The AGE, Lynne Bradshaw, October 21 2009
What has been largely missing from the pit bull debate of the past few days is that dogs that attack people have owners. To focus our attention on the breed of the dog is to abdicate our responsibility to be accountable for the behaviour of our pets. The recent case in Victoria occurred because a dog owner allowed a poorly trained and poorly socialised dog to roam freely in a public place. So let’s bring this issue back to where it started, with the owner of the dog. Only then will we get close to addressing the root of the problem.
We know that a dog’s tendency to bite is the product of at least five factors: the dog’s genetic predisposition to aggression; early socialisation to humans; its training or mistraining; the quality of its care and supervision; and the behaviour of the victim. Genetics is only one of these factors. In the wrong circumstances, any dog, regardless of size, breed or mixture of breeds can be dangerous. The RSPCA believes that deeming a dog as “dangerous” should therefore be done on the basis of its behaviour, not its breed.
In fact, studies have found that dog breeds subject to breed bans are no more likely to attack or cause more serious injuries than any other similarly sized dog. While there is some evidence that certain breeds may be genetically predisposed to aggressive behaviour, most research concludes that breed-specific legislation is unlikely to have a significant impact on the frequency of dog bites. Recent experience both here and overseas has also shown us that it is virtually impossible to effectively enforce such legislation.
It doesn’t make a good headline, but at the heart of this issue is responsible pet ownership. The RSPCA firmly believes that dog-bite prevention strategies should focus on public education and training of both dogs and owners. That’s why our approach centres on educating pet owners, educating the public, identifying problem behaviours early, encouraging the selection of dogs with appropriate behavioural characteristics, and pushing for better control and management programs for those dogs that are declared to be menacing or dangerous.
None of these strategies works without the others: without proper management programs by local governments, they all fall over. It’s time for local councils to crack down on the owners of unregistered dogs and dogs that are known to be a nuisance or danger in their community. Councils should be much more proactive in dog control for all dogs, be they mixed breeds, pure breeds or restricted breeds. You shouldn’t be allowed to breed a dog without a licence and breeding standards should be properly regulated.
Dogs are a treasured part of Australian, society but the reality is that as long as we share our lives with them, dog bites will be a risk. However, there is much we can do to reduce that risk. Firstly, never leave young children unattended with dogs, even a trusted family pet. Children are unpredictable and can often display what a dog perceives as threatening behaviour. Always ensure your dog is properly confined in your house or yard and under effective control when walking. Make sure your dog receives proper training and socialisation with other dogs and people from an early age, and if your dog does display aggressive or worrying behaviour, speak to your vet or your local RSPCA about a behavioural assessment. And lastly, if you’re thinking of adopting a dog, make sure you research your options thoroughly to ensure you choose the best pet for your family situation and lifestyle.
Ultimately, the responsibility of a dog will always rest with the owner. It’s convenient to blame the dog when things go wrong, but to ignore the human factor is a paltry attempt to address the issue from the wrong end. Dog attacks are a people problem. We must do far more to promote responsible pet ownership if we are going to reduce the incidence of dog bites in the future.
Lynne Bradshaw is national president of the RSPCA Australia.