A National Approach on Dangerous Dogs

I spoke in parliament today on the need for a national approach to reducing the harm done by dangerous dogs in our community (and here's a podcast of me talking about it on ABC 666):
Dangerous Dogs, 27 February 2014

More often than we like we are confronted by the hurt, loss, guilt and confusion that bleeds out through families and communities after a fatal dog attack.

Three years ago in Victoria a group of children were playing in their front garden. At the same time, a neighbour's hunting dog had found its way free from its yard. The dog was agitated by the activity and noises of the children, and its instincts took over. It began to stalk the children. As they ran from it, it pursued them into the family home. When the mother of one of the children tried to fight it off, the dog focused its attack on her four-year-old daughter. Unfazed by the mother's efforts to drive it off, the dog began to maul the young girl; the mother was helpless. It was only when the child stopped struggling that the attack began to subside. Then the dog returned calmly to the yard. Paramedics soon attended, but only to take the dead child from her home. They would later reassure the mother that her daughter's death had been quick.

Tragedies of this kind confound the community. Since the year 2000 there have been around two deaths annually from dog attacks, and typically the victims are children under five. Children are the least aware of how to behave around dogs and the most vulnerable to the severest consequences of attack. The event I have described prompted a change in the Victorian state laws to recognise the accountability of dog owners and to match the extreme consequences of negligence with fitting penalties. It also prompted former Attorney-General Robert McClelland to acknowledge that the time had come for the federal government to work with states and territories to establish uniform dog laws.

Sharing our lives with dogs makes us happier, healthier, better at making friends and more empathetic to others. But dogs are not born tame, and dogs and people do not always understand each other, so living with them involves risks. Fatal dog attacks are very rare. They are the extreme consequence of a more commonplace problem. But the horror stories——the needless, senseless tragedies and the haunted, shattered families they leave behind—stay with us. They are hard to ignore and even harder to forget. The kind of intense community engagement and political investment that flares up in response to high profile dog attacks can be productive—but only to a point. We should draw on the shock and dismay we share with suffering families to galvanise a commitment to get the solution right. Then, with cool heads, we should gather facts, listen to the experts and collect evidence about what works.

The facts show that a more widespread problem underlies the headlines. While two people a year die from dog attacks, around four people every day are hospitalised by dog-bite injuries. That is 1,400 victims annually, and these 1,400 cases are only the most severe of the 14,000 dog-bite victims who present to emergency departments each year. Add to them the cases who take their injuries to a GP and you end up with around 100,000 dog-bite incidents per year. The Australian Companion Animal Council estimates that each year we spend $7 million patching up victims of dog bite injuries.

So what are the experts saying? They are now telling us that local and state initiatives must feed into and be guided by consistent national regulations, by consistent conditions of enforcement and by clear expectations about owner accountability. Around the country we have a patchwork of regulatory frameworks which have often crystallised suddenly in reaction to a single incident. These approaches are a banked fund of policy capital. But they have been generated in isolation and stored separately; what we need to do now is to pool our capital. Doing so, as Mr McClelland saw, requires the guiding hand of the federal Attorney-General. The process of establishing a framework for productive collaboration across all levels of government still has some way to go, and it is Senator Brandis who must now provide the guiding hand.

Across states and territories there have been moves in the right direction. Dangerous-dog laws have been updated in New South Wales and Victoria, and in the ACT classifications made by any other jurisdiction are recognised as if they were issued by territory authorities. But, if the experts are right that clarity and consistency are critical to solving the problem of dangerous dogs, the first step must be a set of guidelines which do not change when we cross a state or territory border.

What about evidence? We do not have enough of it. That, too, is why federal oversight of a nationally coordinated strategy is crucial. We can look at evidence from strategies trialled across the world and learn, for instance, that banning specific breeds does not reduce dog attacks; but out own record-keeping is fragmented and incomplete. One of the fundamental building blocks of a national strategy should be a national register of dog bites—a database to track incident rates countrywide. Without reliable data, how can we know the extent of the problem or which measures are working to reduce it? Authorities need clear guidelines from enforcement. Our children and our communities deserve better than a make-do patchwork of local law.

The strategies which would serve to reduce dog attacks are not complicated. But, without the national consistency Commonwealth oversight can deliver, a meaningful and long-term approach to education, prevention and regulation is impossible.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.