New Zealanders experienced almost ten thousand dog-related injuries last year, according to ACC. It seems that only a tiny fraction of these are reported in the media. Earlier this month we heard about the eight-year-old Dunedin boy who had half his ear ripped off by a dog. Last month in Auckland a seven-year-old boy had a quarter of his face sewn back on following a dog attack and a three-year-old boy also sustained facial injuries from a stranger's dog outside a shop. And who can forget the terrible case of little Carolina Anderson in 2003 who was the victim of a vicious dog attack while playing in an Auckland park? Carolina, now aged fifteen, still undergoes facial surgery following this shocking mauling.
Our eight-year-old daughter has spent many summer holidays at a Coromandel beach and we have had numerous occasions of strange dogs taking far too great an interest in her. If we walk along the beach as a family, oncoming dogs often will bound away from their owners and head towards us. Without fail they zero in on the shortest one in the group. When she was little we'd take the precaution of picking her up and holding her out of harm's way whenever an uncontrolled dog came into view. Now my husband ensures he puts himself between the approaching canine and our girl until the owners manage to call their dog off.
We always remain silent during these performances, not seeing the point of berating the dog owner. But, interestingly, we've been abused on several occasions for taking these precautions. "You'll make your kid scared of dogs," said one angry dog owner. Sometimes we've gained the impression that they want us to let them prove their dog's safety around children. As if we'd allow our daughter to be a test-crash dummy just to see if their dog obedience lessons have worked.
Now she's older, I've started showing her news reports. "Ooh look, another dog has attacked a child's face. Isn't it good that we stay away from dogs we don't know?" Seemingly unfazed by my blatant propaganda, she is still dog mad, keen to attend animal programmes in the school holidays and has vague plans to be either a vet or a zoo-keeper. Because we're not necessarily always close enough to be able to scoop her out of harm's way, we now advise her to roll up into a ball if a dog looks threatening.
Last weekend I wandered out onto a public reserve to take a phone call. I was distracted for quite a while as a large black poodle-esque dog ran circles around me, trying to leap up at my iPhone. Between avoiding the dog's paws and snout - and trying to tune out the owner's impotent instructions for her dog to heel, I couldn't concentrate on my call. I wasn't in danger and I'm not a vulnerable child; it was merely inconvenient. But it was still a striking example of dog owners who do not have their animals under control in a public place.
Just one day earlier I'd been power-walking along a Coromandel beach when a small fluffy dog became fascinated with my orange sneakers. The animal fussed around me for maybe a minute as I continued walking. A veritable entourage followed me, as about five members of this animal's (human) family noisily sought to get it under control. It was quite surreal. What had begun as a peaceful coastal walk had turned into a bustling scene involving shrieking people, a disobedient canine and one innocent member of the public.
I don't know what the answer is: education, more dog parks, new laws, muzzles, bans on dogs off leads, bans on breeds, stricter vetting of owners, compulsory dog training - or perhaps all of the above? In the meantime people, especially parents, must stay vigilant for uncontrolled, aggressive animals and for dog owners shirking their responsibilities.By Shelley Bridgeman