The Inhumane Procedure That Silences Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog debarking

Story at-a-glance -

  • Devocalization involves cutting or removing an animal’s vocal cords (typically a dog’s); fortunately, debarking is increasingly considered inhumane and many veterinary schools no longer teach the procedure
  • Devocalization can cause both short- and long-term health problems, and subsequent surgeries are frequently required
  • Barking is a natural method of communication for dogs, so if you have little tolerance for the behavior, you should probably consider another type of pet
  • Excessive barking can be curbed with positive reinforcement behavior training and appropriate lifestyle modifications

Devocalization, also known as debarking or bark softening, involves either cutting or removing an animal’s vocal cords. The most common victims are dogs, but cats are occasionally “de-meowed” as well.

Fortunately, these days many veterinarians refuse to perform the surgery if it is purely for the convenience of the pet parent, breeder or other caregiver. Devocalization provides no benefit to the animal and can create health problems. The procedure is widely considered inhumane, and six U.S. states restrict the practice.1 In addition, devocalization is no longer taught in many veterinary schools.

Those still in favor of the procedure claim it can mean the difference between a vocal dog or cat staying with his family or being surrendered to a shelter. However, there is no evidence to support the belief that pets are given up by their owners for being “too vocal.”

Devocalization Procedures and Associated Risks

The procedure is performed either by cutting into the neck and then the larynx (laryngotomy), which severs vocal cord tissue, or by going through the mouth (ventriculocordectomy) to achieve the same result. Some proponents of debarking don’t recommend the laryngotomy.2 The second method is less invasive but has a higher risk of scarring that can cause lifelong problems for the animal.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the risks associated with devocalization include:3

Inherent risks associated with general anesthesia

Development of scar tissue and narrowing of the throat

Postoperative pain and discomfort

Exercise intolerance

Bleeding

Respiratory distress

Acute airway swelling

Noisy breathing

Infection

Collapse

Coughing and gagging

Heat intolerance

Aspiration pneumonia

Further surgery to address complications

We can add to these: compromised airway access, elevated stress level, and increased risk to physical safety due to inability to alert or warn through barking. There can also be psychological and behavioral consequences from a decreased ability to communicate naturally. In fact, I believe the majority of dogs that have been de-barked have negative personality changes that can dramatically affect their quality of life.

The altered voices of devocalized pets have been variously described as lower, harsher, muffled, raspy, wheezy, screechy and high-pitched. Resumption of a near normal bark can also occur within months.

Why Dogs Bark

It’s important to realize that barking is a very normal, natural canine behavior. In fact, someone once said, “If you don’t like a dog that barks, get a cat.” Dogs bark as a way to communicate, and they have different barks for different occasions:

Hello! If your dog shows excitement when he encounters other people or dogs, his body is relaxed and he's wagging his tail, the barking he does at those times is his way of being neighborly.

Help! If your dog barks at what seems like everything — every movement or every noise she's not expecting — she’s distress barking. Her body is probably held stiffly during this activity and she may jump forward a bit with each bark.

You don’t belong here! Your pup considers your home, yard, car, his walk route and other places he spends a lot of time, his territory. If your dog barks continuously when a person or another animal approaches his domain, he's communicating that a stranger is invading his turf.

Check me out! Some dogs bark simply for attention — from you or another animal. Your dog might also bark in the hopes of getting food, a treat or some playtime. The more you reward the behavior by giving her what she seeks, the more likely she'll be to continue to bark for attention.

I am singing the song of my ancestors! If your dog answers when he hears other dogs barking, it's a social thing. He hears the barking of nearby dogs, or even dogs at some distance, and he responds in kind. This type of social barking is often heard at animal shelters and boarding facilities.

I can't help myself! If your dog barks repetitively, perhaps while performing a repetitive movement like running back and forth along the fence in your yard, she's demonstrating a bit of an obsession. You might want to try to find a better outlet for her energy — like a walk or a game of fetch.

Let me outta here! If your dog is behind your fence and another dog passes by within view, your pup might bark excessively to signal his frustration that he can't greet his buddy out there on the sidewalk. This type of barking is usually seen in dogs who are confined or tied up to restrict their movement.

As you can see from this list, there are some types of barks (i.e., obsessive and “let me outta here” barks) that require your attention in the form of environment or lifestyle changes that help soothe your dog and reduce or eliminate her need to bark. And then there are the barks that serve no real purpose and require an intervention.

The question to ask yourself, if your dog’s barking is causing a problem, is not “Should I have him debarked?” but rather, “Why is he barking? Am I inadvertently causing or exacerbating the barking? What steps can I take to decrease his tendency to bark?”

The sooner you address problematic barking with fear-free behavior modification, the sooner the behavior will improve. Allowing your dog to repeatedly exhibit annoying behaviors without appropriately addressing them in a timely manner (preferably immediately) means you are inadvertently failing to address them sooner rather than later.

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Don’t Punish the Barking — Reward the Silence

The idea is not to prevent the dog from barking, because barking is a natural behavior and a means of communication for dogs, but rather to train the dog to stop barking on cue, says veterinary behavior expert Dr. Nicholas Dodman, founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.4

This training will be easier if you’re starting with a puppy, but it can also be done with older dogs. Obviously, if your pet is still a pup, you’ll need to train yourself first to ignore her yipping so as not to reinforce the behavior. Keep reminding yourself those cute puppy barks will grow louder and more annoying as she enters adulthood.

As Dodman points out, “You don’t punish barking, you reward silence.” It’s an elegantly simple approach, but one many people overlook.

There are many benign ways of training a dog not to bark,” writes Dodman. “Most of them involve utilizing a voice command, such as No bark! Some of them simply entail patience, where you wait until the dog eventually does stop barking and then you reward it with some highly sought after treat …”.

If you’re consistent in your response to your dog’s barking, she’ll start to reduce the length of time she barks. You may be able to speed up the process a bit by immediately following your verbal command to stop barking with words that indicate a treat is in the offing in exchange for her silence. When she starts barking, you say “No bark,” followed immediately by “Want a treat?”

Gradually reduce the number of treats she receives until you’re rewarding her with food only once in a while and be sure to use only tiny pieces of healthy treats. (However, remember to always reward her with verbal praise and petting when she does what you ask her to do.)

Dodman also points out that some dogs may require negative reinforcement (which is not the same as punishment) through the use of a head halter with a training lead. When the dog barks, tension is applied to the training lead to remind him he’s performing an undesirable behavior. The reward for his silence is release of tension on the lead.

“Most owners make the mistake of feeling that they have to chastise or otherwise punish their pup for barking but the commotion and anguish that this causes does little to improve the situation,” writes Dodman. “In fact, in yelling at a dog that is barking may seem to it as if you’re barking, too.”

Additional Tips to Discourage Excessive Barking

  • If loud noises set your dog off, a crate of his own that he can go in and out of at will, coupled with soothing music or a television on in the background can help. Tips and tricks for crate training your dog (including fearful dogs).
  • If he’s barking out of boredom, increase his exercise and playtime, take him on walks, engage him with nose work or find other activities that give him both the physical activity and mental stimulation all dogs require. The best way to create a quiet dog is to exhaust him with exercise.
  • Changes in your pet’s routine and environment can cause stress, so as much as possible, stick to a consistent daily schedule he can depend on. You might also consider talking with an animal behavior specialist about desensitization and counter conditioning exercises for a stressed-out pet. Lifelong opportunities for social engagement and positive training are also essential for your dog’s mental and emotional well-being.