National action plan to reduce dog attacks

  • Louise Upston
Local Government

Introduction

Thank you for inviting me here today. It is a pleasure to open your 55th annual conference.

Today, I would like to announce Cabinet’s decisions on a National Strategy to reduce the risk and harm of dog attacks in New Zealand.

As animal control officers, your work is invaluable. You are at the front line of protecting people and animals. The animals and the members of the public that you deal with daily can be equally unpredictable. Your work directly contributes to community wellbeing.

We share the goal of reducing the risk and the harm caused by dog attacks in New Zealand.

Dogs are valuable contributors to our communities when handled responsibly, whether as pets, companions, or working dogs.

Dog attacks in New Zealand: problem

Dog attacks in our communities have been increasing over the past decade. The number of dog bite patients discharged from hospital has increased by 58 per cent since 2005, and the costs of treatment and rehabilitation of the most serious injuries can be more than $200,000 per patient. On top of that, there is the lasting trauma to the victims of dog bites and their families.

I am concerned that children are most affected by these attacks. As well as being the most likely victims of dog attacks, children often suffer more severe injuries due to their smaller stature. I heard about the physical and mental effects of these attacks on children from the New Zealand Association of Plastic Surgeons when I spoke to them about their concerns earlier this year.

I know that councils around the country do a great job keeping our public spaces safe. However, statistics show the majority of dog attacks – around sixty percent – occur in our homes, and the homes of friends and family. These should be the places where we feel the safest.

Unregistered dogs and dogs considered to be ‘pit bull terrier’ types are overrepresented in dog attack statistics.

We need to work harder to identify these dogs and we need to work with their owners to put controls in place before an attack happens.

However, we must bear in mind that most dog owners are responsible, well-informed and take good care of their animals. I am committed to ensuring that any changes to the dog control regime do not unfairly penalise these owners.

Central and local government need to take sensible action that makes real steps towards improving dog safety for New Zealanders, and we need to do this now.

Dog control review engagements

As you know, I have been undertaking a review of the current dog control policy settings. I wanted this review to have the scope to consider a wide range of options – all measures to reduce the risk and the harm caused by dog attacks were on the table, and all suggestions were given serious consideration.

I have spent the past few months meeting with people with knowledge and experience dealing with dogs. I have met with Les and the team; mayors and councils; leaders of the New Zealand Association of Plastic Surgeons; Local Government New Zealand; the New Zealand Veterinary Association and the SPCA; dog behaviour experts; farmers; and dog attack victims, among others.

Council feedback

I also wrote to every council in the country in May this year asking for their suggestions to improve the dog control regime.

I would like to thank everyone here who contributed to the review by providing feedback on how our dog control laws are working and examples of innovative practices in your councils.

I was excited to hear about some of the fantastic and forward-thinking work that you and your councils have been doing. While every community has different needs, sharing your dog control ideas and working together to solve problems will benefit everyone.

I know of a number of councils who have had great success with amnesty initiatives to promote the registration, desexing and microchipping of local dogs. Wairoa and Tararua District Councils have developed mobile phone applications to support their dog control operations. Dunedin is working towards a dog DNA database. It is important that you capture any lessons as you progress such initiatives so your learnings can be shared with others in this room and beyond.

The public survey

In August this year I launched a public survey on dog control issues which ran for just two weeks, and attracted more than three thousand responses. People outlined their concerns about the cause of dog-related problems and provided their suggestions for improvement.

This is clearly an issue of great concern to New Zealanders.  The message I heard was clear: we need to do more to prevent dog attacks.

Almost two thirds of respondents identified dog owners as the main contributing factor to dog attacks. The perception is that dog owners do not always understand how to manage their dogs, whether it is a matter of obedience training, understanding what their dog’s behaviour means and how it should be dealt with, or just being a negligent owner.

Just under a third of responders identified general education about dog behaviour as the most important contributing factor to dog attacks. There is a perception that not enough people, especially children, know how to safely interact with dogs. This is also a theme that came across in my conversations with animal control officers and other dog experts.

The top suggestions from the public were focusing on educating people about dog behaviour and requiring owners to take their dogs to obedience classes. They also suggested introducing minimum standards for dog ownership and increasing penalties for breaches of dog control laws.

The NZIAM

As front line officers you need to be able to carry out your role effectively and safely, given the risks animal control officers face every day.

Your feedback and the dialogue I have been able to have with you and the councils you work for has been invaluable in coming up with the details of the proposals.

In response to my letter, councils told me that that the current settings work well overall, but some improvements need to be made to make the public safer.

The top recommendations centred on extending neutering requirements, improving owner training and education, and improving the way the dog control regime is enforced.

I have found listening to your views and the views of experts and the public exceptionally valuable.

Previous work on dog control

In 2003, the Government of the day responded to public concerns over serious dog attacks by reviewing and strengthening the Dog Control Act 1996. These changes provided an inventory of tools for local councils to use to crack down on unregistered dogs, roaming dogs, and irresponsible owners.

As we have seen, effective legislation is not enough to prevent dog attacks. While there is no magic bullet solution to these issues, I consider that it is time to take a fresh approach to dog control in New Zealand.

Decisions on National Strategy to reduce the risk and harm of dog attacks

I am pleased to announce that Cabinet has agreed to a National Strategy to reduce the risk and harm of dog attacks in New Zealand. This two-year Strategy takes a three-pronged approach which includes legislative change, an education campaign designed to change New Zealand’s culture around dogs, and the improvement of best practice guidance for animal control officers.

The Strategy will involve central government, local government, and non-government organisations working together to reduce the overall tally of serious dog attacks.

I am aiming to introduce a bill to the House in early 2017 to implement the following five proposals:

  • Mandatory neutering of dogs classified as menacing. I know some councils do this already. This is a measure that will make this policy consistent across the country. I consider mandatory neutering of all dogs classified as dangerous and menacing is the most effective way to ensure the population of high risk dogs reduces over time. While even small dogs can cause injuries, especially to children, breed characteristics, in combination with an aggressive temperament, means some dogs have the potential to cause more damage than others. This measure will reduce the number of high-risk dogs breeding over time. Neutering has also been linked to lower aggression in dogs that have had the procedure.
  • Building on the recent success in Auckland with their amnesty programme, over the coming year I intend for central and local government to partner to develop and roll out a nation-wide neutering campaign for high-risk dogs. Central government will provide $850,000 funding to subsidise this neutering programme. I expect territorial authorities to own and deliver programmes as appropriate for their communities. Further details on funding and when the campaign is expected to be rolled out to dog owners is still to come.
  • Menacing and dangerous dogs must be secured and easily identifiable. All classified dogs will be required to wear collars identifying them as menacing or dangerous, to help others know how to respond or react when meeting the dog.
  • Victims of dog attacks told me that they did not necessarily know that they were entering a dangerous situation. Owners of menacing dogs will be required to securely fence their properties and display signs that clearly mark their properties as containing a menacing or dangerous dog. This measure extends the current containment requirements for dangerous dogs to all classified dogs. This will reduce unexpected encounters between visitors and classified dogs on private property, where almost two-thirds of all dog-related injuries occur, and prevent dogs from leaving the property.
  • Finally, in a move to encourage consistency between councils and animal shelters across the country, re-homing classified dogs will be prohibited. This will reduce the population of classified dogs substantially, leading New Zealand towards a lower-risk dog population.

As well as these initiatives, I am also considering an educational campaign to drive a much-needed cultural shift towards more responsible dog ownership; a better understanding of dog behaviour; and greater public knowledge of how to keep safe around dogs.

Tying this all together will be a joint initiative between central and local government to review and improve guidance on best dog control practice. With your input, the guidance materials could become your everyday go-to for information about using the existing enforcement tools and training new animal control officers. It could also serve as a means for you to share your innovations and knowledge with your colleagues across the country. I expect to see the great examples of the work you have already shared with me reflected in the guidance.

Next steps

I have also asked officials to look into further measures to improve dog safety in New Zealand. Suggestions have included stricter requirements for the owners of high-risk dogs and looking at making adjustments to the current infringement regime to let councils take stronger action against irresponsible dog owners.

Another area I intend to focus on is addressing the limitations of the data we are currently able to gather about dog attacks. At the moment, the data we collect gives us an idea of the problem, but not the specifics. The information we gather about the types of dog breeds involved in attacks is more anecdotal than empirical. I have asked officials to investigate improving the quality of the information we have about dog attacks to address these limitations.

Conclusion

Animal control officers already have a key role in reducing the risk and harm of dog attacks. You are the interface between the public and the law.

The National Strategy will require some of you to refocus your efforts on high-risk dogs and high-risk owners, if you do not do so already. This will require careful management by councils, because we cannot afford to lose sight of other dog control commitments to our communities.

I hope that you will take the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences, both here at this conference, and going forward, as we progress the National Strategy together.

Improving dog safety in New Zealand will take considerable effort from all of us. I know this issue matters to everyone here.

Thank you for your time. I hope you enjoy your conference. I am happy to take some questions.