Barking dogs – few people haven’t lost a night’s sleep, or at least spent an irritated afternoon listening to a neighbor’s dog bark incessantly.
When the barking of her neighbor’s German shepard awakened her at 4 a.m. morning after morning, Samantha Butler said she was at her wits end. The dog, Butler said, would often bark for hours at a time, and the owner did nothing to silence the animal.
Butler, a resident of East Orange, New Jersey filed a municipal complaint against her neighbors who now might face fines if their dog continues “barking, howling, crying,” or making any other bothersome noises for more than 30 minutes in an hour.
Butler had a sympathetic ear in City Council members who believe noise caused by a barking dog is a quality of life issue, and they're enforcing laws set in place to address the bothersome behavior.
East Orange is just one of at least 144 New Jersey municipalities with laws specifically addressing whining and barking dogs. In New York’s Nassau and Suffolk Counties, at least 30 towns have similar laws, and the trend is growing in Westchester County, Connecticut and other areas. Not only are lawmakers and city officials sympathetic to neighbors who are bothered by continual dog barking; many dog owners empathize with their neighbors, and want to alleviate the noise problem.
But some dogs just cannot be trained to be quiet.
As the pressure to be good neighbors and avoid fines mounts, dog owners are increasingly turning to a dramatic and permanent cure – surgical cutting of the dog’s vocal chords, also known as debarking. In some cities like New York, a barking dog can cost the pet owners their apartment if they refuse to get rid of the animal and the barking doesn’t cease. One New York veterinarian had his own pooch's vocal chords cut when a neighbour threatened to complain about the barking to the co-op board.
No reliable estimate exists that pinpoints how many dogs have their vocal cords cut annually, but animal experts and veterinarians say more and more dog owners are resorting to the measure. Drug dealers, who prefer their guard dogs to be silent, are also taking their animals in for the procedure.
The surgery, which leaves dogs with a wheeze or a squeak instead of a bark, has been in use for decades but is now frowned upon by younger veterinarians and animal rights advocates.
Keeping dogs in any close-living community has always required diplomacy and delicate negotiations between neighbors. But critics of debarking consider it an inhumane option because it destroys the animal's main means of communicating for the convenience of humans. More and more veterinarians are refusing to perform the procedure on ethical grounds, and those who do perform it don’t advertise the service for fear of repurcussions.
Like the UK and many other European cities, New Jersey bans debarking procedures except for medical intervention purposes, and other states are considering following suit.
But there are still those who advocate the procedure, and consider it to be a useful option for dog owners who love their pets and are facing serious consequences from the noise issues caused by their dog's barking.
The surgery is fairly simple, if done properly. The veterinarian anesthetizes the dog then cuts its vocal cords through the mouth, or through an incision in the larynx. Dogs generally recover quickly, according to veterinarians who perform the procedure. But others, like Dr. Gary Ellison of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, say it’s not that simple. Scar tissue can build up in the throats of debarked dogs, Ellison says, which can impede the dog’s breathing.
The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends that debarking surgery only be done “after behavioral modification efforts to correct excessive vocalization" and workable noise barriers that prevent the dog's barking from traveling into neighboring homes have failed.
People with debarked dogs say they are sensitive to animal rights groups’ concerns, but believe that they are being judged too harshly. For a pet owner faced with choosing between the debarking surgery and giving up their pet, there’s simply no choice.