For more than 10 years, neighbors of a small farm in southern Oregon said they were disturbed by the incessant barking of the watchdogs next door.
According to a report in the Oregonian, Debra and Dale Krein said the barking started as early as 5 a.m. and continued for hours. The noise often woke them when they were sleeping, kept relatives from coming to visit, and made their children dread coming home from school every day. The barking from Karen Szewc and John Updegraff's Tibetan and Pyrenean mastiffs began in 2002, but the Kreins didn't sue them until 10 years later. Neighbors for 20 years, they said the lawsuit was a last resort.
In April 2015, a jury sided with the Kreins, awarding them $238,000. In addition, Judge Timothy Gerking ordered the couple to surgically "debark" the mastiffs, since other means of curtailing the barking — shock collars, citronella sprays or putting up a barrier between the neighbor's property — had not worked.
The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in late August 2017 that debarking or "devocalization" was an appropriate solution to the problem.
Animal experts weigh in on 'de-barking'
"We are just shocked," David Lytle, a spokesman for the Oregon Humane Society, told the Oregonian, on hearing about the ruling. Lytle said his organization pushed for a bill to outlaw debarking surgeries in Oregon, but they were unsuccessful.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, debarking is a surgical procedure performed under general anesthesia that cuts parts of the vocals cords or vocal folds. There are risks to the procedure including bleeding, acute airway swelling and infection.
There are currently six states that have laws prohibiting devocalization of dogs under certain circumstances, according to the AVMA. Massachusetts, Maryland and New Jersey prohibit the procedure except where it's deemed medically necessary by a licensed veterinarian. Pennsylvania prohibits devocalization unless the procedure is performed by a licensed veterinarian using anesthesia. California and Rhode Island make it unlawful to require the devocalization as a condition of real estate occupancy.
Opponents say that removing a dog's main means of communication — barks are used for play, warning, greeting and working — is cruel and unnecessary. However, proponents say that it may save a dog from euthanasia in certain situations.
Many animal rights groups have spoken out against the practice, suggesting that behavioral training is a far better alternative.
"Debarking surgery does not result in a silent dog," writes American Humane, which strongly discourages the procedure. "The dog will still attempt to bark and will typically make a hoarse, raspy sound that can be equally annoying. Debarking surgery will also not alleviate the reason for the dog's barking."
The AVMA, the American Animal Hospital Association and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association oppose the practice except when training and other management options have failed and as a final alternative before euthanasia.
Dogs that have the surgery often communicate with a squeaky or raspy sound. This video gives some examples:
The history of the Oregon case
According to The Washington Post, the Kreins weren't the first ones to take legal action against the dog owners. In 2004 and 2005, the county cited Szewc for violating a public nuisance code by "allowing two of her dogs to bark frequently and at length."
At the time, Szewc said the provisions didn't apply in her case because her dogs were on a farm and farms were covered under different ordinances. The Jackson County Circuit Court disagreed, saying the property was not a farm. She was ordered to pay a fine and to debark the dogs or move them.
It's unclear what action was ultimately taken.
A show of support
Friends of the dog owners have started a petition, asking the courts to stop ordering debarking in dogs.
"Ordering the mutilation of animals in a civil suit flies in the face of recent landmark Supreme Court decisions that conceded animals are sentient beings and should be afforded some of the same basic rights as humans. Debarking is a cruel and unnecessary punishment, for animals who are doing what they are bred to do," Terry Fletcher writes in her petition.
As of this writing, the petition has more than 8,700 signatures.
Szewc told the Oregonian that she's not sure what she'll do. She currently has six dogs on her Grants Pass property and one has already been debarked.
"The dogs are my employees," she said. "We do not have the dogs to harass the neighbors. We have the dogs to protect our sheep."
She pointed out that farms make noise, which is something her neighbors won't accept. The dogs bark when they sense predators, like bears or cougars.
"The next line of defense is a gun. I don't need to use a gun if I can protect my sheep with dogs," Szewc said. "This is a passive way of protecting livestock."