Reducing a bark to a whisper is not always the answer for vocal dogs


Q: A co-worker told me she is having problems with her neighbors over her dog's barking. She's going to "debark" the dog. Isn't that cruel?

A: "Cruel" is open to debate. Controversial? You bet.

Dogs bark to express a variety of emotions: anxiety, boredom, territoriality, aggression, playfulness and hunger, to name a few.

Breed characteristics factor in, as well. It's unrealistic to expect an arctic breed not to engage in an occasional howl, or a hound to give voice when on the trail of a squirrel or rabbit. Some herding breeds drive livestock by nipping and barking at their heels, and even their suburban relations many generations removed from the farm may still yap joyfully at the heels of the family's children at play.

What can be done? The first step is to acknowledge a dog's behavior, and a neighbor's right to be angry. Too many dog owners -- especially those with outside dogs -- develop selective hearing where their animals are concerned.

If you can sleep though a barking session, good for you, but there's no reason why your neighbor should have to. No reasonable person would expect a dog to be quiet all the time, but your neighbors have the right to enjoy their own yards and to sleep through the night without being disturbed by a barking dog.

Figure out the kind of barking your dog indulges in. Is he a fence-runner, trading insults with the dog on the other side of the back fence? Consider re-working the yard to deny him access to that activity.

Is he a bored outside dog? Make him a part of your life, and bring him in to the house -- or at the very least the garage -- in the evenings. Do not allow barking, once started, to continue unabated.

Daily exercise -- a 30-minute session of fetch, or a leashed jog alongside a runner or a bike -- can do wonders with the behavior problems of a high-energy dog.

Some dogs can be trained to stop barking, especially when young, but the task is time-consuming and often outside the capabilities of the average working dog-owner. And even a dog that will be quiet on command will still start barking and keep it up if you're not there.

That oft-promoted quick-fix, the electric collar, should be left in 00 the hands of those who know what they're doing and should never be left on an unattended animal. Contact a professional trainer or behaviorist for training advice, and be prepared to be a part of the training program he or she sets up.

Which brings us back to the controversial -- and some say cruel -- option: debarking. The procedure involves the surgical altering of the vocal cords, changing them so the

dog will still be able to bark, but at a greatly reduced volume. The properly "debarked" dog will end up with a bark that sounds like a harsh whisper, although the unpredictable final outcome, in terms of tone and volume, varies from dog to dog.

Debarking is done under a brief anesthesia, as the surgeon -- going in either down the throat or through the skin -- removes most of the vocal cords, leaving the anchor points that are responsible for the debarked dog's whisper bark.

The procedure is a delicate one for the veterinarian, but it is generally an easy one on the dog, who a day after surgery is behaving pretty much normally. The pain factor in minimal, and recovery is rapid. The cost ranges from $100 to $200, on the average.

Occasionally, however, scar tissue can form that will function like

the removed cords, allowing the dog

to once again bark more or less normally. In those cases, an additional procedure may be required.

There is no indication that a debarked dog misses the ability to bark loudly. Indeed, a debarked dog in many cases may be considerably happier than before the surgery, since it will still be able to bark, but without risking the ire of its owner or the hatred of the neighborhood.

Debarking should never be an easy decision. But when the only options left are getting rid of the dog (a decision that often leads to euthanasia in a crowded shelter) or the legal or illegal actions of irate neighbors (more than one dog has been poisoned in such a case), the procedure should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Questions about pets may be sent to Ms. Spadafori c/o The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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