Debarking Dogs: Bark Softening Surgery

Learn the facts about surgery for debarking dogs, also called bark softening. Does it work? Is it humane? Is there any benefit to the dog?

When a dog's barking has proven to be an intractable problem, some owners opt for a surgical procedure to reduce the sharpness and loudness of the dog's bark. For many owners this is a last resort, one they turn to with great reluctance, after all attempts at training have been unsuccessful. Often they are owners who have been served notice by their landlord, condo board, or local law enforcement that they must either get rid of the dog or move, because of the disturbance caused by the barking. In these cases, the surgery may be the only way to avoid either losing their home or giving up their beloved pet.

The surgical procedure is called vocal cordectomy, surgical debarking, or devocalization. Each of these terms is actually a misnomer, because vocal cords are not removed, and the dog is still able to bark and to vocalize after the procedure. "Bark softening" is another term used, which is more accurately descriptive. The medical term is ventriculocordectomy.

What Is Dog Debarking (Bark Softening)?

In the procedure, the veterinarian removes a small bit of tissue from each side of the animal's vocal folds, using scissors, a biopsy punch, a laser, or other surgical tools. It is performed under general anesthesia. There are two techniques: the oral technique, which is a quick and simple procedure that is performed through the dog's open mouth, and the laryngotomy technique, in which the area is approached through an incision in the neck. The cost varies according to the location, the veterinarian, and the technique used, but typically might range between $50 and $400 (US dollars).

Is Bark Softening Effective?

A dog owner who hears about "devocalization" surgery might expect that the procedure will completely silence the dog, but this is not the case. The dog will still be able to howl, yip, whine, and growl. The debarking procedure does not even take away the dog's ability to bark. In fact, the dog will normally bark just as much as before the procedure. The difference is that the sound will be softer, typically about half as loud as before or less, and it is not as sharp or piercing. So while the procedure does not stop barking or silence the pet, it is effective at reducing the sound level and sharpness of the dog's bark.

Is Bark Softening Humane?

When first hearing about the procedure, it's natural to cringe. We automatically think of what it would mean to reduce a human's ability to vocalize, which would drastically interfere with our primary means of communication. In the case of dogs, however, communication is mainly through scent and body language, so the procedure does not have the same effect as it would on humans. Owners report that after debarking, dogs socialize exactly the same as before the surgery and are treated the same as before by other dogs.

Most debarking surgeries are performed on dogs that are loved and well cared for, that bark non-stop for the sheer joy of it and cannot be trained to stop barking. Some herding breeds for example, such as Shetland sheepdogs and collies, have been specifically bred to do work that relies on their barking, and to try to train them out of it is to go against generations of breeding. However, other dogs bark because they are bored, or lonely, or anxious. If debarking surgery is performed on these dogs, it can be easy for the owner to ignore their underlying needs and leave them unresolved. The humane treatment is to address the dog's needs, so that it no longer feels bored or lonely or anxious.

It's a good idea to question the legitimacy of inflicting the risks and discomfort of surgery on a dog when it is for the sake of human convenience and not for any direct health benefit to the dog. Bark softening surgery falls in this category. For comparison, the more familiar surgical procedures of spaying and neutering also fall in this category, and these procedures are more invasive, involve greater risks and discomfort, and have a higher probability of serious negative long-term health effects for the dog.* If you are at peace with the idea of spaying and neutering procedures for dogs, then by this standard, the idea of bark softening surgery offers no new ethical conflicts.

If you hold as a matter of moral principle that no dog should ever be subjected to surgery that is not done for the life or health of the dog itself, then that ends the discussion. By that principle, such surgery is never justified, as it is never performed out of medical necessity.

Does Bark Softening Have Any Benefits for the Dog?

For those who opt for bark softening surgery who were otherwise facing the prospect of either giving up their dog or moving, they consider the main benefit for the dog to be that it is able to continue living with the same loving family in the same home. Without debarking, the dog might have been surrendered to a shelter, where it might eventually have been euthanized.

But there are often additional benefits for the dog's well-being:

  • After the surgery, the dog is allowed to bark freely as much as it likes, which is its natural behavior.
  • The dog is no longer subject to constant disapproval (and sometimes scolding or yelling or worse) for its barking. Without this stress and confusion for the dog, the relationship with its owner can be much happier and healthier.
  • For some dogs that are successfully trained not to bark inappropriately, the price they pay for their obedient behavior is that they become depressed or neurotic. After debarking, these dogs can be allowed to resume their exuberant barking behavior, dispelling their depression or neuroticism.
  • After debarking, dogs that had to be kept locked indoors almost all the time to avoid antagonizing the neighbors can now be freed to enjoy playing outdoors.

Considering bark softening surgery for your pet? Read on.

* Laura J Sanborn, MS, "Long-Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay / Neuter in Dogs" (Rutgers University, Camden, NJ, 2007).

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