Dog attacks on children always prompt a hue and cry. That is inevitable given the savagery of many of the assaults, the defencelessness of the victims, and the major injuries that are inflicted. When there are as many as three dog attacks in a week, there are bound to be calls for action. Predictably, therefore, the Local Government Minister, Nick Smith, leapt into the fray last week, promising to kick-start a stalled inquiry into the law governing dangerous dogs. The underlying thrust of his pledge is that this will lead to a tightening of the law. The minister must know, however, that the intention of the delayed inquiry was precisely the opposite - to a certain degree, justifiably so.
Dr Smith's predecessor, Rodney Hide, believed that previous amendments to the dog control legislation in 2003, themselves a kneejerk reaction to a spate of attacks on children, had swung the pendulum too far against dog owners. Their freedom to enjoy the companionship of their pets should, he said, be constrained only if they or their dogs significantly interfered with the rights of others. This meant he was unsure if, for example, people should be protected from dogs on private property marked with clear warnings.
The 2003 act was undoubtedly onerous for dog owners. Among other things, the penalty for those whose dog inflicted serious injuries was hiked to three years in prison and a $20,000 fine. In addition, dog control officers were given the right to go on to private property to remove a dog.
The law has, in most respects, worked. According to Dr Smith, the number of ACC claims for dog bites is static. That, in itself, meant little urgency was accorded to Mr Hide's inquiry, which was proposed in 2009 and scheduled for 2011. When the Christchurch earthquakes struck, it fell by the wayside.
There is a danger now that the minister will feel he has to act, just as Helen Clark's Government succumbed to a national mood of near-hysteria. If so, he should pay some heed to Mr Hide's view, and seek not to punish the vast majority. The emphasis must be on making the small minority of irresponsible dog owners more accountable. Dangerous dogs are usually a reflection of their owners. Commonly, their aggression is a consequence of being chained all day or confined to tiny spaces, rarely socialised, and treated badly or neglected.
Owners must be left in no doubt about their responsibilities to socialise their dogs and to have them properly trained. Licensing owners and requiring them to do courses in dog behaviour and care seem the most obvious way to achieve this.
There is also pressure on Dr Smith to ban certain breeds. He should resist this. The importing of four breeds - American pitbulls, Brazilian filas, Japanese tosas and dogos Argentinos - was outlawed in 2003. These dogs will always be a threat, irrespective of their owner. But it would be wrong to extend this approach indiscriminately. Any breed is capable of attacking a child if the dog has not been trained properly or has been maltreated by its owner. Banning breeds would conceivably bode ill for poodles and pomeranians if one of their number were involved in an attack.
Good law rarely emerges from an atmosphere of high emotion. For that reason, aspects of the 2003 law warrant a review. There is, for example, the requirement for micro-chipping. It was clearly mainly for show because it does nothing to lessen the threat posed by dangerous dogs.
Any new inquiry that allows itself to be swayed by calls for extreme measures because of a rare rash of attacks would revisit the same fraught territory. In a few years, we would be ruing an over-the-top response and the failure to stick to a law that, by and large, is working.