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SocietyApril 16, 2018

It’s time to end dog control laws based on breed


New Zealand Veterinary Association companion animal manager Rochelle Ferguson tackles the flawed logic in using breed as the only criteria for judging dogs as dangerous.

The latest furore over the Christchurch City Council’s interpretation of our dog control laws exposes the flawed logic that underpins New Zealand’s approach to managing the dangerous dog issue. Our Dog Control Act, passed in 1996, created a menacing classification for dogs, based solely on their breed, taking no account of their temperament or history of good behaviour. It is this group of mostly pit bull dogs, which the council attempted to require be muzzled both in public and in private (the council this morning reversed their decision), that are at the heart of the issue.

Muzzling dangerous dogs is certainly an effective measure to reduce injury from dog aggression. It’s a method I employ with great regularity in the clinic when my canine patients raise objections to my care. It keeps me safe, and the dog gets the treatment it requires – it’s a win/win.

Working as a veterinarian, I have met and treated thousands of dogs over the years. The vast majority accept my attentions with good grace, and all that is required is a friendly greeting, a few pats and a couple of treats to get the job done. There are however a number of dogs where extra precautions are needed to ensure the process is safe for all involved.

The decision I make on when to apply a muzzle is not based solely on breed, but more importantly, on how the dog is behaving, and how well the owner is managing the dog.

If I followed dog control law logic in my clinic and only muzzled pit bulls, I would be wasting a reasonable portion of my life applying restrictions to good-natured dogs. I would also significantly increase the risk of getting bitten by a wide variety of dogs that aren’t pit bull types.

Dog control laws that use breed as a basis for identifying a risky dog also waste precious resources. Additionally, these laws fail to capture potentially dangerous dogs of other breeds.

Photo: Pixabay

There are a number of reasons behind dog aggression problems. The breed of dog is not the most important determining factor of aggressive behaviour. Instead it is the owner’s attitudes, experience and reasons for owning a dog. Other factors include early rearing experiences, later socialisation and training, the dog’s physical health and the situation surrounding the attack.

To focus solely on breed is a gross oversimplification of a complex issue.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) is concerned with the public health burden caused by dog aggression and have previously set out a comprehensive evidence-based position outlining suggested measures to address this problem. Among these is a recommendation to review the classification system for aggressive dogs contained in the Dog Control Act.

A reviewed classification system would see dogs classified as potentially dangerous or dangerous based on their behaviour, not their breed. It would also take into account the context in which aggressive behaviour occurred. The risk to society from a dog involved in an unprovoked attack is substantially higher than that from a dog that bites in response to severe provocation or pain and the measures applied should reflect these differences.

Many countries and municipal governments are removing their breed specific laws as they have failed to manage dog aggression and are not supported by scientific evidence. Instead there is a move to a framework that supports and promotes responsible dog ownership.

Pit bull owners who take positive actions and meet their obligations, ensuring their dogs are socialised, trained and managed so that they pose no danger or nuisance to people and other animals, should not be subject to unnecessary restrictions that only serve to reduce the dog’s welfare without making communities any safer.

Owners of dogs that don’t take dog ownership seriously, or who encourage aggressive behaviour in their dogs are the ones that should be feeling the heat from dog control officers.

Dog’s that display risky behaviours should be subject to increasingly stringent conditions, including mandatory behavioural testing to swiftly identify the truly dangerous dog. If the law supported dog control officers to focus their efforts on the owners and dogs that actually do pose a risk, the application of strict dog control measures then makes perfect sense.

Some of the most severe attacks happen within the home, and children are at greatest risk, so we applaud the Christchurch City Council for looking into ways to make homes safer. Unfortunately, they can only work with the laws that we have, and under the current classification system, their actions capture too many docile dogs and miss too many dangerous dogs to be truly effective. Until the classification system is changed, the council approach is only going to get them offside with the good dog owners, substantially reduce dog welfare and waste time and money on lawyers.

We need action on aggressive dogs, but let’s instead lift the focus to the other end of the lead and use our resources to support and promote responsible dog ownership by introducing dog owner licensing. This, in combination with a change to a sensible evidence based way to identify and classify potentially dangerous dogs would be a game changer for aggressive dog management in New Zealand.

Rochelle Ferguson is a veterinarian and Companion Animal Veterinarians Operations Manager at the New Zealand Veterinary Association. 

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