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Boston Teen Files Bill to Ban 'Debarking' of Cats and Dogs

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Fifteen-year-old Bostonian Jordan Star has emerged as the surprise driving force behind a bill to ban the cruel practice of ‘surgically silencing’ cats and dogs by removing their vocal cords.

Star, a freshman at Needham High, decided to take action after coming across a dog that had been debarked and abandoned. “It was just horrible,” he said of the dog’s struggle to get his attention. “It was just like a hoarse, wheezy cough. In a shelter, all they are is a mutilated animal, which makes them harder to adopt.”

Now his proposed law has won the backing of Democratic House Majority Whip Lida E. Harkins and Republican Sen. Scott P. Brown. If successful, the bill would make devocalization illegal in Massachusetts unless a licensed state veterinarian or Boston police commissioner deemed that the operation was a medical necessity.

If enacted, it will be known as Logan’s Law after a debarked Belgian sheepdog adopted by Gayle Fitzpatrick and her husband Tom. According to Fitzpatrick, “The reaction of people whenever he (Logan) was outside was, ‘Does your dog have laryngitis?’ I tried to explain he had no voice box and people were pretty horrified by that. We always said to him, ‘We hear you,’ because he tried so hard to bark.”

Certified trainer Vera Wilkinson of The Cooperative Dog explained that the most humane way to deal with ‘problem’ barking dogs is to understand underlying behavioral issues saying, “You have to get to the root of the problem. If the dog is barking, the dog is barking for a reason. There’s a lack of understanding between people and dogs that leads to conflict, and unfortunately the dog often pays the price.”

For young Jordan Star the solution is even more clear-cut. “To take a voice away from an animal is morally wrong,” he said.

Image Credit – tarentula_in via flickr on a Creative Commons license




23 comments
  1. Ashley P

    Good lord, I wish people would stop pushing the idea that because this bill is back and supported by HSUS and PETA that it’s a bad idea. Yes, those organizations are full of emotional crackpots, but if you have nothing else to fight this bill with, then you don’t have a fight.

    Yes, “bark softening” is a simply procedure similar to neutering, with few serious risks. And somehow, it’s okay to damage or remove an animal’s body parts in the name of appearances or convenience, but it is not okay to let that animal just be an animal if that includes doing something that the owner dislikes or finds unpleasant.

    *However* vocalizations are communication. To the person who said that canine communication does not rely on vocalizations, yes, you’re correct – the majority of canine communication is based on body language – however, if vocalizations weren’t a good part of their communication, then we wouldn’t be worrying about this bill. Vocalizations are often the last ditch effort made by dogs who are frightened or about to aggress – growling in all it’s glorious forms is low and sometimes difficult to hear in a non “bark softened” dog, let alone in a dog who has had the procedure done. According to the American Temperament Test Society, the breeds most likely to be vocal – herding breeds and most hunting breeds like Beagles and other hounds – are also the breeds who consistently score below average on temperament tests, yet those breeds seem to be the ones most likely to have their barks “softened.”

    First of all, no one who lives in an apartment building, condo community, or other close quarters has any business having a herding or hound breed, unless they work on a farm, hunt daily, or have another outlet available daily for their dog’s natural instincts. Man created these breeds for specific reasons, and for the dogs who “just love to bark”, those barks are an important part of their communicative abilities – that’s why humans bred that quality into them in the first place.

    Quite frankly, stating that “bark softening” saves thousands of dogs every year doesn’t sway my opinion. I’ve worked with thousands of dogs with severe behavior issues, and have never had to suggest surgical “bark softening” or euthanasia because I could not teach a dog to *not bark.* I’m guessing that sub-par trainers or less than ideal training methods are the reason that so many dogs can’t be “saved” by anything other than surgerical procedures.

    Dogs bark because their needs are not being met. Plain and simple. Some people will blame constant barking on their dog’s breed, and while some breeds may be more likely to bark or vocalize than others, the blame still lies with the owners, whether they want to admit it or not. Caring for a dog means providing it with a *proper* diet, plenty of mental stimulation, adequate physical exercise, appropriate and humane training, and an outlet for the breed’s instincts.

    A breeder who cannot tolerate their chosen breed’s vocalizations and so chooses to have all their dogs’ barks surgically “softened” is not a very good breeder. Good breeders strive to better their breed because they love their breed for what it is, and would expect their breed to behave according to it’s breed standard. A good breeder would also want potential puppy buyers to be aware of the potential barking issue, to know how to provide properly for that particular breed, and to have the option of getting a puppy who can bark normally.

    What it comes down to is making poor decisions: a responsible dog owner is one who has made an informed decision about their desired breed, and knows the likelihood of that breed developing an issue with barking. A responsible dog owner does not obtain a breed with innate vocalization instincts when they live in an apartment building, and they do not surgically soften their dog’s voice if they make a poor decision. I’m hard pressed to believe that it is somehow better for them to have their vocal chords damaged than to be put in a home where barking will not be an issue.

    The real issue at hand here is that we, as a society, are putting less and less reasonable restrictions on dogs. We’ve lost sight of what dogs really are, and what we can reasonably expect them to do (or not do.) We expect our dogs to eat a diet of grains, by-products, and fillers; to stay home alone for 8+ hours a day; to be entertained physically and mentally by tossing a ball 5 or 10 times when we get home from work; to never bark, lunge, or growl; to tolerate all sorts of bizaar and unreasonable training methods; to enjoy being approached and groped by strangers of all varieties; to love every dog they see; to never, ever raise a lip, let alone bite someone or something…and to never develop a behavior issue despite the expectations we have and the circumstances we place them in.

    Dog owners need to be educated, neighbors need to be educated, and local governments need to be educated about dog behavior, what responsible ownership really is, and what we should be able to reasonably expect from dogs. Dogs are euthanized because people aren’t responsible in which dog breeds they choose to keep and how they choose to raise them; dogs are euthanized because breeders aren’t honest about their breed in general and their line specifically; dogs are euthanized because people have unreasonable expectations. Dogs are not euthanized because they bark. Dogs are euthanized because people can’t be bothered to be responsible enough to make the right decisions about an animal’s future.

  2. Sharon S

    I will tell you my story. I live in a 2 family home, and my yorkie’s barking bothered the couple who lived downstairs from us tremendously. I have to admit, my dog possessed a loud, piercing bark, and loved to bark. We live on a corner, and there are many dogs who walk in front of the house. My dog enjoyed barking at all of them. Even though we had been getting along with our neighbors, they were extremely upset about our dog, because they considered his barking to be a significant disruption.

    I tried all the antibarking methods, We went to obedience school. Nothing worked. I reluctantly decided to have this surgery done to my dog. By the end of the day, he was still barking at the dogs in the street, but his bark was softer. The noise from his bark did not travel as it had prior to the surgery.

    I never noted one iota of change in my dog’s behavior. He just as happy and content as he was prior to the surgery.

    We experienced a couple years of difficulties, as we tried other measures. This procedure was truly a last resort. It is now 4 years later, and I still have my precious dog, and my neighbors are living in peace.

  3. Jordan S

    Devocalization is absolutely horrible! Dogs bark, and they should NEVER be surgically altered for that! You’d want your dog to be able to bark if someone was robbing your house or your house was on fire. To put a dog or cat through this procedure is horrible, the risks are numerous, ranging from infection to airway obstruction. People who devocalize say this is a simple procedure, tell that to the Pomeranian who choked to death after being devocalized and the dog who bled through his nose, ears, and mouth and choked on his own blood during and after a devocalization surgery. And for what, nothing, not even the guarantee of a secure home. Devocalized dogs are given up just like any other, some to shelters supporting this bill. The inspiration for this bill came from a devocalized dog in a shelter, contrary to what people opposing the bill have said, like this is part of a nationally organized campaign to stop people from having pets (even though I have a dog?). I have read so many times, devocalization is the only way I can breed shelties, and things like that, my question is then, why have shelties if they’re naturally noisy? Is that responsible, to have a breed predisposed to bark a lot , and then cut his vocal cords? ABSOLUTELY NOT, that is not responsible at all. This bill will promote responsible pet ownership by eliminating this horrible procedure only for human convenience and profit.

  4. Ginger

    Bark softening, as mentioned here by people who KNOW what they are talking about, not mouthing the MYTHS put forth by the likes of H$U$, does not remove vocal chords. 99.9% of dogs that undergo the procedure never have any kind of health problems. You don’t throw out a perfectly viable alternative because less than 1% might have a problem.

    In an increasingly litigous society, where more an more places are making it a CRIME if your dog barks taking away a perfectly viable method for people to keep their pets is INHUMANE. Who wants to bet that many of the people supporting this misguided piece of legislation would not even hesitate to complain at the least little bark coming from their neighbors dog?

  5. Alanna Kelly

    Training is always the first thing that should be done. Sometimes nothing works, when that happens bark softening may be the only alternative left to save the dog and the neighbors.

    Bark softening is a minor procedure. It properly involves a simple biopsy punch in the vocal chords. Vocal chords are not removed. The dog is not “mutilated” and it is up and barking within hours. The dog can bark, whine, and vocalize, just more softly.

    Bark softening is not cruel. The procedure is done under anesthesia. While spay and neuter are major surgeries, debark is a minor surgery. Dogs recover quickly

  6. Veronica G.

    Hats off to this young man. Go Boston! He certainly is a “STAR” in more than name. Thank you for this article, Mr. Williams.

    I am horrified that this is being done. Cats and dogs cannot speak, we are their voice for animal cruelty. But the vocalizations of dogs and cats are their way of conveying emotions, needs. I do know the difference in my cats vocal sounds. I cannot imagine how it would be for her…and me…to have her cords cut! This is animal cruelty!

    I am also very sensitive to this due to experiences many years ago. As an RN working at what was then Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Boston, Ma. (now Brigham and Women’s Hospital) I worked the evening shift. I would walk home at midnight. And my way took be past Harvard Medical School.

    I would hear strange sounds. I knew it was a dog, dogs, but the sounds were not normal. This was the research lab. I later learned that the vocal cords were cut from the dogs so they could not make loud sounds responding to the research/experimentation. However, they did make an eerie, horrible, low howl, whimper.

    Some memories never leave. I presume if vocal cords are being cut from dogs having owners and homes, it is still being done in the research labs.

    My heart remains so heavy to this day. I can still hear the agony.

  7. Bonnie

    The debarking bill is not what it seems. It looks like a straightforward, be-kind-to-animals law, but it is actually part of a coordinated national campaign by animal rights organizations, which do not believe people should own pets at all. Laws should be based on knowledge and fact, but this proposal relies on emotion and lack of knowledge to influence people, because the surgery is so rare that most people and even most vets are not informed about it.

    Facts: Debarking saves lives. A more accurate name is bark softening. It is a last resort that should be available for dog owners when training methods fail. Many dogs cannot be trained to stop barking, not so much when they are bored or lonely but much more when they are having fun. This proposal would kill many pets, which would have to be euthanized or taken to shelters because of neighbor complaints and Animal Control citations. Devocalization is never done on cats at all. As for dogs, no one makes the decision lightly, but it is not cruel. It is very minor surgery done under anesthesia, through the mouth (like tonsillectomy), only takes a minute, and does not remove the vocal chords, merely making a nick in them. It is much less invasive than spaying or neutering. The dogs are not silent, just much quieter. They resume their normal activities the same day and do not seem to realize they are debarked. They bark just as much, but now they are happier because they are not constantly punished for it.

    It is not drug dealers who are debarking dogs, it is pet owners with breeds that bark a lot, especially shelties, collies, terriers, small dogs. The protection breeds do not bark as much and are more easily trained to be quiet, and the myth that they are debarked so that they will attack silently is untrue. And, by the way, military dogs are routinely bark softened, what about them? They could not get special permits because this bill would mean that there would be no veterinarians who know how to do the surgery any more. This bill makes it abundantly clear how important it is to understand subjects before voting on them.

  8. Carolyn Tongate

    Unfortunately the young man knows little about canines. Most communication for them is non vocal. The bark softened dogs that I have had do not appear to know or care how they sound. Once again humans are putting their emotions on animals.

  9. Gail

    Having the dog’s bark softened does not involve removing the vocal cords. The dog is anesthetized and a small hole is made in either side of the vocal fold using a biopsy punch. This takes only a few minutes. As soon as the dog recovers from anesthesia he goes home. The dog doesn’t even realize his bark has been softened. He can still bark at the squirrels, falling leaves, airplane overhead, etc. But, his barking no longer annoys the neighbors. IMO this is much less cruel than using a shock or citronella collar, squirting the dog with water or throwing a can with pennies at the dog (as recommended by behaviorists).

  10. Marilyn Marlow

    Softening of a animals bark by proper minor surgery is not cruel for animals. On the contrary -it allows a responsible owner to keep them and remain a responsible neighbor. Using some of those training methods or “training” them not to do what comes naturally in my humble opinion is cruel. I have had “debarked” dogs for over 30 years and not one of them ever had any health or vocal problems mentioned above by the opera singer. They are still able to communicate very effectively just the voice is softened (similar to Jackie Kennedys soft voice.

  11. Becky MacLeod

    I have had shelties for the past 30 years. Shelties love to bark and interact with everything. I purchased a young sheltie that had already been debarked. She had no problems at all barking…it was just a softer sounding bark. Her bark was not at all wheezy, horse sounding, or labored. We have since debarked 3 other shelties. The debark procedure was done under anesthesia comfortably and the dogs went home 4 hours after the procedure. The dogs did not appear to be bothered by the surgery at all…they ate full dinners and were back to running and playing the same day. We have never had any problems with any of the dogs that we have debarked. They still bark all the time…but it is a softer sounding bark and it does not bother our neighbors.
    We know of people, who own beagles and schnauzers that bark all the time. The dogs are put outside at 6am by their owners and are allowed to bark all day long. Their owners go to work early in the morning while the dogs run the fence and BARK at everything ALL DAY LONG. Their constant barking is very annoying and disturbing. The police do nothing about the noise…I know several neighbors who have complained yet nothing is done.

  12. Linda

    The vocal cords are NOT removed…they are snipped. The dogs CAN and DO bark…it is just softer and the voice does not carry quite as far. I have several bark-softened dogs….I can recognize each and every dog by its bark, surgery or no surgery and I can hear them. They don’t know they are not making noise at all. My dogs have NEVER had a problem with it, and my neighbors are very appreciative. And training is not a perfect answer for some dogs who are very vocal….I’d rather have a bark-softened dog that can bark at the squirrels to their heart’s content than be constantly scolded, or I think worse, is the shock collar.

  13. Isa

    Fewer dogs might be seized and surrendered if people made responsible choices in choosing pets. Maybe it’s not a great idea to buy a noisy breed if you live in a crowded urban area.

  14. Charlotte McGowan

    Bark softening is not understood generally by the public. It has helped save the lives and homes of hundreds of noisy dogs. The campaign in Massachusetts has had lots of false information. They have featured youtube videos that are hard to recognize as dogs whose barks have been softened. The procedure, properly done, takes less than a minute under anaesthesia. It is a a very small punch in the vocal chords. The vocal chords are not removed. The dogs still barks, whines, howls but softer. Trying to outlaw this procedure means many loved dogs will be forced out of their homes, some will be euthanized. This is hardly saving the planet. Anyone who loves dogs would not want to remove a tool of last resort to keep dogs in their homes. Please read my article at
    http://www.naiaonline.org/body/articles/archives/debark_qna.htm

  15. Sash

    I’m just going to respectfully throw in my 2 cents. I’m an opera singer and I have a detailed understanding of the vocal folds (dogs aren’t very different). When you make a cut or a puncture in the vocal fold, you are allowing air to pass through that otherwise would not. Think of someone who has a sore throat or nodes and a breathy sound – their volume is naturally decreased because of the air passing through their swollen folds (swelling can let extra air pass as well).

    This is does affect the health of the vocal mechanism. Extra air dries the outer layer, the mucosa, of the vocal folds causing them to be more easily irritated and damaged. In human cases, this can result in vocal nodules, swelling and ruptured veins which can then lead to more, possibly permanent, damage.

    Having had dogs that love to bark (beagles, anyone?), I understand the frustration one can have with their incessant noise. But, finding the reason for the barking and engaging in proper and consistent training can alleviate the situation.

  16. Darla Duffey

    You people have not been told the truth.

    Bark softening saves dogs lives in some cases.
    I do rescue and debarking has helped a half a dozen people this past year to be able to keep their dogs instead of them being turned into and killed in shelters.
    Debarking is an easy procedure through the mouth, like a tonsilectomy for a child. The vocal cord is “notched” just enough to quiet the bark. We do not rip the vocal cords out!!! The dogs can still bark they just are not as loud as if not debarked. They are happy animals afterwards because they can run and chase squirrels and bark their heads off and not be bothering the neighbors.
    Darla Duffey

  17. Joyce B

    Debarking (more appropriately called, Bark Softening) is a simple procedure done under light anethestic. The dogs recover nearly immediately. They do still have a voice, it is just quieter. I own multiple Shelties, that rejoice in barking at the world in general. Out of respect for my neighbors, I have had them Debarked. They can make their joyful noise and my neighbors can live in peace. Many complaints to Animal Control are noise related. Debarking offers an option to keep noisy dogs in their homes rather then having them turned into a Shelter.

  18. Susan Christie

    I have had shelties for over 20 years. Shelties bark at everything and anything and they have a very shrill bark. They are happy dogs who love to bark.

    I have had their barks “softened” surgically for many years. The surgeon does not “remove the voice box”. The surgeon uses a biopsy punch and takes a tiny notch out of the flaps of skin that the area vibrates against. It is a simple surgery and the dogs eat happily the same afternoon they have the procedure done. I always use a vet who has done thousands of bark softening.

    The dogs can still be heard. They are happy. I do not have to yell at them so they don’t disturb anyone. They can still whine and cry. I feel it is much more humane than a electric shock collar which hurts them each time they bark. It is also more humane than spraying citronella in their faces.

    Shelties aren’t barking because they have a problem. They are barking because it is in their heritage to be alert little dogs who bark at everything. They are wonderful intelligent dogs and the barking is the only downside to this wonderful breed.

    Many dogs will be euthanized or surrendered to shelters if bark softening is not allowed. People can be much to quick to be negative to something they don’t understand. As dogs become very old, their barks can be softer. This is what it sounds like to me.

    My dogs don’t wheeze. Perhaps this dog would wheeze even if he didn’t have his bark softened. Perhaps the veterinarian didn’t have the experience to do the procedure properly.

    Just as we wouldn’t go to a dentist for hip replacement surgery, it is important to find a veterinarian who is experienced with the procedure even if it is a very simple procedure.

  19. Cindy

    Please make sure you make it clear what the difference is between the total removal of the vocal cords and a bark softening (aka de-bark). A bark softening is a small cut in the vocal cords – it is NOT the removal of the vocal cords. A bark softened dog can and does still bark. The volume is simply less.

    There are some breeds that bark at everything and anything. It’s what they were bred to do. Shelties are a perfect example. They bark because a leaf falls, a branch moves, an airplane flies over….just to let you know that “it happened”. If you have more than two shelties, I defy anyone to teach them NOT to bark. If one starts, they all bark. Bark softening is a wonderful way to let them bark all they want, without bothering anyone. Too many end up in shelters because owners can’t deal with the barking. Having this tool helps save many a “barker” from being put down. When a qualified vet does this procedure, it is a quick and easy surgery. The dog is back home within a couple of hours and is happy and shows no signs of discomfort. They can bark all they want to – they have no idea they aren’t making as much noise. They can exhibit all the same sounds of emotion as a non-bark softened dog – it’s just much quieter. And the neighbors aren’t complaining.

  20. Galashelties

    I realize that this is an emotional issue but I ask that you allow me to correct the misconceptions that seem to be running rampant in this article. Debarking is a poor term for this procedure. Those of us who have dogs that have had this done more accurately call it bark softening or alterbarking. The important thing that people need to understand is that the dog’s vocal folds are not removed/cut out and the surgery is very minor and results in a softer bark, not silence. The dog is anesthetized and a small hole is made in either side of the vocal fold using a biopsy punch or cautery tool. This takes less than 10 minutes. The dog recovers from anesthesia and goes home. Amazingly, they can still bark, just not as loudly. While this isn’t for the person who just can’t be bothered training their dog, it is of vast benefit to those who have dogs that simply don’t respond to the usual training methods. It certainly is more humane than having a dog wear a collar that causes a shock to be delivered every time that dog barks. For those who might condemn me for advocating such a procedure, I urge you to walk the aisles of your local shelters and see the dogs that have been surrendered because they bark too much. More daunting is the thought of all the dogs that may end up euthanized because this simple procedure is so misunderstood and/or misrepresented that it ends up illegal. I love dogs… all dogs. I would never allow my dogs to be mistreated or force any type of cruel procedure on them. And my dogs are “bark softened.” I don’t have to holler “Hush” all day long at my dogs (a herding breed that is genetically programmed to voice their opinion at every opportunity) and my neighbors don’t have to listen to me hollering OR the dogs barking. Thank you for allowing me to present a differing opinion.

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