The owner of four dogs that savagely attacked a boy in Gisborne is at a loss why they turned on him.

The horrifying attack happened at a house in Emily St, in Riverdale, at about 1pm.

The dogs set on the 5-year-old boy, Calais, shortly after he had arrived at the property, police said. It is understood they were American staffordshire bull terrier crosses.

Calais' grandfather, who asked not to be named, said the dogs had never attacked anyone before.

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They are hunting dogs, they are not house dogs, and they've been confined to this little residential property and they can stay there for days and days, weeks on end probably.

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"From what I gather [what] happened is that my other boy locked them out on the deck and the young fella just ran out, opened the door and, yeah.

"He wanted to go play with the ball," he said.

But an Emily St resident, who asked not to be identified, said the house was home to four aggressive pig dogs.

"They're locked up in the back yard - I don't know if they're chained up - and the back door to the house opens straight into the back yard.

"This kid, I understand, just walked out the back door and they laid into him."

The neighbour said the dogs were "vicious".

"Occasionally [the owners] chuck them in the back of a truck and I presume they go hunting. But working dogs need more than that.

"They are hunting dogs, they are not house dogs, and they've been confined to this little residential property and they can stay there for days and days, weeks on end probably."

Calais' grandfather said he had given consent for three of them to be put down but not the fourth - an older dog - which he said was not involved in the attack.

"We're glad that he's all right but trying to explain to the kids about the dogs - it's just hard."

A police spokeswoman said the boy had been dropped off at the house by a family member and was entering the gate on the front deck when the four dogs burst on to the deck and attacked him.

"Other family members managed to drag the dogs off the boy and a neighbour also came to help."

The boy suffered multiple bite wounds and was taken to Gisborne Hospital in a serious condition. Family members accompanied him in an ambulance to hospital where he underwent surgery.

A hospital spokeswoman said he was in a stable condition.

The Gisborne District Council's animal control section and police seized the four dogs.

The incident is the latest in a string of dog attacks and comes after sustained calls for tighter dog controls, including bans on dangerous breeds.

Last month a baby girl was bitten on the face by her family's terrier. In April, 7-year-old Darnell Minarapa-Brown needed more than 100 stitches to his face after being set on by a pitbull at his uncle's house in South Auckland.

Each year about 10,000 claims are lodged with ACC for treatment for dog attacks. More than 2500 charges were made under the Dog Control Act in the past five financial years. Just over 350 dog destruction orders were granted in that time.

- Additional reporting Gisborne Herald / Otago Daily Post