Sadly, dogs will pay for owners' sins

A court order requiring a rural Rogue River couple to debark their Tibetan mastiffs has raised a howl among dog lovers everywhere.

They say cutting an animal’s vocal cords is inhumane. And if you’ve ever heard a debarked dog try to speak, you might agree. It sounds painful, raspy, like someone with emphysema having a coughing fit. And what does a dog do when it can’t get its point across? It tries even harder. It doesn’t know it has no voice box left.

But I’m not sure the court had any other choice. Hear me out.

The case started in 2002, when Karen Szewc and Jon Updegraff began breeding Tibetan mastiffs, dogs that can grow up to 26-30 inches tall and weigh as much as 160 pounds. The American Kennel Club says mastiffs are generally mellow around the house, territorial with strangers and bark only when necessary.

But for whatever reason, Szewc and Updegraff's dogs bark. And bark. And bark. I’ve lived next to a dog that won’t stop barking, and it drives you so mad you think: The CIA doesn’t need waterboarding to extract a confession; just put the guy in a cell with a dog that won’t shut up.

In 2004 and 2005, Szewc was fined $400 for violating county public nuisance laws with her barking dogs and told to either move them or debark them. She appealed, but lost in 2008.

In 2012 her neighbors, Debra and Dale Krein, filed a lawsuit as a last resort after enduring more than a decade of nuisance barking by six or more of Szewc and Updegraff’s dogs.

The Kreins said the barking began as early as 5 a.m. and continued for most of the time Szewc and Updegraff were away, and the Kreins had the tapes to prove it. They said the dogs woke them up, kept relatives from visiting them and upset their kids.

Szewc and Updegraff claimed they needed the dogs to protect their sheep and the mastiffs were trained as guard dogs for their farming operation.

A jury disagreed in April 2015 and ordered Szewc and Updegraff to pay the Kreins $238,000 in damages. The judge also ordered the mastiffs be debarked within 60 days to give the Kreins relief — which is all they really wanted — and the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the ruling on Wednesday.

Who’s really at fault here? Not the dogs. The dogs could have been better trained, better attended (which may have alleviated the barking) or moved off the property. But because their owners refused to take the necessary action to restore peace to the neighborhood, their dogs must now suffer.

Obviously the owners weren’t moved by orders or fines or this problem wouldn't have dragged on for 15 years. That leaves dealing with the source of the noise. Removing the dogs from their owners carries the danger of creating problems elsewhere, and euthanizing them is even crueler than taking their bark away. What choice did the court have?

Cathy Noah is editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach her at or at 541-776-4464.

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