Amicus Curiae: The Dog Days Are Over? Innocent Shelter Dogs Being Condemned to Death

By Jenna McLachlan

Dogs are a man’s best friend. Or maybe, as the government proposes, only certain breeds are truly deserving of such a title. Following the 58% rise of dog attacks in the past 10 years, the government has been persuaded to pursue law changes that tighten dog control, and further subject ‘menacing breeds’ to mandatory neutering.

In 2015, there were 12,937 reported cases of dog attacks in which people were bitten; a national equivalent of 35 attacks per day. Consequently, the need to reduce high-risk dogs (American Pit Bull Terrier breeds) from posing a threat to the public has been meet with social baking from some members of the public and organisations including the Institute of Animal Management and New Zealand Kennel Club. Each support the proposed changes whereby all high-risk dogs would be required to;

  • wear a dangerous dog collar;
  • display a similar sign on the property;
  • have the dog neutered and;
  • require the owners to keep their pets at home in a fenced area with at least one “dog-free” access point for visitors.

By achieving this it is hoped to counteract the suggested expectation of 16,000 attacks forecasted for 2020. But in order to achieve this, is it right for New Zealand to pass this arguably ‘naive’ law and target specific breeds?

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Evidence tends to suggest that the Pit Bull breeds are more susceptible to being classified on either the menacing or dangerous dog register. Such dogs by their looks alone are automatically classified on the register as menacing. However, as PET First Aid and Training founder Joanna Clough contends, they are also placed on the dangerous register for other factors, largely associated with the animals upbringing. As alleged by American Pit Bull Terrier Association spokeswoman Karen Batchelor, “truly dangerous dogs” were those raised to be so by their negligent owner. It has further been contended that specific dogs are targeted due to their being seen as aggressive breeds, and the owners then “teach the dog to be aggressive”, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The common perception that all dangerous dogs recorded on the register are from a certain breed is negated by the presence of two Chihuahua’s and a Bichon Frise making the list as well. For this reason New Zealand Veterinary Association spokeswoman Rochelle Ferguson states that targeting specific breeds is a “gross oversimplification” of the national and international trend.The practicality and likelihood of the proposal being effectively implemented is also questionable. As noted by Christchurch City Councillor Jamie Gough, it unlikely that negligent dog owners who currently don’t abide by restrictions (i.e. leashing dogs in public) would comply with the ‘tougher’ restrictions. By moving forward with this law then, negligent dog owners will continue to do as they please, while more pressure is being placed on law-abiding owners. Mr Gough further alleges that subjecting the breeds to extinction could open the possibility for underground breeding operations. Additionally Professor Kevin Stafford, of Massey University’s Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, rejects the plausibility of the proposals effectiveness given that the majority of dogs involved in attacks were mongrels. The possibility of DNA testing, which has been proposed as being able to help aid the sterilisation of certain breeds, would likely be met by harsh critics who rejected the ambiguous nature of such a eugenics-orientated practice. Similarly, the unsuccessful implementation of breed bans in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, further raise doubt on the plausibility of the government’s proposal.

For this reason, critics of the breed ban have voiced alternative measures the government could implement to help reduce dog attacks. Blair Anderson, who likens dog attacks to that of car crashes – as inevitable consequences of dogs in society – proposes research and education of dog behaviour was the best step forward. Alternatively Mr Gough proposed harder enforcement of owners who disregard restrictions and dog control laws: “why not resource all parking officers to issue instant fines for any unleashed dogs in urban public places?”. Furthermore, Professor Kevin Stafford has proposed yet another alternative – that we punish the people whose dogs attack others: “if a dog attacks someone, the owner should automatically be charged with assault”. What each alternative proposer does agree on however, is that banning certain breeds of dogs is not the solution to the recent rise of dog attacks.

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