Oregon Court Forces Couple to Surgically Debark Their Dog

Tibetan Mastiff Running On Yellow Flowering Field

How would you react if a court ordered you to “debark” your dog because your neighbors couldn’t stand the noise? That’s exactly what happened to Karen Szewc and John Updegraff, who breed massive, fluffy Tibetan Mastiffs on their private property located in Rogue River, Oregon.

According to their neighbors, Debra and Dale Krein, the Tibetan and Pyrenean Mastiffs would incessantly bark from 5 a.m. onward since 2002. Although they filed complaints in 2004 and 2005 for the loud and constant noise, Szewc argued that their 3.4-acre property was technically a farm, and farms fall under different ordinances. While it’s true that farms do have different laws from general private property, and the couple did have goats, chickens, and sheep on the land, the Jackson County Circuit Court shot down her assertion that the land is technically a “farm” and ordered her to pay a $400 fine and to either debark her dogs, or move them to another location.

Years passed since the ruling, but by 2012, it was apparent that nothing was done to silence the six large mastiff dogs on the property, and the Kreins ended up taking the dog owners to court. It was abundantly clear that Szewc and Updegraff had not done everything within their power to keep their dogs quieter over the years, and it was noted in court that the Kreins' children hated being around their home, people stopped visiting, and the dogs would often wake them up at the crack of dawn.

Szewc explained why she needed the dogs and why it was vital that the mammoth dogs needed the ability be noisy at times:

The dogs are my employees. We do not have the dogs to harass the neighbors. We have the dogs to protect our sheep. The next line of defense is a gun. I don’t need to use a gun, if I can protect my sheep with dogs. This is a passive way of protecting livestock.

Well, the jury disagreed, and not only was the couple saddled with paying their neighbors $238,000 for having to deal with their barking dogs for over a decade, Judge Timothy Gerking ordered that all of their mastiffs must undergo debarking surgery, as other methods of keeping the dogs quiet, such as shock collars and putting up a wall so that the dogs wouldn’t see out to bark at anything, were not effective.

“Debarking” is a surgical procedure, where a veterinarian cuts out a portion of a dog’s vocal cords so the animal is permanently unable to bark at full volume. There are a few methods of removing the tissue from the vocal cords, including using a biopsy punch, a laser, or a cautery tool. Contrary to its name, debarking doesn’t completely keep a dog from barking, but its bark may sound more like a muffled wheeze or squeak instead.

The cutting of a dog’s vocal cords is legal in 46 U.S. states. New Jersey and Massachusetts have banned the practice unless it has been deemed “medically necessary” by a licensed veterinarian; Pennsylvania made it illegal to perform the surgery unless the dog is put under anesthesia, and Ohio has banned debarking unless it is for a “vicious dog.” In the UK, the practice of debarking a dog has been ruled as surgical mutilation. I should note that the Oregon Humane Society pushed for a bill that would have banned the procedure in the state, but it failed to pass.

Friends of the dog owners have set up a petition to highlight that Oregonians do not want courts forcing them to have unneeded surgeries performed on their pets, and at the time of this writing, it has accumulated over 20,500 signatures. Whether or not the dog owners in this case truly attempted to curb the barking — and they probably didn’t since the problem lasted for ten years — it raises an interesting question: Is it ethical to have a court force pet owners to have an unwanted and unneeded surgery performed on their animals?

Opting for a debarking surgery is the ultimate last resort, and if you own a dog that just doesn’t know when to quit, the best way to solve the issue is to find the source of the problem. Common reasons for non-stop barkers include stress, lack of exercise, separation anxiety, and boredom. (My Yorkie barks with anxiety when I leave the house without her, but thankfully it only lasts a minute or two before she gives up!) If you can’t figure out what’s making your dog want to bark, your furry friend might actually be in pain, so take him for a checkup at the vet just to be safe.

Citronella-spraying collars are certainly an option, but it may run out of spray before the dog learns not to bark. Behavioral training is usually the way to go though, but you’ll need to be consistent and firm so they’ll learn.

Whether or not you’re against the practice of debarking loudmouth dogs, I believe that the vast majority of canines can be taught to not bark excessively. Either way, it’s discouraging to know that a court of law can force someone to get an unnecessary surgery for their pet…