Dog Attacks And Breed Specific Legislation

The issue of Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) has again come under the spotlight in Victoria after a young child was sadly mauled to death by a neighbours dog. A few days later another attack on an elderly lady by two dogs was also widely publicised.

BSL started in Australia more than 70 years ago with a ban on German Shepherd dogs after fear broke out that these dogs would mate with Dingo’s and threaten livestock. This ban has since been overturned. However, BSL was again introduced in 1991 and still largely remains the same. BSL stands to restrict certain dogs based on breed. The rational being; to protect people and animals from harm from dogs considered to be a risk to the community.

The topic of BSL is hotly contested. People who are in favour of it believe that some dogs are more dangerous than others and that such dogs have no place in our community. On the other side are people who argue that all dogs have the potential to do harm and that legislation should be based on a case-by-case scenario.

So, what are the statistics on dogs and dog attacks? Research on dog ownership in Australia finds that we have the largest rate of dog ownership in the world and that most of our dogs are crossbreeds of various kinds. In 1998 The Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare found that breeds involved in attacks in public places (in order) were; German Shepherds, Cattle Dogs, Rottweilers, Kelpies, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Terriers, Cross Breeds, Labradors, Dobermans, Boxers, Jack Russells, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Border Collies, American Pitbull Terriers. The last death in Victoria from a dog attack occurred in 2007 with an infant’s death from a pet Rottweiler.

My initial stance on this issue was in favour of BSL, although after much research and thought, I believe it is not the magic bullet our Government wants us to believe it is. There are a few inherent flaws in BSL;

– Owners and breeders of restricted breeds are unlikely to register their dogs.

– BSL increases the likelihood of ‘underground’ breeders with no accountability.

– People who purchase these dogs may not be aware of the kind of dog they are adopting.

– Restricted dogs that are registered are done so under different breeds, or are registered as crossbreeds.

– No amount of legislation will ever eradicate a breed from society.

In 2010 The Minister for Agriculture, the Hon Joe Helper, noted that an estimated 40% of dog owners fail to register their dogs. He also stated that as at January 2010 there were 335 restricted dogs in Victoria, however microchip numbers suggest that the number is at several times this.

BSL is supposed to protect the community from dogs that are dangerous by preventing attacks. The Government cannot possibly do this if most of the restricted dog breeds are unregistered. I would think that the start of any preventative program would be supervision. Supervision of husbandry and breeding. If the Government is unaware of these dogs’ existence how can they supervise and/or enforce BSL?

An approach that may work better, all be it, much less ‘sexy’ than BSL is education. There was a wonderful study/project (the first of its kind in Australia) by Van de Kuyt conducted in Victoria between 1997-1999 on dog attacks in public areas. Van do Kuyt found that most attacks happen as a result of dogs not being properly confined to their yards and/or houses. With information from this research, eleven Victorian Councils responded to the call to begin a dog attack prevention campaign for one year.

Campaigns revolved around cost-effective, innovative and creative community education on legal rights and obligations in regards to dog ownership and dog attacks.  The study also recommended that council rangers devote more time to ‘cruising’ streets, rather than parks as this is where most dog attacks are likely to occur.

After one year of implementing their campaigns, the result was that people felt safer, more dogs ‘at large’ were captured, and reporting of dangerous dogs increased, meaning these dogs could be monitored.

The city of Calgary, in Canada, had implemented an extremely successful education model to prevent dog bites. The result has been a fall in dog attacks (lowest in 25 years), and a 90% registration rate. All the while the canine population in Calgary has been increasing. Perhaps one of the best aspects of Calgary’s model is that all money raised from pet registration and fines, goes directly back into education and maintenance of animal laws.

BSL will do nothing to change the behaviour and knowledge of dog owners and does nothing to encourage a community to work together. Preventing dog attacks should be everyone’s responsibility, whether you own a dog or not. Education for the entire community needs to occur so that we can develop a system of high registration, supervision, voluntary compliance, and enforcement.

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