At first, I was thinking it's a sledgehammer solution to a common housefly. And that training should be all that's required.Heel. Sit. Whisper. Good Dog.
By SAM DOLNICK
Nestlé barks when Mike Marder and his wife come home, and he barks when they leave. He barks at delivery boys, he barks at the doorbell, and he barks at the Marders’ new puppy, Truffle.
But for all that effort, the only sound Nestlé makes is a raspy squeak.
Dr. Marder, a veterinarian, tells those who are curious that Nestlé, a dachshund-terrier mix, is hoarse from too much barking.
But that is not true. The Marders had Nestlé’s vocal cords cut by a veterinary surgeon after a neighbor in the family’s apartment building on the Upper East Side threatened to complain to the co-op board about the noisy dog.
Although there is no reliable estimate as to how many dogs have had their vocal cords cut, veterinarians and other animal experts say that dogs with no bark can readily be found — but not necessarily heard — 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.
The surgery usually leaves the animal with something between a wheeze and a squeak. The procedure, commonly referred to as debarking, has been around for decades, but has fallen out of favor, especially among younger veterinarians and animal-rights advocates.
Keeping pets in New York City, of course, has always required delicate negotiations between neighbors and species. The city’s 311 line fielded 6,622 complaints about barking dogs last year, while housing officials banned pit bulls, Rottweilers and other large dogs from public housing projects. Real estate experts say that co-op boards large and small always wrestle with pet policies, many of them tied to barking dogs.
Critics of the debarking procedure say it is outdated and inhumane, one that destroys an animal’s central means of communication merely for the owner’s convenience. Many veterinarians refuse to do the surgery on ethical grounds. Those who do rarely advertise it.
New Jersey bans devocalization surgery except for medical or therapeutic reasons, as do Britain and other European countries. Similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts, while Ohio restricts the surgery to nonviolent dogs.
But there are still those who perform the operation, and they and other advocates defend the surgery as a useful option for dog owners facing noise complaints and possible eviction.
Dr. Sharon L. Vanderlip has been performing debarking surgeries for more than 30 years as a small part of her veterinary practice in San Diego County. She calls herself a “big, big, big proponent” of the procedure if it is done the right way, for the right reasons.
“They recover immediately and they don’t ever seem to notice any difference,” she said. “I think that in certain cases it can certainly save a dog from ending up being euthanized. If properly done, they behave totally the same afterwards and don’t seem to have any health problems.”
The surgery can be relatively simple. The doctor anesthetizes 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.
Dr. Gary W. Ellison, of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, cautioned that the procedure can lead to complications. He said he has had to operate on debarked dogs after excess scar tissue built up in the throat, making it difficult for the dog to breathe.
“I think it’s probably going to be a procedure that’s done by fewer and fewer veterinarians” in the coming years, said Dr. Ellison, the curriculum director at the University of Florida’s veterinary school. He said professors there do not teach the surgery, and that he has not come across recent veterinary school graduates who have studied the procedure.
Banfield, the Pet Hospital, which has more than 750 veterinary practices across the country, formally banned the surgery last summer, though Jeffrey S. Klausner, the hospital’s senior vice president and chief medical officer, said it was rarely, if ever, practiced before that.
“Debarking is not a medically necessary procedure,” Dr. Klausner said. “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.”
People with debarked dogs said they understood animal rights groups’ concerns. But they challenge their critics to spend time with debarked dogs before making a judgment.
“I probably spend more time and money on my dogs in one year than they have in a whole lifetime,” said Paul, a breeder and dog handler in Catskill, N.Y., who asked that his last name not be used because he did not want to be singled out by activists. “I just hate being labeled as someone who’s cruel because I debark.”
Paul usually has more than a dozen dogs at a time, many of them Shetland sheepdogs, a breed known for excessive barking. He said he has had most of them debarked, and requires his clients to debark theirs before sending them to him for dog shows. He said his dogs have lived long, happy lives, and “none of them are any sadder after being debarked.”
David Frei, the longtime co-host of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, acknowledged that some show dogs have had the operation. “There is no question we have some debarked dogs among our entries,” he said.
Experts say there are many nonsurgical methods of keeping a dog from barking, including collars that spray citronella every time the dog barks, or sessions with a trainer or animal behaviorist to better understand the dog’s needs.
“Dogs are usually barking because of some frustration,” said Dr. Louise Murray, director of medicine at the Aspca’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in Manhattan. “It’s frustrating to be a sheepdog with no sheep. What I’d be concerned about is if you’re debarking a dog and it has an underlying unhappiness.”
Dr. Marder said that Nestlé’s surgery stopped the neighbor’s complaints, and “it really did not change the dog’s personality whatsoever,” adding, “He’s certainly a tail-waggy, happy guy.”
Dr. Marder said they will probably debark Truffle unless she quickly learns to play quietly.
Terry Albert, of Poway, Calif., said her life revolved around dogs: she boards them, rescues them, and even paints portraits of them. And she refuses to give them up. She has had two dogs debarked.
“You may think it’s horrible,” she said. “But if I had to give up my dog or get the surgery, I would choose the surgery.”
But according to the above, training doesn't always work.
And if the alternatives are surrender or euthenasia.....