Small dog bite leads to year of medical appointments

FURRY FRIEND: Two-year-old Savannah Copeland  holds Popy the dog as mum Melissa Copeland looks on. Savannah was attacked by a fox terrier on Christmas Day last year.
FURRY FRIEND: Two-year-old Savannah Copeland holds Popy the dog as mum Melissa Copeland looks on. Savannah was attacked by a fox terrier on Christmas Day last year.

To most people, the small crease on two-year-old Savannah Copeland's top lip is barely noticeable.

But to mother Melissa Copeland the faint scar is a poignant reminder of last Christmas Day when a fox terrier lunged at her daughter and took "a chunk" out of her lip.

"We were at my father-in-law's at Te Akau when this guy turned up with this little fox terrier. I asked him if the dog was OK around kids and he said it was fine," Copeland said.

"About 10 minutes later Savannah went to pat it and it lunged at her face. It happened so fast".

Savannah was rushed to hospital and underwent surgery the next day.

Copeland said the past 12 months had been filled with doctor's appointments and check-ups.

"It's been harder on me than Savannah. We have our own dog and Savannah isn't nervous around her at all. But I'm definitely wary of small dogs."

A snapshot of the Waikato region shows dog attacks on people and animals are on the rise with two attacks reported each day on average.

In Hamilton, 213 attacks were reported in the year to June.

Attacks by American pit bull terriers, mastiffs and staffordshire bull terriers feature prominently in council records.

But the list also includes some family favourites such as labradors and fox terriers.

Waikato University teaching fellow and psychology PhD student Clare Browne said it was no surprise labradors and fox terriers featured in dog attack statistics considering they were among the most popular breeds.

Browne, who studies dog-human interactions, said dog bites could be "tragic events" but canines were also an integral part of communities.

Only a small minority of dogs bite people whereas most people needed to be better educated about basic dog etiquette and dog body language.

"Research has shown that people are not particularly good at identifying stress signals in dogs and identification of fear in dogs is particularly problematic," Browne said.

"I think our rate of negative interactions with dogs would be drastically reduced if more people were better able to understand dog body language.

"Almost all dog bites will involve some level of provocation . . . or else the dog will have had a history of some level of aggression that was simply ignored, left untreated, or allowed to escalate."

Federated Farmers Waikato provincial president James Houghton said dogs attacking stock was a nationwide problem and cost farmers "plenty of money".

Houghton advised farmers to report all dog attacks.

"Sometimes you might have several farms hit by dog attacks but farmers might not be aware neighbouring properties have been affected. But if they contact the council, their officers can collate the data and see if there are any patterns in the attacks."

As opposed to the region, in the Waikato district (which takes in places like Raglan, Huntly, Ngaruawahia, and Tuakau) there is a dog attack every second day.

Waikato council customer supporter general manager Sue Duignan said the council's response to dog attacks depended on the seriousness of the incident and the owner's actions.

"In many cases the dog is surrendered by the owner to our animal control team and humanely euthanised. In other cases the dogs receive a classification such as menacing or dangerous, which sets specific guidelines for the owner."

The council encouraged responsible dog ownership through payment discounts on dog registrations and reduced fees for owners who hadn't been subject to any dog offences.

Across the region, council animal control officers work with the community to educate dog owners as well as give presentations to schools and community groups to promote dog safety.

In Matamata Piako, council officers carry out about 600 property visits each year to ensure dog owners were taking proper care of their pets and to ensure the community's safety. The local council also offers dog education programmes to schools and runs a yearly dog photo competition.

Hamilton City Council runs a popular Paws in the Park event to celebrate and promote responsible dog ownership.

Copeland said the owner of the fox terrier which attacked her daughter was fined but, so far, had not surrendered his dog.

Her advice to parents was to be forthcoming to ensure their children were safe around dogs.

"Don't be afraid to tell dog owners to tie up their dog when they're around children. Don't assume that just because a dog is small that it is not dangerous. Small dogs can be feisty."

Waikato Times