Editorial: Not easy to put more bite into dog laws

Last updated 13:00 26/01/2012

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OPINION: So. Nick Smith is going to sort out New Zealand's dog problem. Good luck to him.

Dog attacks seem to go in waves, although perhaps it is more that one serious incident encourages the reporting of a number of other less serious cases. We are suffering another one now.

Usually, the politicians soon cry enough and promise sweeping new measures – the banning of "menacing" breeds, microchips for newly registered animals and mandatory muzzles for designated "dangerous" dogs are among the steps introduced in recent years – or an inquiry into the wider factors involved.

Dr Smith inherited the issue with his newly acquired local government portfolio. Prompted by some vicious attacks over the past week, he has moved quickly to reactivate an inquiry into current legislation dealing with dangerous dogs. The probe was supposed to take place last year but pressing matters overtook it on the priority list.

That's understandable. The same officials might not have been involved, but with the Christchurch earthquake recovery and a royal commission of inquiry into building failures there, the growing disarray within the Christchurch City Council and overseeing the reform of Auckland local government – a dog's breakfast if ever there was one – there has been much for ministers to keep an eye on.

The vicious dog problem is not easily solved. The root cause is most often not a problem with the four-legged beast with dripping fangs but the two-legged mongrels who own them. It could be said that behind almost every bad dog is a worse human. Even this, however, would be to over-simplify.

There are three main "breeds" of bad owners. At one extreme are the handful of feral types who deliberately create monster-canines, whether for fighting, to guard drug or gang houses, or simply because it makes them feel "staunch". Then there are those who are guilty through neglect: who rarely exercise their dogs and ignore their nutritional, veterinary or other needs. Finally, there are those who tend to over-pamper their dogs, fail to seek advice on ways to meet their pets' requirements and thereby "raise" them in a state of constant confusion.

Any of these owners can "create" a dog that is anti-social to the point of being a danger. An important point to remember is that all dogs – from the smallest, fluffiest "toy" up – are pack animals at heart, with basic instincts suited to surviving in the wild.

It is often said registering dogs has not worked, so the next stop is to license owners. Last year the SPCA added to this call, suggesting the only way to give new bite to dog laws is to set up a national licensing system aimed at weeding out those who are unfit to own a potentially aggressive dog. They have a special expertise in this area and should be listened to.

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It is worth pointing out, though, that gun licensing has not necessarily kept weapons away from those who want them for criminal purposes, and being unable to get a dog licence will not prevent irresponsible humans from acquiring potentially dangerous dogs.

This move might help dog control officers to do their work – but more often than not this will continue to come too late for dog-bite victim. All power, then, to Dr Smith's inquiry. The task is not easy.

- The Nelson Mail

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