Espiner: Get tough on dog owners

COLIN ESPINER
Last updated 09:16 09/03/2014

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OPINION: Owners whose animals attack, maim or kill must be held accountable.

Dogs are supposed to be a man's best friend but they often have a funny way of showing it.

Every year our canine companions attack 12,000 people. A third of these attacks are on children aged under 12. That's 4000 kids bitten every year by dogs. Not terribly friendly.

Not all attacks require hospital admission - some escape with a few stitches down at the local A and E and a lifelong fear of dogs.

Others, like 7-year-old Sakurako Uehara, who was badly mauled by four staffordshire bull terrier- crosses last week, may spend weeks in intensive care and endure years of painful reconstructive surgery.

Sakurako's horrific injuries tragically aren't that unusual in New Zealand, land of the dog lover, where nearly a million mutts are kept by four million people, giving us one of the highest proportions of dog ownership in the world.

Last year was a particularly bad year for the canine-human relationship. A couple of rottweilers savaged 31-year-old Chloe Matthewson to death in Auckland while she was dancing with them on the lawn.

A 54-year-old Gisborne woman suffered "horrific" facial injuries while playing with a labrador cross and a rottweiler. Tauranga 4-year- old Charlie Pokai received puncture wounds to his head after being attacked by a bull mastiff at a friend's home.

A Kaitaia 31-year-old ended up in hospital with bite wounds to his back, legs and feet after being attacked by two dogs described as cross-breeds. A Christchurch boy, aged eight, was mauled by two rottweilers after he climbed a neighbour's fence to get his ball back.

And an 11-month-old Dunedin baby had her face bitten by a Staffordshire bull terrier, receiving "a lot" of stitches, according to the hospital. Incredibly, her mother told a local newspaper the dog wasn't to blame and that the Staffie was "normally well behaved".

Doesn't that just sum up our collective attitude towards dog attacks? It was normally such a good dog. It had never done anything like this before. It must have been provoked. Some people just don't know how to behave around dogs. It's normally only "bad" owners whose dogs attack.

Rubbish. The majority of dog attacks are made not on strangers but on their owners or members of their family - usually the children, since they're the easiest targets. As for the myth of so-called "attack" dogs such as pit bulls or rottweilers: more people are bitten by labradors each year.

When will we realise that all dogs are wild animals? They're genetically programmed to attack and to defend themselves and those they are loyal to. No amount of domestication can remove that. Some dogs are more likely to attack than others, but all are capable. The only question is the extent of the damage they can cause.

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So why on earth don't we ban dogs as pets? We don't let people own tigers, polar bears, wolves or even snakes. But dogs are a part of our national culture, and far too many voters own one for any politician to take such a step.

It's a bit like America and guns. We can't understand why Americans insist on being allowed to own something that kills and injures so many people every year. It's our right, they reply. Besides, the guns aren't responsible. It's the owners.

This is true enough. But you've got as much chance of being mauled to death by a chihuahua as you have of being gunned down in the street by a water pistol. Remove the weapon and the problem disappears too.

I accept that banning dogs is not feasible. Many people also keep dogs as working animals, including farmers, hunters, security guards, the police and the blind. Obviously I'm not suggesting they should have their animals removed.

I don't think banning certain breeds works. When Auckland girl Carolina Anderson was badly mauled by a staffordshire terrier in 2003 (she spent the next 11 years in and out of hospital and is still dealing with the trauma, now aged 18) then prime minister Helen Clark came under heavy fire to "do something".

The result, dubbed Carolina's Law, saw four dog breeds banned and tougher rules around registration and micro-chipping. But the incidence of dog attacks has continued unabated.

As the Veterinary Association said last week, "it's the deed, not the breed". You can't blame the dogs. They're dogs, for God's sake.

So, enough excuses. Enough of telling those of us who don't own dogs that we just need to be more "dog aware". Or harbouring dangerous animals on properties guarded by nothing more than an "enter at your own risk" sign that seeks to absolve the owner from responsibility for any maiming.

It always amazes me that most owners of dogs who attack, or even kill, face little or no penalty beyond their animal being euthanised - and even then often only after a protracted court battle.

So here's my proposal: all dogs who attack humans to be euthanised immediately, with no right of appeal. And any attack by a dog to be treated as if the owner had conducted the assault.

If your dog bites me the penalty should be exactly the same as if you bit me. And if your dog kills then you're up on a manslaughter charge. That should sober up the owners of dangerous dogs pretty quickly.

Germany adopted a "zero tolerance" on dog attacks in 2000 after a 6-year-old boy was killed by two pitbulls while playing outside his primary school. Now, dog owners are subjected to similar scrutiny to those applying for a firearms licence.

It's a step in the right direction, but I think we need to go even further. Your dog is an extension of you.

If you want to own one, fine. But accept the responsibility that comes with it.

- Sunday Star Times

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