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Bottom line: Bad dog, bad owner

By James Fuller

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Dog attacks are a societal problem and most should be blamed on the owners and not the animals say canine experts.

Two recent Tauranga dog attacks have thrown the subject of dangerous dogs into the spotlight locally.

A shar-pei cross bit a female jogger on 15th Avenue on Tuesday. The attack followed a similar case last Saturday in which three dogs, a mastiff-cross, a bull-terrier cross and a border-collie cross, killed two cats in Welcome Bay.

John Payne, Tauranga City Council manager of environmental compliance, said there were some simple ways to reduce dog attacks.

He said 65 per cent of attacks were by male dogs and statistics showed de-sexing and registration were effective measures for minimising the numbers.

"There are 557,000 dogs registered nationally and 45 per cent of those are de-sexed. That's nearly half of all dogs, yet de-sexed dogs are responsible for only 34 per cent of attacks.

"That points to the fact that de-sexing creates a more balanced animal. The hormones that were racing around in what is essentially a wild, canine predator don't exist anymore."

Mr Payne said 94 per cent of dogs were registered. The 6 per cent which were not, were responsible for almost a third of attacks (31.5 per cent). Of those attacks, the American pit bull terrier was seen as a prime culprit.


They try to effect maximum damage

"They [pit bulls] only account for 1.56 per cent of the dog population but are responsible for 18 per cent of bites," he said.

"It depends how you look at statistics. 97 per cent of pit bulls do not bite but the 3 per cent which do, do a lot of damage. They also tend to make up a significant proportion of those dogs which are unregistered."


He said he had experienced pit bull owners, after an attack, saying "it was completely out of character and the dog had never shown any aggression before".


 


"What that says is that you cannot trust them. They are dangerous animals and when they do attack they try to effect maximum damage. You are talking about a dog which was bred as a fighting dog in the 19th century."

Dog attacks could be looked at as a social issue, he said.

"If you looked at the areas where there is high crime, high truancy and high levels of graffiti, and then overlaid a map of where most of the unregistered pit bulls are, it's the same area."

Mr Payne said the current legislation was "really quite good" apart from one element.

"One area I have a problem with is when our staff come across an aggressive dog. If it hasn't attacked anyone yet, we are powerless to do anything.

"But it comes back to the question of whether it is okay for someone to own a powerful, aggressive animal if it is well managed. What about if, for example, someone has been burgled three times and they can't get insurance? What is their next step to protect their property?"

Karen Batchelor, media spokeswoman for the American Pit Bull Terrier Association Incorporated, launched a staunch defence of the pit bull. She labelled the attack figures attributed to pit bulls as "spurious nonsense" saying "most people cannot even identify what is a pit bull and what isn't".

Ms Batchelor said pit bulls had suffered years of misrepresentation and this had helped create the current situation.

When the banning of pit bulls was mooted in the 1990s it had driven devotees of the dogs underground, Ms Batchelor said. They had bred many litters to ensure its survival. Other animals had been cross-bred, with breeds like the mastiff, so the offspring could not be defined as pit bulls.

"It's shocking the amount of misinformation that has been put out there but things are changing. More people now know the truth about pit bulls than don't," she said.

Another harmful factor had been the pit bull's popularisation and association with gang culture.

"You don't just get status dogs you get weapon dogs," said Ms Batchelor.

"Pit bulls are just dogs, what matters is how they're trained and treated. If they're used as yard dogs, with no exposure to humans and allowed to roam around then you have a ticking time bomb.


The most aggravating factors

"They should meet 100 people by the age of three months and by the age of four-to-eight weeks they need to be socialised with other dogs. Otherwise they don't learn." In 2010-11, the American Temperament Test Society tested 804 American pit bull terriers and 695 passed, an 86.4 per cent success rate. Pit bulls outscored 121 other dog breeds, including golden retrievers. The tests gauge reactions to a series of pre-determined visual, auditory and physical stimuli.

Ms Batchelor added that one of the most aggravating factors in the dog control debate had been the advent of dog-specific legislation. The Dog Control Act requires the Brazilian fila, dogo argentino, Japanese tosa, perro de presa canario and American pit bull terrier to be muzzled in public.

"Get rid of dog-specific legislation. It doesn't work and it's not a good safety measure. It is expensive, illogical and an embarrassment to the country. Around the world dog-specific legislation is being repealed," she said.

Following the legislation people had become paranoid and fewer registered their dogs as pit bulls as a result, which was counter-productive.

"People are going to have a negative response when singled out in this way," Ms Batchelor said.

Whilst the number of dogs and dog complaints has risen in Tauranga during the past year the number of attacks has fallen. The number of registered dogs rose by 553 to 10053 in 2011/12. The year-on-year attack figures dropped by 13, from 82 to 69.

A total of 3671 complaints were responded to by the dog control team in the same period, up from 3235 in 2010/11.

In 2011/12, 998 dogs were rounded up in Tauranga. Of these, 449 were unregistered.

City council animal services team leader Brent Lincoln attributed falling dog attack figures to proactive work on dog regulation.

"We are focused on that," he said.

Mr Lincoln said he believed registered dog owners took more accountability because they understood "we can identify the owner and take more action".


Meant to be muzzled

He said an environment had been created where people understood if the dog did something wrong then there would be repercussions.

This included those breeds which were meant to be muzzled by law.

"If they are not muzzled and they act aggressively, the council would take that into account when dealing with any complaint," said Mr Lincoln.

"Also if a dog has acted in an aggressive manner at some stage [irrespective of breed] they are required to muzzle their dog."

Mr Lincoln said the recent attacks should not be blown out of proportion.

"We investigate around 70 cases a year but that can include everything from a scratch or a nip. Thankfully we do not get many that are that serious."

He did ask for public understanding about how the dog control team carried out its duties.

"There's a public perception about how the council should act in these matters but we have to follow proper procedure. That way any action the council takes will fit in with the law, as it must."

For all the discussion around the topic, Mr Lincoln said the biggest issue was ownership.

"The bottom line, and what it really comes down to, is how the dogs are managed and controlled. It's mostly down to poor ownership and people not taking responsibility."

He said some breeds were bred for aggression and could cause more harm if they did attack. However, he added that was not the same as saying they were more likely to attack.

Dogs in Tauranga are required to be registered each year and any dog over the age of three months must be registered. Registration for the present year (from August 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013) costs $102.

If a dog control officer encounters an unregistered dog, then in addition to any registration fee that may be due, the owner will receive a $300 infringement notice. If an unregistered dog is impounded, owners must pay $50 before they can retrieve it.

This is more than a registered dog, which will cost an owner $40 for release.

If a dog is impounded a second time, an owner will have have to pay $75 for its release. Any subsequent visits will cost them $125. Owners also have to pay a $7 sustenance fee for each day their dog is impounded.


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One vet who is familiar with the experience and consequences of dog attacks, personally and professionally, is Paul Greaves. Mr Greaves, of Bayfair Vets, was walking his dog along the beach when it was subjected to an unprovoked attacked.

"He's a griffon-cross and we were just out for a walk along the beach. He had run off in front of me and I could see this pit bull up ahead. I called him back and the pit bull began chasing him.

"As he got to me the dog grabbed him. I managed to tear him away but then it started having a go at me. I used to take a walking stick with me, in case of this sort of thing, but had dropped that to pick my dog up, so it wasn't a lot of good in the end.

"I was fighting it off with my hands."

The owner eventually seized the dog and pulled it away.


Pit bulls are often blamed

"I was pretty shaken up. I told him I wasn't very happy about what had happened. He just said 'sorry' and walked off. They managed to get the guy later but only when another incident had happened."

Mr Greaves said dog attacks were a multi-factored problem which wasn't going away.

"In terms of the numbers of attacks it has ebbed and flowed but I'm not sure you can say it's trending in any particular direction."

He said pit bulls were often blamed for attacks but other breeds, such as the shar-pei and rottweilers, were also responsible.

"Pit bulls are a problem breed but they are not the only one. There are a number [of breeds] which are pre-disposed to aggression because of their breeding."

A mixture of "genetics and environment" lead to attacks, Mr Greaves said. He added that the owners of problem dogs showed a lack of responsibility and empathy for others.

The Bayfair vet said a second dog attack in which he was involved demonstrated this.

"I remember 10 to 15 years ago a lady was getting out of a car at our Papamoa clinic. She had a Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy. She got that out and had opened the car door to get her baby out when a pit bull, which had been walking ahead of its owner about 100 yards away, charged across and seized the puppy by the head.

"I heard the commotion and ran to help. I began punching this pit bull to try to get it to release the puppy but without success. The owner then came across and eventually prised the dog's jaws open.

"We got the puppy inside and remarkably it survived, it just had a puncture wound to the head. By the time I went back outside to talk to the owner, though, he had disappeared. These people just don't care."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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