighbors complain the dog barks all day when the owner is at work. Or they have a new baby and the dog’s barking keeps waking it up. Bark softening is usually suggested as a solution to either problem. Sometimes the owner will do as advised and the dog stays in its happy home. But too often, the owners react as the people did in your article, horrified at the idea (or maybe they don’t want to spend the money?) So they get rid of the dog. Now you tell me what is more cruel–having a simple surgical procedure done under anesthesia by a competent vet OR tossing the dog into a shelter where its behavior is just as likely to get it destroyed and the dog cannot figure out what it did to merit being abandoned by the family it loves?

We have never had a dog choke, gag, pass out or even die early because it could not breathe. Our dogs compete in agility, rally, herding, obedience, deliver normal litters of puppies and none of them are unable to catch their breath. As far as de-meowing, I have NEVER heard of such a thing. That idea is really over the top and I suspect has never even been done

I wish everyone would stop buying into the animal rights rhetoric (which equates your child with a pig or a chicken) and start paying more attention to animal welfare. And please listen to the AVMA and not the animal-rights organization. Our breed rescue is all about saving a dog’s life and finding it a loving home. if bark softening keeps a dog alive and happy in its home, then the procedure was worth it. And the owners would agree.

For those into psychology, dogs primarily communicate through body language and not by barking.

Comment from Gail
Time February 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Bark softening is a MUCH less invasive surgery than spaying or neutering. The dog goes in to the vet, is put under light anesthesia, a clip is made in the vocal cords. The dog wakes up, goes home and is barking (only softer), playing and eating that day. It is a bloodless procedure.

Contrast this with spaying where the female is put under heavy sedation. the skin, muscles and ligaments of the stomach are cut open. There is much blood… The uterus is pulled out of the stomach cavity and then cut out. If the severed blood vessels aren’t clamped properly during surgery and the many layers of muscles, ligaments, skin, and those same blood vessels aren’t properly sutured, the female will bleed to death. The recovery time is 1 to 2 weeks of quiet lest these stitches pop and additional surgery is needed. Neutering the male is nearly as invasive and potentially deadly.

So, why is it okay to mandate such a severe surgery as spaying and neutering but not let a minor surgery as bark softening be done?

Comment from Janet
Time February 5, 2010 at 6:36 pm

I agree with the previous posts. The AR people have no problem euthanizing the very dogs we save by a simple procedure. NO ONE goes thru the larnyx.The procedure is simpler than a root canal!

Comment from TruthBTold
Time February 5, 2010 at 8:23 pm

For some, the incessant barking of a dog can grate on the nerves, especially when the barking is a frequent occurrence and affects your quality of life, the enjoyment of your home, your property and your peace of mind.

You’ve probably talked to your neighbor several times. The neighbor feels bad and promises to take the dog to training classes but the barking doesn’t stop. As much as you hate to, you call the police and file a complaint. The police also notify Animal Control and a legal cycle begins. It’s an unpleasant situation that I have been in.

What saved me was the fact that my dogs had been bark softened; they had a simple, surgical procedure where a veterinarian goes down the throat with a surgical tools and makes a small notch on either side of the dog’s vocal folds. There is virtually no bleeding, the procedure takes less than ten minutes and the dog awakes from the anesthesia, still able to bark, just not as loudly. (Yes, I can cite the research)

While I recommend this procedure as a last resort for people who have dogs that are “nuisance barkers” and whose dogs have failed to be helped with other forms of training, I was horrified to read post after post vilifying this procedure by people who have not armed themselves with facts. Instead, they are insulated with emotional nonsense and all rational thought seems to have left them. They ask, “would you silence a crying baby or your mother?” (Good thing they didn’t ask about my mother in law.) The lynch mob mentality of the opponents of this procedure is frightening, egged on in many instances by the equally frightful animal rights organizations hovering in the background.

The American Veterinary Medical Association position on bark softening is that “Canine devocalization should only be performed by qualified, licensed veterinarians as a final alternative after behavioral modification efforts to correct excessive vocalization have failed.”

So, here we have the predominant veterinary medical association saying that bark softening is a valid alternative to dealing with excessive barking in dogs when other forms of training have failed. Bark softening becomes a valid option to keep people from having to surrender their dogs to the shelter while it could face possible euthanasia.

Its important to discuss canine communication. It’s a well known fact that wild dogs and wolves seldom bark once they mature past adolescence and experts state that barking is actually a result of domestication. Certain breeds have a genetic propensity to bark, such as the herding breeds.

For the poster who argued that this is a statement against the purebred, let me remind you that ALL mixed breed dogs originate from purebreds at some point in their lineage. And despite what those who propagandize the myth of hybrid vigor, genetic traits from BOTH sides are passed on to the offspring, including the propensity to bark.

Barking is only one means of canine communication and in fact, not the major means used. Dogs communicate with body language, smell (if you watch two dogs greet each other, they usually sniff each others hindquarters) and a series of yips and growls which bark softened dogs can still do. As has been said here repeatedly, bark softened dogs can STILL bark, just not as loudly.

Research done at the Humane Society of St. Joseph, Mishawaka, Indiana, by a team of veterinarians lead by Gary Patronek VMD, PhD, found that excessive barking was given as the cause in 41% of dogs surrendered for behavioral problems… almost HALF!! When you factor in the number of dogs surrendered in this country for behavioral issues and realize that almost half of those are due to barking, you simply cannot rationally deny that excessive barking leads to many dogs being euthanized in shelters. How many of these lives could have been saved had the owners known that bark softening was a viable option (as recognized by the AVMA.)?

Comment from Robin
Time February 6, 2010 at 2:19 am

I have both show dogs and run a rescue. None of the dogs I currently have are bark softened but I would do it if it meant the dog could live. Now, I have had one of my Champion females spayed and 3 days later she was dead from a blood clot. I agree wholeheartedly that spaying/neutering is more invasive than bark softening but it should be done by a specialist who knows what they are doing. I feel sorry for the dogs that get done by someone other than a vet (such as a breeder) as they are the ones that are most at risk for complications. JMHO

Comment from alice in LALA land
Time February 6, 2010 at 2:34 am

Personally I would rather have a root canal than read any more garbage articles like this. one. ALL surgeries
“can have complications” including castration of male and female dogs…Castration of pets is not “medically necessary” either but you can bet Banfield continues to do them..I would not take my dog to a vet who refuses to allow choice for me or my pet.

Comment from Judy
Time February 6, 2010 at 11:52 am

Debarking is mostly done out of respect for the neighbors. This surgery is simple, and the dog can go home once it has come out of the anthesia. This surgical procdedure is no more serious than having your tonsils taken out. The results are just like your automobile, with out a muffler it is very loud, but you put a muffler on it and it is
nice and quiet, and doesn’t bother anyone.
If you want the watch dog, you can still have one, as the dogs still have a bark, it is just muffled. Why is anyone listening to
those that are intent on taking everyone’s rights to have and own a animal away?

Comment from Elizabeth
Time February 7, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Debarking (Bark Softening) – Myths and Facts
Animal rights groups attack life-saving debarking procedure
By Charlotte McGowan
There is a move around the country by animal rights interests to outlaw the practice of debarking dogs. So much misinformation about this procedure abounds that it is truly time to set the record straight. As a dog breeder since the late 50’s, I can tell you that debarking in the hands of a well trained veterinarian is a very useful tool for breeders and owners and it saves lives. I have had many dogs debarked over the years and the usefulness of this procedure should not be ignored. I know friends who have used debarking for decades with no ill effects on the dogs. Rescue groups for noisy breeds have used this procedure to save the lives of dogs that might otherwise be euthanized.

Q: What is debarking?
A:This is a minor surgical procedure to reduce tissue in the vocal chords. Some vets use a biopsy punch to remove a small amount of tissue. . Other surgeons use a laser for the same purpose. The vocal chords are not removed! The goal of the surgery is to lower the volume of the dog’s bark and the ability of the bark to carry over a wide area. This procedure is sometimes referred to as devocalization but it does not remove the dog’s voice. It is more accurately called bark-softening. The actual procedure is quick and recovery is also quick.

Q: Does debarking remove the dog’s ability to bark?
A:No. Debarked dogs continue to bark. What debarking does is to lower the volume of the bark so that it does not carry for miles around.

Q. Is it true debarked dogs cannot communicate any longer?
A. No. This is a prominent myth. Debarked dogs continue to bark, whine and vocalize in all the ways dogs do.

Q: Is the surgery always successful?
A: Sometimes scar tissue forms and heavy barkers will become louder than when first debarked. The skill of the veterinarian is also a factor. Some vets do not know how to perform the surgery so it is necessary to find a vet who knows how to do the procedure.

Q: Is this a “cruel and barbaric procedure?”
A: No. People with little or no experience raising naturally noisy and talkative breeds may tell you this. People with breeds like Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties) can tell you that this procedure is simple and that it saves lives of dogs that might otherwise be dumped in the pound for their barking. Debarking is a more simple procedure than removing the uterus in spaying or removing testicles in neutering. Many dogs that are herding dogs, working dogs or small dogs can bark a lot. Many mixed breed dogs can also be heavy barkers. In modern society with heavily built up neighborhoods sometimes any barking can cause problems between neighbors.

Q: Do dogs suffer emotionally from debarking?
A:It is a huge myth to suggest dogs are emotionally disturbed by debarking. Debarked dogs can bark. Even if reduced sound comes out of their mouths, they don’t seem to notice that their bark is softer. Debarked dogs that are not being constantly disciplined for barking, in fact, tend to be much happier dogs!

Q: Is it true that only criminals and drug dealers debark dogs?
A:This is the biggest myth about debarking! The majority of people who debark dogs are responsible dog owners at the end of their rope with dogs whose bark is so piercing that they can be heard for miles around. To be breed specific, Sheltie, Collie and other herding breed owners are the people most apt to do this. Herding breeds, by nature can be very vocal in their work. They also are joyful in their barking. They bark at squirrels, strangers, in play. They bark just to bark. Sheltie and Collie breeders are not criminals and drug dealers!

Q: Is it true you can train any dog not to bark?
A:I defy some of the so-called new wave of dog behaviorists to train a group of Shelties not to bark! Shelties in numbers larger than one love to do group barking. It is part of who they are. This can be true of any group of dogs.

Q: Isn’t debarking a hazardous procedure?
A: Any procedure that requires anesthesia, whether it is a dental cleaning, spay, or debarking has intrinsic risks. The key to success is good veterinary skill in all these procedures.

Q: Animal rights activists have said that dogs can be debarked by shoving a pipe down their throats. Is that possible?
A. This is an oversized myth. If someone shoves a pipe down a dog’s throat they might kill the dog. This urban legend has continued in the media.

Q: Do people debark just to avoid training their dogs?
A: The majority of people who debark have run out of options and are trying to be good neighbors. We are not talking about people who are irresponsible and leave their dogs out all night or ignore chronic barking. We are talking about people who are faced with having to move or having to give up the dog. It is a procedure of last resort. A piercing bark, even on limited occasions, can be enough to cause a war in built up residential neighborhoods. Animal rights interests have painted debarking as a cruel quick fix when in fact it is something no owner does lightly.

Q: Is excessive barking due to bad breeding?
A: Here’s another myth. Shelties kept birds of prey away from lambs on remote Shetland. They also kept livestock out of the crofters meager gardens and protected fish drying on the beach from eagles and other raptors. Barking is a useful tool for this work. It also helps let the owner know where the dog is. Unfortunately, in modern life, neighbors are not impressed when dogs bark.

Q: Do breeders debark dogs to hide them so they don’t have to license them?
A: No. Many breeders own more than one dog and good breeders who want to be good neighbors sometimes debark a really loud dog. Being a good neighbor is part of being responsible.

Q: Anti debarking legislation is being put forth around the country as part of anti dog fighting bills. Isn’t this a good idea?
A: Criminals pay not attention to laws. They are not going to license their dogs in the first place, let alone report any that may be debarked. The people impacted by anti debarking laws are responsible owners, especially people with talkative dogs. Animal rights interests want to outlaw any procedures they deem unnecessary. Responsible and compassionate veterinarians should understand that debarking can save lives by keeping dogs out of shelters and in homes. While some dogs, especially when they are the only dog in a home, can be trained to reduce their barking, others cannot be trained to the point where neighbors will not be annoyed.

Q: Do you debark ALL your dogs?
A: No. Some dogs are less noisy than others. I last debarked a dog ten years ago. This was a dedicated squirrel chaser with a high pitched voice. The squirrels are always going to be out there. I wish I could train the squirrels to move to another neighborhood but that’s just about as hard as training a sheltie not to bark.

Charlotte McGowan is the author of The Shetland Sheepdog in America and is an honorary Life Member of the American Shetland Sheepdog Association. She has bred dogs for over 50 years. She has been an AKC dog show judge for over 30 years.

Comment from Joy
Time February 9, 2010 at 12:30 am

We are in the process of trying to decide whether to bark soften a dog we rescued from Animal Control that we thought was a Corgi mix, but turns out (after a year of ongoing piercing barking and DNA testing) to be a Sheltie/Daschund mix. We love our dog and have tried every non-surgical method available, but nothing has made a dent in the problem, and even small temporary reductions in barking have made her act depressed – she truly lives to bark. We homeschool our kids and our dear dog’s constant barking in the house makes maintaining a learning environment almost impossible. So, we now have to choose whether to send this two-year-old sweetie on to a third owner (who may wind up having her debarked or euthanized anyway) via the SPCA or whether to put her through debarking surgery with its possible risks. This is a decision that has been weighing heavily on us – I wish it were an easier one.

To complicate things, we live in the city that has PETA’s headquarters and many of the folks that frequent our neighborhood dog park are PETA employees – I can only imagine the reaction if our cutie comes in with half a bark. We will be pariahs. That said, even with the ostracism, we are leaning toward bark softening, but our current problem is finding a veternarian that performs the procedure. We’re looking for a referral in Southeastern Virginia, but would travel further if needed. We don’t know anyone who has had bark softening and the local practices I’ve called so far do not do the procedure. Any ideas on to find an experienced, competent vet?

Comment from Loves Dogs#5
Time February 8, 2014 at 2:46 pm

We adopted a Yorkie who had been debarked. She was a happy, healthy dog who lived a great life with us until she passed away at 14. She would bark but it was very soft. Last year we adopted another small dog. This one was a huge barking nightmare…barked all the time even if there was no reason. Our neighbors complained and called the Police. We were warned that if it continued, they would take the dog and euthanize it. We tired all the different type collars and they didn’t do a thing. We then used a professional trainer/behaviorist and still no change. We then had the dog debarked by a vet who is experienced in this surgery. It worked beautifully. The dog can bark but the volume is way down. Happy dog, owners and neighbors. Don’t hesitate to do this if needed. It’s a great solution when nothing else works. We’re thankful this is allowed and that the powers that be haven’t given in to the loony animal activists. Common sense needs to prevail.