Policy type: Position statement
Date ratified: November 2019
The NZVA believes that current New Zealand dog control legislation does not effectively support successful dog control, or encourage the development of safe communities. Collaborative action is needed from all stakeholders to better educate the public on what responsible dog ownership means, and to provide effective dog management strategies.
Dogs are an integral part of our society, with many positive benefits to dog ownership. However, the impact of dog aggression must be addressed in order to ensure our communities are safe for both people and dogs.
The issue of dog aggression and how it affects society highlights that the wellbeing of animals, humans and the environment is inseparable. Dog aggression is responsible for a significant public health burden in New Zealand. The veterinary profession’s knowledge of dogs, and their deep understanding of how society and dogs interact is the foundation for the New Zealand Veterinary Association’s (NZVA) position statement.
The issue of dog aggression is highly complex. Several factors contribute to why dogs become aggressive and bite, including:
- hereditary factors
- early rearing experience
- inadequate socialisation and training
- the dog’s physical health
- the owner’s attitudes, experience and reasons for owning a dog
- the situations surrounding each attack, including the victim’s behaviour and
- society’s tolerance and understanding of what constitutes normal dog behaviour.
Given these multiple factors, it is clearly not just a dog problem. Any meaningful solution will require a comprehensive plan delivered across multiple agencies that work together to address each factor. These agencies include local and central government, animal control personnel, the veterinary profession, the medical profession, dog trainers and behaviourists, educators, dog breeders, dog welfare agencies and the media. The general public must also accept responsibility for what they may contribute to the situation.
These groups must act together to:
- promote societal change regarding our understanding of responsible dog ownership,
- educate people on how to safely interact with dogs,
- reduce the excess supply of puppies,
- address genetic and health factors that predispose dogs to aggressive behaviour, and
- standardise data collection to identify current gaps in understanding and provide a benchmark to evaluate the success of initiatives.
Overview of the Dog Control Act 1996
Section 20 of the Dog Control Act 1996 allows territorial authorities to make by-laws placing significant controls on dogs and their owners. Section 31 allows for dangerous dogs to be classified as such. Sections 31 and 32 confer powers on territorial authorities to impose strict conditions on dogs so classified, and for Courts to make orders for the destruction of these dogs in certain circumstances.
Amendments to the Act in 2003 placed further stringent controls on dogs.
S30A prohibits the importation of certain breeds and types of dogs as well as the germplasm of the same breeds and types. The prohibited breeds are the Brazilian Fila, Dogo Argentino, Japanese Tosa, Perro de Presa Canario and the American Pit Bull Terrier type.
S33A – 33F allows for classification of certain dogs as menacing, and for strict conditions to be placed on dogs so classified. These include compulsory neutering and muzzling or caging while in public places. All the prohibited breeds and types are automatically classified as menacing and subject to conditions.
S35A-B allowed for the establishment of a National Dog Database of all registered dogs.
S36A allowed (from 1 July 2006) for compulsory microchipping of newly registered dogs, dangerous and menacing dogs, unregistered dogs which have been impounded, and registered dogs which have been impounded twice.
‘Working dogs,’ defined as those kept solely or principally for the purposes of herding or driving stock are exempted from the requirement to be microchipped.
Dog Control Act 1996 Classifications
The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) considers that the existing processes for classifying dogs as “menacing” or “dangerous” do not adequately support successful dog control in New Zealand, for the reasons outlined below:
Specifically, the NZVA objects to the automatic menacing classification given to dogs based on their breed or type for the following reasons:
- Aggressive behaviour in dogs can be encouraged by an owner in any number of large, powerful breeds of dogs. Breed correlations in dog bite statistics may be reflecting the owner’s behaviour as the underlying causal factor (American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Division., 2014).
- Dog breed is not the biggest contributing factor to a dog bite incident (Patronek, Sacks, Delise, Cleary, & Marder, 2013) and to target specific breeds or types as menacing is a gross oversimplification of this complex issue. It fails to capture large numbers of potentially dangerous dogs that belong to breeds that are not classified as “menacing” or who are crossbreds and promotes a false sense of security.
- It does not address or promote an attitude of responsible dog ownership. Regardless of the positive actions taken by an owner of a dog classified as menacing due to its breed or type, the dog remains classified and is subject to restrictions that reduce its welfare.
- Dog bite statistics do not accurately reflect the risk of a given breed or type as they are skewed by the popularity of the breed or type of dog. The list of biting breeds is also subject to change over time to reflect changes in popularity of dog breeds or types (Collier, 2006). The identification of the breed or type of dog involved in a dog bite incident is also subject to inaccuracies (Wake, Minot, Stafford, & Perry, 2009).
- It wastes resources by unnecessarily restricting dogs that pose no threat. The focus of dog control efforts should be on responding to the aggressive behaviour, rather than the breed or type of dog.
- Identification of a pit bull-type is unreliable as it encompasses a range of breeds, informal types and appearances. The NZVA does not support identification of unregistered breeds and/or crossbreeds based on 'visual assessment’ due to the lack of scientific correlation.
between genetic makeup and physical characteristics (Australian Veterinary Association Ltd, 2012).
- Breed-specific legislation has not worked overseas. Although politically expedient, overseas experience has shown it to be ineffective at managing dog bite incidents (Australian Veterinary Association Ltd, 2012). Three European and several US administrations have now reviewed and reversed breed-specific legislation.
Context of the Dog Bite Incident
Under current legislation, dogs may also be classified as dangerous based on behaviour that ranges from “showing aggressive behaviour” through to being involved in a fatal attack. The classification of “dangerous” then remains with the dog for its life.
Failure to account for the context of aggressive behaviour reduces the ability of the legislation to effectively address dog aggression problems.
The risk to society from a dog involved in an unprovoked attack is substantially higher than that from a dog that bites in response to severe provocation or pain. The legislative measures available to manage the dog aggression should reflect this difference.
Revision of the Dog Classification System
The NZVA believes that a multi-tier classification system based on dog behaviour and not breed must be adopted to address the issues above. NZVA’s suggested classifications of “dangerous” and “potentially dangerous” are detailed below, and have been adapted from legislative framework proposed by the Australian Veterinary Association (2012).
Dangerous dog means any dog that demonstrates one or more of the following behaviours:
- causes a serious injury to a person or domestic animal
- has been designated as a potentially dangerous dog and engages in behaviour that poses a threat to public safety as described in the “potentially dangerous dog” definition
- inflicts multiple bite wounds without provocation
- inflicts a life-threatening attack (potential grievous bodily harm).
Potentially Dangerous Dog
Potentially dangerous dog means a dog that may reasonably be assumed to pose a threat to public safety as demonstrated by any of the following behaviours:
- causing an injury to a person or domestic animal that is less severe than a serious
injury without provocation, chasing or menacing a person or domestic animal in an
- acts in a highly aggressively manner within a fenced yard/enclosure and appears to a
reasonable person able to jump over or escape
- fails a temperament assessment test conducted by a person approved by the Authority
- exhibits highly aggressive behaviour without actually biting.
Benefits of a Revised System
A revised system would:
- Support earlier identification of potentially dangerous dogs based on their actions, not breed; and both the dogs and their owners would be subject to increasingly stringent conditions.
- Allow for consideration of the context in which the “aggressive” behaviour occurred.
- Contain a rehabilitation pathway for dogs identified as potentially dangerous and allow for the classification to be rescinded after three years, following appropriate behaviour assessment and training.
- Require mandatory behaviour testing for dogs classified as “potentially dangerous” or “dangerous” at the owner’s expense.
- Provide for behaviour assessment by an independent authorised person to provide further integrity to the system. This will serve to reduce expenses associated with objections, and guard against unjustified euthanasia.
The NZVA believes that dog ownership is a privilege and not a right, and in order to support this, the NZVA would like to see owner licensing implemented through an amendment to the Dog Control Act 1996.
The aim of licensing is to ensure all owners who obtain a dog are aware of the dog’s needs and the responsibilities associated with dog ownership. It would also recognise that owners obtain dogs for different purposes such as guard and hunting dogs and allow controls to be placed over ownership of these types of dogs accordingly.
Obtaining a license would require attending an educational seminar on dog ownership and responsibilities, along with passing a test based on the course material. All dog license holders would receive education on their responsibility to use whatever appropriate methods of restraint are available to ensure public safety at all times; for example, leads, muzzles and fencing. Existing owners of dogs older than two years of age, with no dog related incidents on their record would automatically be grandfathered into the scheme.
Penalties for owners of dogs that are involved in serious attacks could include loss of their dog license, as well as being fined and/or imprisoned as the law allows. Individuals who obtain a dog without a license should be fined, and the dog removed if a license cannot be obtained.
While the NZVA understands that individuals may resent an increased hurdle to dog ownership, the Association believes that this will be mitigated by the significantly reduced public risk by promoting responsible attitudes towards dog ownership. Licensing owners will serve the wider community by reducing the personal and financial costs associated with dog aggression.
To this end, the NZVA supports the regulation of dog breeding. Owners of dogs capable of breeding should be required to hold a specific permit issued by the territorial authority. Exemptions could be considered if the dog owner was a member of a breeding organisation that required its members to operate in accordance with a code of ethics.
This recommendation is based on the observation that countries who rigorously apply breeding and ownership licensing, such as Switzerland and Sweden, do not have shelters that are overflowing in unwanted dogs. By limiting the supply of dogs, these countries have fostered an attitude where dogs are seen as “part of the family”, resulting in low abandonment rates (Tasker, 2007).
Endorsements for Classified Dogs
All owners of dogs that are classified as dangerous, potentially dangerous or are kept for the purpose of guarding or hunting would be required to obtain an endorsement to their license that allows them to own a classified dog. The definitions of guarding, and hunting dogs are given in appendix one.
The endorsement would require that owners are:
- over 18 years of age
- tested for their mental and physical abilities to handle the dog safely
- subject to a criminal background check
- have the support from those that also reside in the house and
- have facilities which allow such a dog to be restrained at home and not be a danger to visitors.
If an endorsement is not obtained, or if the dog fails behaviour testing then the classified dog shall be surrendered.
Dog Population Management
To successfully address dangerous dog issues and support responsible dog ownership, all dogs must be permanently identified and registered to an owner. The stray dog population must also be controlled. It is essential that there is not an endless supply of puppies to replace dogs that are removed from owners under this legislation.
The NZVA recognises that not all dogs can be rehabilitated and strongly encourages all shelters and rescue groups to have robust, validated behaviour testing performed by qualified staff. Failure to recognise and manage the risks posed to handlers, and society at large from dogs that have developed intractable temperament disorders due to poor socialisation and abuse, is irresponsible.
Education must be targeted and specific to successfully address the dangerous dog problem. A proportion of all dog registration fees should go to targeted education programs, as occurs in Victoria, Australia (Victoria State Government, 2018).
The NZVA believes that education should be focused on the following areas:
Experienced Dog Owners
The NZVA would encourage veterinarians, breeders and dog welfare agencies involved in rehoming dogs to discuss the responsibilities of dog ownership with prospective puppy buyers in the first instance, ensuring that the type of dog is suitable for the prospective owner’s lifestyle.
First-Time Dog Owners
Delivered by Breeders
The NZVA encourages breeders to take the responsibility for socialising their puppies during the critical 3-12 week period seriously by ensuring puppies are exposed to different people, children, animals such as cats, and by taking them to novel places. Breeders could also support ongoing training in the puppy’s new home by including prepaid puppy training classes.
Delivered by Veterinary Clinics
Veterinarians play a pivotal role in setting up good behaviour habits during the initial veterinary visits for puppy vaccinations. Advice should be given to puppy owners on simple training techniques that promote safe dog-human interactions and encourage puppy socialisation in the non-aggressive domain. Owners may need education on what is normal behaviour and how to teach their dogs to respond appropriately.
Veterinarians are well placed to identify puppies who are exhibiting unusually nervous or aggressive behaviour. By referring owners to qualified behaviourists and trainers at this early stage, owners have the opportunity to develop skills that will manage the behaviour and reduce the likelihood of aggression problems as the dog matures.
Many veterinary clinics provide or recommend puppy classes. Attendance at these should be encouraged, particularly for new owners or those with one dog. These classes provide opportunities for socialisation during a critical period of the puppy’s development. Veterinarians should ensure the person or people providing these classes in their practice are appropriately educated and using evidence-based behaviour and training philosophies.
Veterinarians must also consider the implications of reducing socialisation opportunities when giving vaccination advice. In the majority of cases, benefits of controlled socialisation outweigh risks of disease and should be encouraged.
Veterinarians should also identify health issues in routine visits that may lead to aggression due pain, such as arthritis or dental problems. They can assist in identifying if a behavioural problem has a medical basis or is responsive to medication. Veterinarians can also provide referrals to those with a expertise in behaviour modification to assist clients whose dogs are showing warning signs of aggression such as nipping or rushing to bark at strangers.
Veterinarians must play a role in promoting responsible pet ownership attitudes. To this end they should promote appropriate dog selection to potential owners, permanent identification, registration, de-sexing, training, advice on managing nuisance behaviour, and appropriate restraint of the dog.
Delivered by Local Councils
Councils’ responsibilities include providing education to dog owners. Councils should clearly outline what constitutes responsible dog ownership and educate owners of their responsibilities. Responsible dog ownership should be supported with significant incentives within the registration system that encourages ongoing dog training, effective containment, microchipping and de-sexing.
Children and Adults with Young Families
Children are commonly victims of dog aggression (Golinko, Arslanian, & Williams, 2016) and an opportunity exists to reduce dog bite incidents by improving education that is targeted to schools and kindergartens. This should focus on being safe around dogs and understanding dog body language, social signals, resource-guarding and self-defence behaviours.
Families with young children must also be exposed to this message in order for adults to learn how to protect young children from dog aggression by behaving appropriately and supervising interactions (Cornelissen & Hopster, 2010).
Workers Entering Properties where Dogs Reside
Among workers that are required to enter private property, dog aggression is a common occupational hazard. Specific training should be available to ensure these workers are knowledgeable in interpreting canine behaviour and learn techniques to keep themselves safe when approaching properties in which dogs reside.
The NZVA believe that with a reviewed classification system, an amendment to allow for owner licensing and breeding permits, the existing dog control legislation provides sufficiently robust enforcement mechanisms to deal with irresponsible owners and their dogs.
Animal control officers need to be further resourced and supported to allow them to apply the powers granted to them under this legislation with rigor within their territorial authority. The legislation should also support a consistent nationwide approach to dog control.
In the case of dog attacks, the identity of the victim (e.g. if a family member of the dog owner) should not impact on the enforcement of the law.
The NZVA recognises that people may deliberately choose dogs with aggressive natures to protect property and assist in criminal activities including dog fighting. The concept of owner licensing is seen as a useful mechanism for addressing problems associated with these situations, supported by robust dog identification systems and active enforcement.
The NZVA encourages members to assist their local dog control officers with advice on dog behaviour matters.
Stray Dog Management
The aim of reducing dog attacks is compromised while a large pool of unregistered dogs exists. Dog control officers should be resourced to patrol and actively target these dogs, with penalties for an unregistered dog offense being applied to the full extent. Education is also an essential component of managing unregistered and un-desexed dogs in the community
Improved Understanding of the Problem
A nationwide standardised reporting system is required to collect data on dog bites and improve our understanding of the problem. This would also provide a valuable benchmark to measure progress. With the majority of dog bites not requiring medical attention and never being reported to authorities (Wake & Stafford, 2011), this should be supplemented with surveys of dog bite incidence in the general population.
A fundamental change in attitude towards dog ownership is needed to address this problem and the NZVA believes this is achievable using a combination of the strategies proposed above, namely:
- Owner education about responsible dog ownership.
- Owner licensing to ensure that that the responsibility for the dog is focused on the owner.
- Breeder permits to support the regulation of dog breeding.
- Dog population control to make it harder to obtain a dog without fully considering the responsibility.
- Early identification of problem dogs based on their behaviour using a tiered classification framework.
- Stringent requirements on owners who own dogs classified as dangerous or potentially dangerous.
- An expectation of training for rehabilitation for dogs identified as potentially dangerous.
- Strong enforcement for those that choose not to comply.
- Improved understanding of the issue from standardised reporting.
In formulating dog control policy and legislation, consideration must be given to what society expects of a dog. Normal dog behaviour includes rushing, jumping, growling and barking, that can be frightening to some. To eliminate this entirely would only be achieved by banning all dogs, which ignores the numerous positive societal aspects of dog ownership.
The goal of this document is to strike a balance between ensuring that New Zealand society continues to enjoy the benefits of having dogs in our lives, keeps people safe from dog aggression, and ensures that the welfare needs of dogs are also met.
The NZVA would like to thank Professor Kevin Stafford MVB, MSc, PhD, FRCVS, FANZCVSc, Doctor Elsa Flint BVSc, MSc (hons), MANZCVS, PhD, and Dr Jess Beer, BVSc, MANZCVS for their expertise and guidance provided to the Companion Animal Veterinarians executive committee during the writing of this position statement.
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Guard dog means a dog that is kept on premises primarily for the purpose of guarding or protecting a person or property at those premises.
Hunting dog means a dog used to hold and subdue live hunted animals, whether principally or occasionally.