Owning a dog - any dog - is a colossal responsibility. Any owner who doubts that did not see the remorse of a young man in South Auckland this week after his 7-year-old nephew received more than 100 stitches and had a metal plate inserted into his fractured cheek and nose. Henare Carroll blamed himself, not his pit bull that attacked his nephew in his garage last Saturday when the boy jumped on a bed to play PlayStation. Then, on Tuesday, a pregnant young woman in Christchurch was attacked by a staffordshire-cross that ought to have been under the control of her house-mate. The woman was bitten on her legs, feet and forearm before a neighbour, hearing her screams, managed to distract the dog long enough for her to get inside her house.
This has been a bad week for dog attacks, but statistics suggest it is not unusual. Two studies by New Zealand medical professionals last year found dog-bite injuries average two a day. Nearly 100,000 bites were recorded nationally in the 10 years to 2014, of which 5800 required hospital treatment. Over the past five years, 2500 charges were laid under the Dog Control Act, resulting in just over 350 destruction orders. The prosecution figure bears comparison with the injuries receiving hospital attention but the number of destruction orders seems too low.
The reluctance to issue death sentences no doubt reflects the philosophy that it is not the dog that is dangerous, but the owner. Pups need to be trained and socialised to be around people. They need attention and daily exercise. Confined and neglected or treated cruelly, any dog will be dangerous. But the frequency of reported attacks by certain breeds suggests they are simply not safe to own. Four breeds have been banned from being brought into New Zealand, but not much has been done about cross-breeds within the country.
Some owners will attest that their pet is as placid as any canine breed can be, but that is not saying very much. Many an owner of a normally docile dog knows it is not completely reliable in certain situations or around small children. Many, if they are honest with themselves, would have read or seen reports of the tragedy in Takanini last Saturday and said, "There but for fortune ..." So what can be done to ensure no more children need their face reconstructed or carry a scar for life?
Successive governments have answered that question by banning certain breeds, imposing greater responsibilities on owners and sponsoring education programmes. Schools are supposed to be teaching children how not to act around a dog. One study has concluded three-quarters of injuries to children were suffered after the child engaged with the dog. Owners need to keep their dogs under close control around children and parents need to be vigilant when a dog is around.
It is a pity these precautions are necessary for an animal that otherwise makes the best of pets. If the need for such precautions dissuades more people from keeping a dog in an urban environment, perhaps it should.
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