Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Time to cull the human-attacking dog breeds

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Let's not get sidetracked over whether or not Housing New Zealand's dog ban failed. Four-year-old Shepherd Mea didn't end up in intensive care with multiple dog bites to his head on Saturday because of any shortcomings of an over-worked state housing field worker.

The guilty party is, first and foremost, the savage dog who did the damage, then close behind, Shepherd's father, who brought the beast on to the property, then left his son to its tender mercies.

When the media spotlight turned on Housing Minister Nick Smith after the weekend mauling, he rapidly played the McCully card. Like the Foreign Affairs Minister, who was quick to deflect any blame for letting the Malaysian diplomat accused of assault charges flee back home, Dr Smith has also fingered his staff, ordering a departmental review to see if anything more could have been done.

A fat lot of use that will be to the young victim.

Instead of reviewing where Housing NZ's dog ban policy went wrong, Dr Smith should be doing a little soul-searching about his own do-nothing approach back in January 2012, when he was the Minister of Local Government and in a position to make a difference. At the time, there had been three vicious dog attacks in quick succession. Dr Smith promised "a fresh look at the laws". And that was that.

Nine months later, after another round of savage attacks, Dr Smith's successor in the role, Chris Tremain, also refused to revisit the law, claiming legislation would not guarantee public safety.

Yet while Dr Smith and Mr Tremain looked the other way, the dog attack epidemic continued to grow. In 2009, there were 10,748 claims to the Accident Compensation Corporation for dog bites. By 2012, the total was 11,921 and by 2013, 12,406. The ACC defines a dog bite as "contusion, crushing, laceration, puncture wound or soft tissue injury" caused by being "kicked, butted or bitten by a live dog".

Add to that the many victims who don't make a claim for fear their dangerous pet will be muzzled or put down.

Prosecutions are much fewer than ACC claims. In 2012, there were just 603 prosecutions under the Dog Control Act. A year later, despite an increase in attacks, prosecutions had dropped to just 525. As for destruction orders, in 2012, 83 dogs were ordered to be killed, in 2013, this had dropped to 61.

In 2010, the latest figures I could find, 560 dog attack victims were hospitalised, 137 of them children.

Back in December 2007, Dr Smith claimed to have the answers. In Parliament, in a speech mocking the Labour Government's proposal for minor changes to the Dog Control Act, he gave his solutions. "The penalties, for instance, that we apply to people who are involved in dangerous dog attacks are pathetic," said Dr Smith.

" Increasing penalties would be a low-cost way to make some of the irresponsible dog owners responsible." He added: "I think most New Zealanders want tougher penalties for those people who have irresponsible, dangerous dogs. I say to the members opposite that if they want to have law that will address the issue of dangerous dogs then they should punish those who are irresponsible."

Yet when Dr Smith became the Minister of Local Government, what did he do? In 2003, Labour's Dog Control Amendment Act had upped the penalty for owning a dog causing serious injury from a maximum of three months' imprisonment and a fine not exceeding $5000 to maximums of a three-year jail term and a fine not exceeding $20,000. And that's where it remains to this day.

Labour's 2003 law change, involving the micro-chipping of all dogs, the banning of a few exotic breeds, and the upping of penalties for owners, was triggered by the horrendous attack on a 7-year-old girl in an Auckland park. Yet it failed to stop the steady rise of dog attacks on humans. In Opposition, Dr Smith milked the "law and order" vote and demanded tougher penalties on bad owners. Once in office, it was a different story.

The past decade has shown that tougher penalties on the statute book have not worked. Possibly because the punishment, when meted out, is often a hand-slap. I suspect harsher penalties have also failed because the owners of the vicious dogs are as antisocial as their pets.

The biggest flaw in trying to reverse the epidemic by penalising the offending owners is that you have to wait until young Shepherd and the dozens of other monstered victims have been attacked before the Dog Control Act grinds into action. By then, the damage has been done.

As I've argued before, the solution is simple. Cull the dog population of all the killer, fighter, human-attacking dog breeds. And just to be safe, all those cross-breeds that could have inherited similar traits.

The dog fraternity claims it can't be done. Well, if they're not up to it, I'm sure there are plenty of victims available to adjudicate on the matter. If mistakes are made, they are only dogs.

You can't keep lions in your backyard for obvious reasons. Hand guns are similarly banned. It's time we took a similar approach to this problem.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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