Gone to the dogs: How to stop the attacks

By Andrew Stone

Photo / File
Photo / File

Dog attacks put 500 New Zealanders in hospital each year. Andrew Stone looks at how to get the most dangerous breeds under control

Eight pig dogs tore into Maggie Christensen.

They latched on to her scalp, back, arms and legs. As she tucked into a curl, her arms shielding her face and heart, she feared the pack would rip her throat: "I prayed I might die quickly."

Thirty months after the horrific attack, the 38-year-old Putaruru woman has rebuilt her life. She has endured hours of surgery, though dreadful scars remain and a chunk of flesh will forever be missing from her left ankle.

Still, this brave woman says she is wary, but not scared of dogs.

"I'm good. I'm fully recovered really, physically and mentally."

Not far from the house on the dairy farm she helps run with husband Sven, a pack of pig-hunting animals are held in secure cages. The couple intend to keep them.

What upsets her though are the persistent reports of New Zealanders - particularly children - mauled by dogs.

"When I read about another attack I wonder 'Gosh will this ever end?'."

Christensen was one of 443 New Zealanders admitted to hospital in 2009 with injuries caused by dogs. The following year, 560 people spent time in hospital being patched up - the highest figure since 1993.

Of these, 137 were boys and girls under 10. For a decade, an average of 477 people a year injured after tangling with dogs have been hospitalised. Prior to that, one study found the rate of hospitalisation between 1989 and 2001 was an average of 240 a year.

Those most at risk are males - who often own powerful animals - and young children. The impact on victims of different ages though can be striking.

Older people mostly get bitten on their hands and arms - classic defensive wounds. Children are far more likely to be attacked around the head and face.

When three children were mauled earlier this year Local Government Minister Nick Smith pledged to review the law. But Smith was careful not to promise anything beyond a possible "tweak" of the legislation, saying there were no magic bullets when it came to dog control.

Besides those hurt badly enough to warrant a stay in hospital, thousands more are treated at clinics and outpatient units each year for injuries caused by dogs, with their compensation claims accepted by ACC.

Last year, 11,708 claims were lodged with ACC at a cost of $2.1 million. The bill is expected to rise as rehabilitation, home help and weekly support payments continue for more seriously injured victims.

Not all injuries are bites. People trip over their animals, fall and break bones or skin their elbows, what the Health Ministry calls being "struck" by a dog.

Dog defenders embrace these differences and accuse the media of overstating the dangers that dogs - especially powerful animals such as pit bulls, rottweilers and mastiffs - pose. A national magazine for "active dogs and their owners" called fetch! last year rebuked the "lazy media" for exaggerating dog attacks.

Former Animal Control Officers' Institute president John Payne says, however, that even the staggering ACC and hospital figures do not tell the full story. Based on reports from council dog officers, he estimates as many as 20,000 New Zealanders are injured by dogs each year.

But of these, just 1000 attacks are reported to councils. Payne believes the chief reason is that family dogs are responsible for many - though often minor - attacks and owners fret that their animal may get seized and put down. His evidence for this rests again on reports from animal control staff, with 74 per cent of attacks occurring on or directly outside the dog owners' property.

Says Payne: "This shows territorial aggression is the biggest motivator."

Under existing national dog policy, there is no requirement that claims ACC accepts are referred to councils, who could use the information to find the dogs responsible and prosecute their owners.

The law is clear - most dog attacks, regardless of where they occur, are offences under the Dog Control Act. Penalties, if an owner is convicted, may include destruction of the animal, fines for the owner and a ban on keeping another dog for as long as five years.

New Zealanders love their dogs, though they don't always respect the law regarding ownership.

By one count there were 478,561 registered dogs in the country at the end of May last year.

Under the Dog Control Act, owners are obliged to register dogs annually from three months of age. The cost varies, but it can be $200 or more. Some councils offer discounts for owners whose animals complete obedience training.

Details are collated on the National Dog Database, a storehouse of information that allows lost or stolen animals to be reunited with owners and keeps tags on dogs deemed menacing or dangerous.

In terms of the management of New Zealand's dog population, and the costly and significant health hazard that dog attacks pose, the database is a valuable official tool for evaluating dog control policy. It contains details about all the dog breeds which exist in New Zealand, and where dogs - at least those recorded on the database - are housed.

The database has been running since 2006, when all dogs registered for the first time were required to be microchipped.

The 478,561 registered tally comes from the database. The Department of Internal Affairs, which advises the Government on dog policy, cautions the details are "only as accurate as the information supplied by territorial authorities and from time to time their ability to input is restricted by technical and processing difficulties".

The database also provides an insight into the number of unregistered dogs in New Zealand.

John Payne, who for 20 years was in charge of dog control in Tauranga, says 29 per cent of recorded attacks are by unregistered dogs.

The most recent national statistics show 74,166 dogs were "previously registered" at the end of May 2011. Owners of some of these dogs may have been late paying fees, some animals would have died and in other cases councils may be dragging the chain updating the database. Payne suggests the number is a pointer to the unregistered dog problem.

"If we are going to reduce the number of dog attacks then we need to get a handle on unregistered dogs," he says. Influential animal welfare advocate Bob Kerridge agrees.

Dog enthusiast Kerridge, executive director of the SPCA in Auckland, thinks the time has come to move beyond registering dogs to licensing owners.

"That way," says Kerridge, "we can ask people to produce their licence for their dog. "I know it sounds a little draconian but I think it will go a long way to dealing with the problem we've got. If you're a bad owner, and you've got a bad dog, then you're going to cause a problem."

Twenty five years ago Kerridge tried to stop American pit bulls entering New Zealand and becoming established. He joined with the SPCA to lobby the Government with reports from the US which branded the pit bulls "killer dogs" and blamed the animals for 16 deaths in less than three years.

At the time the breed was not registered in New Zealand and the SPCA feared the dogs would be used for organised fights.

Recalls Kerridge: "We worried about the sort of people who'd want one of these dogs. We felt some of the dogs would be abused and mistreated which could increase the odds of the dogs causing harm. Once it was imported we believed it would invade other breeds. We haven't changed our views."

The campaign failed, with the Government then deciding that breeding alone did not create a dangerous dog, a decision which appears to have been the catalyst for one of the biggest changes in the country's dog profile.

So 25 years on where are we? Payne's research using reports from animal control officers has identified seven breeds being responsible for 50 per cent of the dog attacks reported to councils. Way out in front on his list are American pit bull terriers, which his study blames for 18.9 per cent of attacks, despite making up under 2 per cent of the national database.

The six other breeds are staffordshire bull terriers, bull terriers, german shepherds, rottweilers, Australian cattle dogs and neopolitan mastiffs. Thousands of these dogs - both purebred and crossbred - are recorded on the database. The vast majority belong to responsible owners but some are reared in environments which, according to Payne, can have a profound influence on aggression.

An attack by a pit bull terrier and a staffordshire cross led to the death of Murupara mother and ambulance worker Virginia Ohlson in April 2007. She died of shock and trauma after her nephew's dogs set on her as she was out on an early morning walk. The roaming dogs were unregistered.

Three years earlier, a 55kg un-neutered male bull mastiff fatally savaged his owner, a 46kg Dunedin woman. Police who found the woman discovered that her left ear and soft tissue on the back of her skull were missing. Animal control teams had been to her property more than once but the woman had withdrawn consent for the dog to be impounded.

The owner of the dogs that scarred Maggie Christensen was sentenced to three months' home detention, 200 hours community work and ordered to pay $2000 in reparation. She was exceedingly remorseful, and worked on the Christensen's farm while Maggie recovered.

These attacks are terrifying and rare cases, but the breeds of dogs that did the damage all are now firmly established in New Zealand - far too late, says Payne, for any breed-specific legislation along the lines proposed when dog laws were last reviewed in 2008 after another public outcry.

What might work, Payne believes, is more education and a high level of enforcement.

He thinks one of the reasons more New Zealanders are being attacked by their dogs is that people share their homes with their animals.

"Dogs now have a place on the couch or room on the bed. Thirty years ago the dog lived outside."

In the new arrangement dogs occupy a dominant place in the household hierarchy. Threatening that relationship - for instance, when a child unwittingly startles the family pet - can be enough to trigger the dog to react.

Payne accepts families will continue to let pets live inside. But they can teach their dogs the right tricks:"Right from the start we've got to show dogs there is no dominance."

Payne thinks councils need to lift their game. By law the public can report threatening dog behaviour to their local authority, even without the animal biting anyone.

Councils should respond by advising the owner about training and reducing aggression.

"Of course some people won't be educated," he says. In that case, the council should be firm and take steps to classify the dog as dangerous, which means it must be securely fenced at home, muzzled in public and desexed within a month. He concedes the steps are costly and time-consuming but he thinks they need to happen.

"After all," says Payne, who is now manager of environmental compliance at Tauranga City Council, "we're here to protect the public."

Back near Putaruru, Maggie Christensen reflects on how the out-of-control pack caused her permanent damage. She too thinks the dog laws need tougher enforcement. The animals that savaged her body had been rushing at farm children waiting for the school bus. "Sooner or later I felt something might happen. But if the dog had got the children rather than me well it could have been dreadful," says the mother of three.

Christensen says she has thought a lot about dogs since the attack and feels irresponsible owners should forfeit the right to own animals. "They are not pets or companions. They seem to be there for intimidation. This should not happen."

Bob Kerridge agrees. "We want a community where people and animals get on, not where people are frightened. The link between humans and dogs is too precious to spoil."

Question of breeding
Animal inspectors say these seven breeds are responsible for 50% of dog attacks reported to councils.

American Pit Bull Terrier
Weight: 14-35kg
Height: 43-56cm
Litter size: 5-10 puppies
Life span: 12-14 years Size: Medium
Purebred: 2350* Crossbred: 2467

Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler)
Weight: 16-20kg
Height: 43-51cm
Litter size: 1-7 puppies
Life span: 9-15 years Size: Medium
Purebred 3152 Crossbreed 2237

Neapolitan Mastiff (Italian Mastiff)
Weight: 48-70kg
Height: 62-75cm
Litter size: 6-8 puppies
Life span: 9-15 years Size: Giant
Purebred 481 Crossbreed 211

Rottweiler (Rottie)
Weight: 38-50kg
Height: 58-69cm
Litter size: 6-10 puppies
Life span: 9-15 years Size: Large
Purebred 4601 Crossbreed 2090

German Shepherd (Alsatian)
Weight: 34-43kg
Height: 55-65cm
Litter size: 9 puppies
Life span: 9-15 years Size: Large
Purebred 13,102 Crossbreed 3309

Bull Terrier
Weight: 33kg
Height: 45cm
Litter size: 5 puppies
Life span: 9-15 years Size: Medium
Purebred 1502 Crossbreed 2327

Staffordshire Bull Terrier
Weight: 11-17kg
Height: 36-41cm
Litter size: 4 puppies
Life span: 9-15 years Size: Medium
Purebred 5927 Crossbreed 10,012

* Dog totals for five regions - Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Canterbury and Wellington - with the highest number of ACC claims after dog attacks. Dog totals include dogs registered for 2011/12 and registered for previous years but not currently registered.

Source: National Dog Database, www.petplanet.co.uk, wikipedia.org

- NZ Herald

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