It's one of the most terrifying prospects for a parent, postie or pedestrian - an uncontrolled dog appearing full-speed from a driveway intent on attack. Hundreds of dog attacks occur each year but animal control officers say only 20 per cent are reported. Although dog control legislation has been tightened in the last decade, are the regulations enough to prevent more people becoming victims? Lydia Anderson reports.
A recent spate of serious dog attacks has left victims maimed and traumatised, with toddlers and elderly among the casualty count.
Last month Tauranga toddler Charlie Pokai, 4, was rushed to hospital with puncture wounds to his head and damage to his lip after a large bull mastiff turned on him as he patted it on his parents' friend's property.
Charlie's father Henry Pokai told the Bay of Plenty Times Charlie was back to his usual bubbly self but nerve damage and scar tissue from the attack and subsequent operation meant his face needed regular massaging to try and get the nerves back into alignment.
In another July attack, a Northland mental health worker was savaged by a smithfield-cross, suffering severe puncture wounds to her neck and body while visiting a client's property.
The dog's owner was also injured when he leapt on the woman to protect her. The woman was hospitalised and has undergone two operations.
Greymouth pensioner Jimmy Hambley, 81, was hand-delivering a letter to a friend in May when a stray bull mastiff launched at his arm without warning, causing puncture wounds so deep Mr Hambley could see bone.
In an unexpected twist, the beast was busted out of the pound in full daylight while an animal control officer was being distracted, and has not been recovered.
Meanwhile, Reefton 3-year-old Jaydee Aitken suffered numerous bites to her face from a pitbull-cross in April. The toddler was visiting a property for a family get-together and picked up a bone the dog had just been fed, prompting the attack.
Earlier this year two rampaging dogs, one a bull mastiff cross, escaped an Ashburton property and attacked two children, three teenagers, a 67-year-old Canadian tourist and a council dog control ranger before being impounded and destroyed.
Following a spate of attacks on children last year, then Local Government Minister Nick Smith promised a review of dog control laws to see if more preventative measures could be taken.
But in a statement, the minister, Chris Tremain, said legislation would not guarantee public safety and he had no plans to re-instate the review. A review was conducted in 2007-08 and submitters called for more dog-related education, better enforcement and improved data on dog control, Mr Tremain said.
Enforcement guidelines were introduced as a result.
ACC data on dog bite injuries showed a relatively stable pattern of incidents over the past 10 years, he said.
However, ACC claim statistics show 12,063 dog-related injury claims were reported last year, at a total cost of $1,368,584.
This was up from 8677 injury claims in 2003, the same year 7-year-old Carolina Anderson suffered a horrific attack in an Auckland park.
Carolina was mauled so badly chunks of her face were missing and her right eye had to be put back in place.
She has since undergone years of reconstructive surgeries.
That attack was a catalyst for a tightening of the 1996 Dog Control Act, which was amended in 2003, 2004 and 2006.
The Act states dog owners must register their dogs each year, microchip their dog when it is first registered (unless it is exempt as a working farm dog), keep dogs under control at all times, keep them fenced or under full control at all times, comply with council dog control bylaws, and take all reasonable steps to ensure dogs don't injure, endanger or intimidate anybody or any other animal.
They must also muzzle their dog in public if it has been classified as menacing or dangerous.
The amendments also deemed it illegal to import American pitbull terrier, dogo argentino, Brazilian fila, and Japanese tosa breeds.
Dog owners can face up to three years' imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $20,000 if their dog is involved in an attack causing serious injury, while the penalty for not registering or microchipping a dog is $300. Local councils are responsible for implementing the Act in their communities.
Tauranga dog trainer Susie Jones said if everybody trained and socialised their dogs from when they were puppies they should not have any problems as the animal matured.
"People think just because they've got a dog to sit and stay they are trained but they are not. We have to teach dogs to meet and greet people and other species," she said.
"Nine out of 10 times it's the owners fault for letting dogs roam in the first place."
No particular breed was any worse than others but large dogs, such as those in the bull family, got a bad reputation as their bite did more damage, Ms Jones said.
"Any dog can turn at any time no matter how well trained," she said. "Pitbulls get a bad name simply because of the type of people that want to own them. Pitbulls are no different to any other dog."
Dogs, especially working breeds, had a psychological need to migrate daily and so needed to be walked to stimulate it and prevent boredom, she said.
New Zealand Institute of Animal Control Officers national president Les Dalton says there's not been any recent spike in attacks. The biggest struggle animal control officers face is a lack of awareness by parents and caregivers about not leaving young children alone with dogs.
"It doesn't matter what breed it is, you should not be leaving any children under 5 alone with any breed of dog."
Often children are not aware of the warning signs from dogs such as a growl, lip curl or quick bark.
Many recent attacks arose because the dog was not used to a visiting child's presence.
He also highlighted a rise in popularity over the last 20 years of the "macho-type breed" of the bull terrier mix, such as staffordshire or bull mastiff crosses.
"When those dogs bite younger children it's usually at face height or chest height and being such a jowly, strong breed of dog they do a lot of tissue damage and the bites are quite horrific."
Mr Dalton says animal control officers frequently encounter those breeds around lower socio-economic areas, at times unsupervised.
Officers hope that by informing children, safety messages will "filter back" into the home.
"The message is quite simple and quite clear - supervise children around dogs."
Mr Dalton says a dog can recognise its territory as up to 100 square metres, extending well beyond its own fence boundary.
"In the dog's head fences don't really mean anything.
"You really shouldn't have a dog unless you've got a fully fenced property or an area where the dog can be kept and confined."
Mr Dalton believes the current Dog Control Act is sufficient for officers to carry out their work, as they have the authority to seize dogs they believe could be a threat.
His view is backed up by Rotorua Animal Control Unit supervisor Kevin Coutts.
He says registration is the "benchmark" of a responsible dog owner.
"A dog that is unregistered is seven times more likely to bite than a dog that is registered.
"We seize literally hundreds of unregistered dogs a year."
Mr Coutts says in Rotorua alone 69 cases were reported of dogs biting people in the year to June, with officers dealing with just over one case a week.
ACC statistics show only 20 per cent of dog attacks nationwide are reported.
New Zealand Kennel Club president Owen Dance says a dog's aggression does not depend on its breed but is a reflection on its owner and environment.
However, if someone chooses to own a dog that has a "fearsome reputation" they should take steps to ensure people exposed to the dog have no reason to fear it.
"To owners the message is responsible ownership. To people who don't own dogs - take the time to learn a bit about them rather than fear them and develop negative perceptions.
"You'll find that you can stop fearing them and start enjoying them."
ACC claims for dog-related injuries
2013 to date: 7092
Dog-related injury claims costs to date for July 2012-June 2013: $2,675,024
Top three injuries for dog-related injury claims: laceration, puncture, soft tissue injury, dental injury
Top five areas with registered dogs: Christchurch: 25,497, Auckland City: 19,822, Manukau City: 18,161, Dunedin City: 14,374, North Shore City: 14,028