Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Silencing Of The Dogs

My love for dogs is boundless and so naturally I read with curious interest a story in The New York Times earlier this week about dogs who had their vocal cords snipped, a surgical procedure called debarkiang.

The result is rather than a bark -- ARFF -- or a Beagle's hoot owl howling -- AAARRROOO -- the sound usually is muted, muffled and raspy. Which is pretty funny coming from a Great Dane.

But barking dogs in apartment complexes and suburban subdivisions is not a funny matter. As a last resort, some veterinarians will debark a dog when owners are faced with the cruel option of moving or having the pet put to sleep.

The surgical procedure is frowned upon by a new generation of vets, especially with P.E.T.A. and other animal rights advocates looking over their shoulders. As the Times article points out, the procedure is simple yet delicate enough that if done wrong could create scar tissue on the larynx causing the dog to suffocate.

I come from the school that believes debarking does no harm to the dog. But, first, let's hear from an expert as quoted in the Times story:

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 Times story reported New York City’s 311 line fielded 6,622 complaints about barking dogs last year,  And, then this:

Critics of the debarking procedure say it is outdated and inhumane, one that destroys an animal’s central means of communication merely for the owner’s convenience.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. 

And, this:
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 school  I referred was the University of California at Davis where some of my friends were pre-vet students. One told me that for free rent, he and his buddies lived in a barn housing about a thousand Bassett Hounds. The constant howling throughout the night drove my friends crazy.

Some sense of quiet was restored when the students talked the professor into performing debarking surgery on all the hounds under the "quote unquote" premise of educational research.

Years later when the San Diego City Council was debating a controversial dog barking ordinance, I told the Bassett hound story to my Metro editor. She assigned a reporter to bird dog it. He reported back the vet school vehemently denied ever performing debarking surgery on any livestock.

Yeah, right.

My experience with dogs is that owners must treat them as canines, not people. That doesn't mean you can't train them for the purposes of aiding mankind which dogs do well. The owner is the pack leader, no ifs, ands or buts. It's the Cesar Milan school of dog training we see on the National Geographic channel.

Dogs bark for a reason although sometimes it is impossible to determine why.
My son was a K-9 officer for the National City Police Department, a city immediately south of San Diego. Nick, his Belgiian Malinois, was a ferocious creature forever showing his fangs and displaying a mean disposition. His fellow officers called Nick "Psycho." for good reason. During his tour of duty, Nick was the cause of a dozen claims against the city for biting. 

On duty, Nick's bark would scare the hell out of anyone in earshot. Off duty, his bark took on a totally different tone, one my son described as the designated neighborhood watch dog. It was a kind and more gentler bark. Nevertheless, I never felt comfortable leaving Nick alone with my newborn granddaughter.

As an adult, I owned two dogs. The first was Cognac, a standard Poodle, and the smartest dog I ever knew. I broke his barking habit by slapping his behind with a newspaper and sternly telling him No the second he barked or even thought about it. Cognac always got in the last word. Rather than bark, he would lay down, bare his teeth and growl.

Honey, my Australian shepherd, had only one purpose in life and that was to please me under any and all circumstances. She knew barking was a no-no. But she wasn't as disciplined as Cognac and would slip out a bark inadvertently as dogs do so naturally. Caught in the act, she would slink around in a circle and come up to me, put her head on my lap, wag her tail and beg for forgiveness. My hard heart immediately turned to putty.

One of the saddest moments for me came during the Christmas holidays. My neighbor who owns a Beagle traveled to her family for a week, leaving the dog at home where a caretaker twice a day would walk and feed it. Left alone, the dog barked non-stop for the entire week.

I put up with it after I learned she had at least someone look after it. But three other neighbors protested and complained to the apartment manager. I saw the woman in the hall the other day and asked her about her dog.

"I had it euthanized," she said, tears beginning to stream down her cheeks. "Why?" I asked dumbly. "He barked too much."

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