Sydney Morning Herald, August 10, 2013
The mauling death this week of a two-year-old boy has raised concerns about dog breeds. But the dogs aren’t the problem, writes Natasha Wallace.
Never mind the dogs. In 32 years as a ranger with Bathurst Council, Margaret Gaal has been abused, attacked, spat on and even had a loaded rifle shoved in her face.
When the Herald called Gaal this week, she described how hours earlier a man had stood menacingly in front of her vehicle, daring her to run him down while his mate made haste with his two American pit bulls, a restricted breed subject to stringent rules.
Gaal called the police.
Attacked: Two-year-old Deeon Higgins was killed by his cousin’s dog. Photo: Supplied
”He had a thick moustache, he had dried saliva over his mouth, he was in a tracksuit, he was very dishevelled. He was a scary looking person and very aggressive,” Gaal says. ”In a lot of cases the dogs take on the behaviour of the owner. The dog puffs its chest out, its tail goes up, the hackles down the centre of the back of the dog come up and when you look at the owner, they are the same.”
Kersti Seksel, a renowned registered veterinary specialist in behaviour medicine, says the potential link needs to be examined in Australia and more done on finding out who is breeding restricted dogs.
”Somebody has to be brave enough to stand up and say that, because [the studies show] there is a big link between domestic violence and animal abuse, and we also know there’s a link between kids who get bitten by dogs who often come from a home where there’s domestic violence,” Seksel says.
”The dog is the only thing that the kid can hit, so it gets bitten.”
A 2009 US study, Vicious Dogs: the Antisocial Behaviours and Psychological Characteristics of Owners, showed owners of vicious dogs were nearly 10 times more likely than other dog owners to have a criminal conviction. When looking at the different categories of criminal convictions, owners of vicious dogs owners were 6.8 times more likely to be convicted of an aggressive crime, 2.8 times more likely to have carried out a crime involving children, 2.4 times more likely to have perpetrated domestic violence, and 5.4 times more likely to have an alcohol conviction, when compared with low-risk dog owners.
Examining psychopathic traits, owners of high-risk dogs showed significantly more characteristics of primary psychopathy, the study, published in the international Journal of Forensic Sciences, says.
Gaal is not surprised. ”You have to see these people that have these overly aggressive dogs,” she says. ”They are absolute idiots, they have very limited education, they have very limited people skills and nine times out of 10 they … end up in jail.”
She recalls how successful the ”Kelso campaign” in 2003 was when the council offered to desex dogs for free on Mother’s Day to overcome a stray dog problem in that area.
”A lot of people said to us, ‘Can’t you desex the owners as well?’ ”
The Kelso campaign came a year after the shocking mauling to death of Rita Thompson, 75, who was dragged out of bed at her Bathurst home and so viciously attacked that she was found naked in the driveway with all of her limbs ripped open, exposing bone, including her entire skull.
It was suspected that it was not just the work of the family’s two dogs, a great dane/bull-mastiff cross and a bull mastiff cross, but the neighbour’s pit bull-mastiff cross also, though this was never proved.
Rebekka Tuqiri, a psychologist at the University of Technology, says having a vicious-looking dog may make an antisocial person, who has perhaps been marginalised as a result of their behaviour, feel powerful.
”People who tend to have antisocial-behaviour disorder are those who are raised in families with a lot of conflict, inconsistent discipline or an absence of discipline and whose fathers have exhibited antisocial behaviour. So I think what you would find with some of these people is their dad did the same thing,” Tuqiri says.
Most owners are male, and so are the dogs. Dr Anna Hickey-Moody, lecturer in the department of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney, says: ”Socially, intellectually and financially vulnerable men can often try to protect themselves by developing a form of something called protest masculinity. Keeping aggressive dogs as pets is an extension of this protest masculinity and is an unfortunate and, in this instance, inappropriate response to a broader position of vulnerability.”
The number of dog attacks has increased 17 per cent in NSW to 5140 in 2010-11 from 4381 reported in 2009-10. The breeds on the NSW register with the highest attack rates in 2010-2011 were the Tibetan mastiff, pit bull terrier, Chesapeake Bay retriever, central Asian shepherd and mastiff.
NSW does not ban particular breeds. But Seksel is at pains to stress it is the owner not the dog – it’s the deed not the breed – who is responsible. ”There’s no such thing as a dangerous breed. It’s like saying all blonde females are stupid,” Seksel says.
There are several factors that might make a dog attack: its DNA, its lack of socialisation, how it is treated and the circumstances at the time, to name a few.
The tragic death of two-year-old Deeon Higgins last Sunday in Deniliquin home after his grandmother unsuccessfully tried to fight off his cousin’s 57-kilogram bull mastiff cross. The dog, normally tied to a backyard tree, attacked the boy when he went to get an iceblock from a freezer.
”When you’ve got a 57kg dog, it will throw it around like a rag doll. The dog is above the child in the pecking order and the grandmother had no idea what was going to happen,” Gaal says.
There are only a few breeds on the restricted dogs list: American pit bull terrier or pit bull terrier, Japanese tosa, dogo Argentino (Argentinian fighting dog) and the fila Brasileiro (Brazilian fighting dog). They are subject to stringent rules such as being muzzled in public and mandatory desexing.
Animal behaviourists advise not leaving a child under 10 alone with a dog, no matter the breed.
A child’s sudden movements and squealing can prompt a dog to attack, particularly one trained to pig hunt, Seksel says.
”Wagging the tail doesn’t mean the dog is friendly, it means they are willing to interact. There’s been studies that show if a dog bares its teeth some children will interpret it as a smile,” she says.
Dogs also don’t like to be eyeballed because it makes them feel threatened.
Two-thirds of the NSW population own a pet and about 75 per cent of those are dogs. There are 1,585,798 microchipped dogs but there is no way of knowing exactly how many are in the state.
A 2011 companion animals taskforce presented a report on dangerous dogs in February this year with several recommendations, including a national dog attack and dangerous dog database. Taskforce chairman Liberal MP Andrew Cornwell says an annual register is needed. He also wants to see the NSW Companion Animals Act 1998 amended to include a ”potentially dangerous” dog category so they can be properly assessed, and for rangers to have powers to access properties.
”Councils have not been able to be proactive because people just refuse entry. It is too extreme to just slap on a dangerous dog order so that tends not to happen,” Cornwell says.
Dog attacks against children usually occur in their own yard or in the yard of a friend or relative, most are at least familiar with the dog and are unsupervised at the time, he says.
In 2009, three-year-old Ruby-Lea Burke was mauled to death by four bull mastiff crosses in a family friend’s backyard in the Riverina town of Whitton.
In 2006, four-year-old Tyra Kuehne died after she wandered into a neighbour’s yard and was mauled by three pig-hunting dogs that had broken free from their chains in the town of Warren in central NSW.
”These are not dangerous dogs roaming the streets,” Cornwell says.
”To leave a young child unsupervised with a dog, no matter how reliable that dog has been in the past, is the same as leaving a young child unsupervised by a busy road or unsupervised by a pool.”
Sophie Cotsis, the opposition’s local government spokeswoman, says she would support an audit of who owned restricted dogs to see whether they were on criminal databases.
The Australian Veterinary Association, in its discussion paper Dangerous Dogs Sensible Solution in August last year, called for mandatory national reporting of all dog-bite incidents. It says banning specific breeds does not work.
Here is an alternative view from columnist Miranda Devine : Times up for deadly dogs