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Debarking: inhumane or good idea?

It usually takes a foster dog some time to settle in to their temporary home. By the third or fourth day here, their full personality comes out. With Layla, a curious but hesitant Pom on Thursday night when she was dropped off, transformed in to a joyful, goofy little creature by Sunday. It wasn’t until Layla was comfortable that I realized that when she gets excited, she barks like crazy. How didn’t I notice this? Layla was debarked.

Debarking is a relatively easy surgery in which a vet slices the vocal cords with a laser, either going through the mouth or making a small cut in the larynx. The pain caused to the dog is minimal and recovery is fairly quick and the result is a dog who makes only a raspy wheeze or a squeek. So what is it about debarking that is so unsavory?

Debarking has fallen somewhat out of fashion among younger veterinarians and animal rights advocates. The procedure can lead to complications – scar tissue can build up in the throat and make it difficult to breathe – but this isn’t why some have an issue with it. Debarking impacts a dog’s ability to communicate. Dogs that bark excessively in the home are often frustrated and by removing the bark, you don’t fix the problem, you only silence it. Dog to dog communication also involves barking and other vocalization. If your pup can’t tell another canine to back off because he can’t vocalize, he may result to more physically agressive behavior.

But debarking has its advantages, particularly in urban environments. There is a Miniature Schnauzer in the building next door that barks out of frustration and lonliness for hours on end driving me absolutely nuts. Debarking this dog would certainly make me and the other neighbors a little happier…but couldn’t they achieve the same thing through training? Simple things like leaving your dog a KONG toy filled with peanut butter or cream cheese can keep him occupied while you are away, decreasing his barking. It seems to me that, unless in the most dire situations (for example, a landlord is ready to kick a tenant out because of their dog’s excessive barking), debarking should be a LAST resort, not a first choice.

Layla makes the best of what she’s got and I can’t help but admit that I am glad her excited barking is silent but I wonder, does she realize that she is not communicating vocally? Certainly she can hear herself but, depending on how long her vocal cords have been non-functional, she may not even know that the rest of us can’t hear her barking…

Layla is up for adoption at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue. Visit for more information or read her description here.

Shy dog

Today I began assisting for a training class at the SF SPCA called “Shy Dogs.” Everyone there has a dog with some major fears – they’re frightened of men, dogs, buses, tile floors, even of their owners. By the end of class I found myself thankful that Franny is fearless. Then I remembered…last night I took my best friend Jasmine’s Chihuahua mix, Sombra, for a doggy sleepover so she could spend the day at the Treasure Island Music Festival. Sombra is a shy dog!

Sombra is an adolescent and she’s carrying alot of baggage around from her puppyhood. First of all, Sombra was never well socialized with dogs. They freak her out. Cats too. Basically she’s a big weenie. Secondly, and this contributes to her weenie-dom, Sombra was born to a mother owned by a large family with lots of rambunctious kids who terrorized her with rough handling. None of this is Sombra’s fault and she’s a lovely dog but she has a lot of fears.

Paul, the instructor of the Shy Dogs class, used a good metaphor: in dogs fear and aggression are two sides of the same coin. A dog may growl or bark not because it wants to hurt another dog or human, but because he is afraid of it. If he barks and growls, maybe the scary object will go away. But it’s not too hard to push a frightened dog from a state of fear to a state of terror, perhaps inciting him to bite or to completely shut down.

Ultimately, the best thing that can be done to help a dog with his fears are to build up his confidence. How do you build a dog’s confidence? With food, of course. And lots of praise. Like people, some fears can never be gotten rid of and that shouldn’t necessarily be the goal. Instead, the goal in working with a shy dog should be bringing them to a point where they are able to tolerate the things that frighten them in a way that is appropriate (for example, running in to the street is not a good response to a scary man walking a dog you but moving by as quickly as possible and keeping eye contact with you is). We want to “chip away” (as Paul said) at the fear.

There is no quick or easy way to do this. So just remember to go slowly, set small goals, and don’t expect a full “recovery.”

Paku’s paws

Paku, a five pound nearly hairless Chihuahua, is an occassional resident of my little zoo. I have to admit that I am not a Chihuahua person. They typically strike me as needy, frightened (both timid and agressive out of fear), and all around odd. So when 7-yr old Paku arrived six months ago it took me awhile to warm up to him. But eventually, he won me over with his funny antics and snuggly nature.

One of the things I find most amusing about Paku is the way he plays with stuffed toys, pouncing at them, chasing them around, carrying them in his mouth. But when the fun is done, Paku gets weird. He begins to lick his paws. Obsessively. His mom told me that, at times, he has gotten so over zealous that he has licked the hair right off. Lately, I have noticed Franny licking her paws, too. It seems to occur when she lays down for or wakes up in the middle of a nap in the evenings and, though she doesn’t obsessively lick, the action is the same as Paku’s. So, why do dogs lick their paws?

There are several possible reasons:

– stress

– boredom

– an allergic reaction to diet or outside stimulus (like chemicals used on lawns)

– psychological reasons (obsessive-compulsive behavior)

– fleas

In Paku, the behavior seems to be obsessive compulsive. In fact, Chihuahuas are among the most likely breeds to have obsessive compulsive disorders (along with Australian Cattle Dogs, Chows and Dobermans, among others). With Franny, the problem may high levels of cortisol in her blood stream. Stress is typically the cause of high cortisol levels but Franny’s Cushing’s Disease also causes her to have excessive cortisol. Franny’s paw licking, then, is likely a side-effect of her Cushing’s Disease!

For some suggestions on what to do about paw licking, check out tomorrow’s blog!

Franny’s bad behavior

I had Franny over a month before I heard her bark for the first time. At home, she makes this funny Chewbaca groaning sound when she wants something and I thought maybe that was the only vocalizing she did. When it finally happened, her deep, booming bark totally caught me off guard. At first it came rarely, but as time has passed, she is more eager to give short, constant barks when she wants something or is disturbed by another dog. As I discussed in one of our previous posts, barking is natural dog communication and shouldn’t be punished, but she has gotten to the point where she occassionally uses this same bark-style in unfamiliar, indoor situations like dog-friendly bars.

As I am on the path towards a dog-training profession, I decided to try to work with Franny to learn the command “Quiet” in order to stop her barking on command. I started by asking Franny to sit (a command I taught her a couple months back). If Franny knows I have a treat and I make her wait, she will begin her bark, without fail. After reading about training a dog to watchdog bark, I thought I could teach Franny two commands at once – 1) cue her to bark by catching her just before making the sound with the word “Bark” then rewarding her with a treat, and 2) when she quieted for several seconds, tell her “Quiet” and reward her with a treat. However, because Franny’s natural instinct was to bark I was only reinforcing her bad behavior.

My new strategy goes something like this:

I ask Franny to sit and show her the treat in my hand. She automatically starts to bark in her slow, sharp, insistent way when I don’t offer her the treat. She thinks that by barking, I will get annoyed and give her the treat. Instead, I wait – sometimes I turn my back on her and she scrambles around, sits in front of me again, and re-starts the bark. But after awhile (sometimes several minutes), Franny stops. She still wants that treat and she sees that what she is doing is not working so she moves on to a different strategy: she is quiet. After she has sat quietly for about 10 seconds I give her the treat and say “Quiet” at the same time.

A puppy would pick this strategy up very quickly but at 12 years old Franny’s brain is a little less sharp so it will take patience for the “quiet” command to sink in, and even longer to use it to silence her when she is pulling her insistent bark in an inappropriate place. Dog training, especially with seniors, takes patience. But if I continue to give Franny positive reinforcement, she will change her bad behavior.

The bark

I take Franny to the dog park nearly every day. She doesn’t realize it, but we have the great fortune of living three blocks from one of the most beautiful dog parks in the country, Alamo Square in San Francisco. I love Alamo Square for its fantastic views; she loves it because she gets the opportunity […]

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