17 September 2018

Better laws to protect pets and their owners from dog attacks

| Nicole Lawder MLA
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At the Dog Day event held recently.

At the Dog Day event held recently.

“Coco was mauled by an off-leash dog in a residential area”,

“Jakk’s injuries and attack is one of the worst they have ever seen”,

“Poor Spuz was absolutely mangled. The vet said it was the worst dog attack she’d ever seen and she’s been working there for 15 years”.

These are just some of the comments I have received in the past few months about dog attacks. While the government has criticised concerns about dog attacks as “alarmism”, the community is reporting more and more instances of dog attacks.

Like me, most Canberrans are dog lovers and have had a faithful furry friend in the family for years. The sad reality is not all dog owners are responsible and not all dogs are safe.

From January to May this year, Domestic Animal Services responded to 218 reported dog attacks, a staggering increase from previous figures.

Last year, when questioned on the scale of the problem, then-City Services Minister Meegan Fitzharris revealed 155 people in 2016 – three a week – were treated for dog attack injuries in ACT public hospital emergency departments. This was up from 100 in 2012. Ms Fitzharris later reported there were “only 389 reports of incidents involving a dog” in 2016, as if this was nothing to be concerned about.

Victims of dog attacks are both people and pets. The Canberra community was shaken last year when a Canberra woman had been killed in her own home by her own dog. Only months before, the dog had been returned to the woman by authorities after it had viciously attacked another person.

The number of family pets that have been killed is mounting. People experience grief at the loss of their pet, especially under such brutal conditions. I’ve had my dog, Kenny, for 11 years and he’s definitely considered a part of our family. Under any circumstances, I would grieve the loss of Kenny.

It is clear to me that the issue of dog attacks is both a public safety and animal welfare issue.

Many victims and witnesses to dog attacks are concerned at how little is done after an attack. I have seen grief turn to anger when they learn that attacking dogs are often let back into the community and their owners are let off the hook.

A Canberra judge recently questioned why ACT laws permitted Canberra residents to be put at risk by aggressive dogs owned by others.

The judge said: “Neither the difficulties of designing an appropriate legislative scheme, nor the importance of the respect for private property or the autonomy of dog owners, require a legislative regime which permits residents of Canberra to be put at risk by aggressive dogs owned by others.”

When duty of care is not applied and laws are inefficient, people rightly feel let down by the systems that are supposed to protect them.

Recently, the government allocated additional resources to Domestic Animal Services. Dog rangers have an extremely difficult job dealing with dangerous animals, upset owners, mangled pets, bloodbaths and terrified children. Yet they can only work within the legislative framework that the government provides. Right now, that framework is inadequate.

We need a better legislative regime that will protect domestic animals and their owners from dog attacks. This week in the ACT Legislative Assembly, I will introduce the first tranche of proposed new animal welfare laws to protect family pets and their owners.

The first round of the Canberra Liberals’ animal welfare laws will create clearer and simpler accountability measures in the event of a dog attack.

Under the proposed laws, the registrar will be compelled to investigate complaints of dog attacks that cause significant injury or death of a person or a domestic animal. Currently, a registrar is only required to investigate an attack against a person.

Many victims of dog attacks have complained they aren’t informed about the status of an investigation into a dog attack. Under the new laws, the registrar will be required to document an investigation and to inform the victim, dog owner and responsible Minister of the outcome of the investigation within 14 days of its completion.

Importantly, these laws provide greater protections for pets by distinguishing between domestic animals and non-domestic animals. This means that when a family pet is viciously killed, measures must be taken to ensure the attacking dog will not have an opportunity to attack other pets. A dog that innocently kills a non-domestic animal will not be captured by the legislation.

The conditions under which a dog is seized has been tightened to require that a dog that seriously injures or kills a domestic animal must be impounded during the course of an investigation.

If provisions permit that a vicious dog should not be destroyed, the registrar must issue a control order and declare a dog dangerous.

I am seeking feedback to ensure these proposed laws are fair and effective. I invite all Canberrans and stakeholders to make submissions before October 12.

As we prepare to deliver the next round of animal welfare laws, I encourage interested Canberrans to jump online to www.haveyoursay.net.au/dog-attacks/ to make suggestions.

Nicole Lawder is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Minister for Urban Services.

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Mike of Canberra11:06 am 18 Sep 18

Nicole, it seems to me you can have all the strengthening of dog laws you like, but if enforcement is lacking, this will achieve nothing. Our street has been the scene of a number of dangerous dog incidents over several years, many of which resulted from earlier “light touch” responses by Domestic Animal Services (DAS) to repeated infringements by one owner based in public housing. One of these incidents was a key trigger in the Liberals’ successful attempt last year to drive through a strengthening of the dangerous dog laws.

But nothing really changes. Earlier this year, our street became subject to wandering dog that appeared to be of a dangerous dog breed, originating from a public housing property. When a neighbour attempted to get DAS action on this matter, he was treated as a troublemaker and told that DAS would have no part of intervening in what they portrayed as a “neighbourhood dispute”. It was only after a strong intervention with the head of the relevant directorate, including a threat to take it to the Minister, that DAS changed their approach.

So, as I say, the law’s one thing but enforcement’s another. If the ACT Government was serious about strengthening its protection of ACT residents in this area, it would put serious resources into dog control, enabling a proactive, ranger patrol-based approach rather than relying on individuals not only to report but virtually prove dangerous dog incidents. It would also be red hot on illegal breeding. But even if all of this were to happen, it would be no use if dog control, like policing, continued to be treated as at least as much about social justice as about protecting ACT residents. There are ways and means of achieving social justice. Indulging miscreants isn’t one of them.

Agree 100%….even a simple education/compliance program from the rangers at dog parks would help ease the problem. Visit them during peak hours and hand out info to irresponsible dog owners who have their dogs off leash in the car parks/entrances to dog parks (resulting in HEAPS of dog fights with leashed dogs)….probably also catch a few unregistered/not de-sexed dogs at the same time…otherwise people will just keep flaunting the law and responsible owners wear the (vet) costs!

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