Q: What does it mean to have a dog “debarked,” and is this inhumane?
A: Debarking (also known as “devocalizing”) is a controversial surgical procedure that involves cutting the vocal cords by going through the mouth or an incision in the throat. People may be tempted to resort to this surgery if they own a “problem” barker. Incessant barking can certainly be annoying to owners or neighbors.
However, devocalization surgery is invasive and may lead to post-op complications including scar tissue, reduced size of the larynx, difficulty breathing, bleeding, infection and regaining the ability or partial ability to bark. But instead of having a normal bark, a debarked dog may sound raspy or hoarse, or end up with a screeching sound that’s even more annoying than the original barking.
Since there’s no medical reason for it, the American Veterinary Medical Association opposes the practice in general, although AVMA policy doesn’t ban it outright. But many animal hospitals simply refuse to perform the procedure these days. And veterinarian Sheilah Robertson, assistant director of AVMA’s Animal Welfare Division, told NBC News that it’s no longer taught in veterinary schools. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals goes even further in its opposition. The ASPCA “does not support the use of surgical procedures that attempt to circumvent the behavior issue, while exposing pets to unnecessary discomfort and risk.”
As the ASPCA notes, excessive barking is a behavioral problem. Rather than choosing a risky surgery, we recommend addressing the causes of the unwanted behavior. According to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, dogs typically bark because they’re “bored, lonely, threatened or otherwise distressed.” A good positive-reinforcement trainer can help troubled owners figure out the reasons for excessive barking and suggest behavioral modification plans that can reduce the problem.
“There’s a big difference between a few barks at the mailman and a barking frenzy,” says local trainer Howard Weinstein of Day-One Dog Training. “Dogs can be taught to stop barking when their owner is present — and owners can be taught how to curtail excessive barking when they’re not home.”
We definitely do not recommend electric-shock collars, which punish and may traumatize a dog for doing a natural behavior. Other bark-corrective collars, which emit a citronella spray, are not harmful and may help, though they’re not universally effective — and they are expensive. That money is probably better spent hiring a good trainer to help you understand and alleviate problem barking.