It's time for clear thinking on dog control. We know that dogs evolved from wolves. They can bite, maim or even kill. Dogs are also great companions, are faithful and will work hard to help guard one's safety, especially if threatened.
Many dog owners are responsible. The messages I have received tend to focus more on dog safety, and not on abolishing dog ownership. Dogs are a permanent part of many Kiwi homes and our communities.
Owning a dog means accepting full responsibility for its care and behaviour. That carries with it a potential risk. All dogs have the capacity to bite, especially if provoked.
Sometimes that risk is realised, and people are bitten. The question is not, "How can we stop all dog bites?" but, "What level of restriction is reasonable, given the benefits of responsible dog ownership?"
Good, workable laws are needed that help councils enforce dog control responsibility. These laws need to continue to be reviewed.
Families and the public need good information about keeping safe around dogs. Councils need to enforce the law to ensure a better dog control regime is in place.
I believe that dog control officers throughout the country generally do a very good job, and get considerable support from their councils. But more can be done to enable greater compliance.
In a situation where a dog has already wandered, rushed someone, worried stock or bitten, the responsibility falls back on the owner. The law is clear - a dog must be secure in a fenced property at all times and if in public, under control of the owner.
People must respect the law. It's the trade-off for the privilege of owning a dog.
The stronger dog control laws now in place emphasise that owners are responsible for controlling their dogs. This includes using or carrying a leash in public.
Penalties have been increased and sensible steps have been taken to enable councils to take a more preventive approach to keeping children clear of uncontrolled dogs in public spaces.
The Dog Control Amendment Act 2003 also controls particular breeds of dangerous dogs and includes microchipping of newly registered dogs (excluding working farm dogs).
Neighbours and community members also have a role to play if they know that potentially dangerous dogs are roaming, or not muzzled and leashed in public places. They are key to keeping the local council informed about dog behaviour in their neighbourhood.
The 2003 changes to the law included banning certain breeds or types of dog from being imported into New Zealand (Schedule 4).
These breeds, plus dogs deemed menacing or dangerous for reasons of breed and character, must be muzzled in public places and owners must ensure that their dog cannot freely leave their property.
Dogs classified as dangerous must be kept within a securely fenced portion of the owner's property.
I have asked my officials to report on whether other dog breeds should be added to Schedule 4 and what the consequences of this would be.
Four fighting breeds - american pitbull terriers, dogo argentinos, brazilian filas and japanese tosas - now have to be muzzled in public and the importing of them is prohibited.
The Government will continue to monitor and, if necessary, adjust requirements concerning dog control and public safety around dogs. It will also continue to promote knowledge about dog safety to keep people aware of sensible behaviour around dogs.
But good law and central government action is not enough if we are to have safer streets and parks.
We need good enforcement from local authorities. Dog owners should respect the law and accept that their neighbours are acting as good citizens when they call the council to deal with problem dogs.
The real issue is managing the huge number of unregistered dogs and irresponsible owners.
Some 64 of the 73 territorial authorities are now also providing information into the National Dog Database (a few have problems with compatible technology and this is being worked through).
Microchipping and the National Dog Database will together make it easier to identify owners of lost or stolen dogs and to keep track of dangerous and menacing dogs. When a dog is picked up by council officers, they will be able to check the database, locate the owner and contact them to collect the dog.
When an owner moves to a new area, its history will be known. To date, there are 432,014 dogs listed on the database, with 5268 dogs classified as "menacing" and 588 dogs classified as "dangerous".
Over time all of these measures will improve dog safety. But it is time for irresponsible dog owners to face up to the danger their dogs pose to others.
If you know of a dog not under proper control, call your council. You may save someone from an attack.
The Department of Internal Affairs website www.dia.govt.nz provides background to these acts and other information about dogs and dog control. You can also visit www.dogsafety.govt.nz for practical information about keeping safe around dogs.
"h Nanaia Mahuta is Associate Minister of Local Government.