Owner problem, not dog problem - expert

By Paul Harper

File photo / Thinkstock
File photo / Thinkstock

The Government needs to approach dog attacks in a similar way to anti-drink driving and smoking campaigns, a dog behaviour expert says.

A spate of dog attacks in recent days has once again sparked calls for certain breeds to be banned, but DSS Animal Management managing director Barry Gillingwater believes society needs to focus less at the dogs and more on the owners.

"We don't have a dog problem in New Zealand - what we have is a people problem. One of the symptoms of that people problem is dog problems," he said.

"The problem is any dog, of any breed, can bite and be aggressive. It just depends on the way they've been brought up, and the way their owner socialises and owns them.

"If the owner has high standards and does it properly, any dog will be fine. If the owner doesn't care, or doesn't want to socialise their animal, you've got a problem.

The problem was people who want a more aggressive breed of dog are not likely to want to socialise the aggressive nature out of them, he said.

"Because a lot of people get dogs with the so-called aggressive reputation, because they get them as a deterrent to stop people in their area robbing them, they've got no intention of socialising them."

Mr Gillingwater advocated for a public awareness campaign similar to those used to combat drink driving and smoking.

"What they did was achieve a change in social habits and a habitual change for the human animal takes quite a while, but it is possible.

"The next challenge could well be dog owners.

"Over a 10 year period - because that's how long it will take - you will gradually get change. But you will never get an entire change because you are dealing with the human animal and you won't get 100 per cent buy in."

Spate of dog attacks on children

Three children have been attacked by dogs in less than a week.

A nine-year-old girl was left with deep cuts to her head and arm after being attacked by her neighbour's American bulldog in Rotorua yesterday afternoon.

An 18-month-old girl suffered significant injuries to the right side of her face and stomach when the family's pitbull-staffordshire cross launched itself at her in Porirua on Saturday.

And a three-year-old boy remains in a critical condition following an attack by doberman-staffordshire-bull-terrier in Ashburton on Wednesday.

Mr Gillingwater, whose company runs courses for socialising dogs, said there were three factors present in dog attacks on children; the child's lack of experience and knowledge of how to act around dogs, a lack of supervision, and whether or not the dog had the proper socialisation.

He said small children who are bitten are often visiting extended family members whose dog is not used to the child.

"What we teach is any young child and dog interaction, even if it is a little poodle or Labrador, is to be supervised directly by parents," he said.

"It has to be direct, or keep them totally separate."

Mr Gillingwater said most farm kids are brought up with dogs from an early age.

"You only have to look at statistics from around New Zealand and you will see, dog attacks on farm kids are almost non-existent, because farm parents teach farm kids how to behave around dogs. But city kids wouldn't have a clue because their parents wouldn't have a clue."

That view was mirrored by New Zealand Kennel Club president Owen Dance, who told Radio New Zealand owners need an awareness of canine behaviour to keep children safe.

"When your child is old enough to understand, you teach it. You teach it dog language and human language are very different. Actions that imply affection between humans, like cuddling, staring into the eyes, or putting your head alongside another head, are in fact very threatening behaviours for dogs. And they will defend themselves."

Mr Dance said until parents have a better understanding of dog behaviour, dog attacks are "inevitable".

"I don't mean to imply I'm not sympathetic to these children who were hurt - it's terrible, but I think it is very significant that it is hard to find an example, I can't think of a single example, of a farmer's child being bitten by a farmer's dog.

"And in nearly 40 years in the kennel club I have never heard of a kennel club member's child being bitten by one of their dogs.

"Where dogs and children are raised by people who know dogs and children well enough to know how they interact, you are not going to get dog bite incidents."

Inquiry into dog laws

Local Government Minister Nick Smith has said he is concerned about the recent spate of serious attacks and promised yesterday to begin a stalled inquiry into laws governing dangerous dogs.

The investigation had been due to take place last year.

Mr Gillingwater said the law was already tough enough, and felt that banning breeds may be too hard.

"It's very difficult to ban something - you can't go out and shoot every one of them."

He did feel owners should need to be licensed, however.

"I'm an advocate of actually licensing the owner, like driving a car or owning a firearm, you have to do something like a license which can be revoked."

Les Dalton of the Institute of Animal Control Officers agreed, and was keen to talk to the minister about possible changes.

"But the Dog Control Act at the present time is sufficient, whereby if there's a dog threatening public safety animal control officers are empowered to enter those properties with police and seize the dogs and the penalties are certainly very high,'' he told TVNZ this morning.

He said breed-specific legislation did not seem to be working overseas and he was not in favour of that.

"But certainly we have cross-bred dogs here of an undesirable breed I think."

A conviction for failing to control a dog causing injury can carry a three-year jail term and a $20,000 fine.

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