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The goal of the current inquest is to identify where laws can be modified to better protect people and animals from dangerous dogs, and to lessen the avenues for misidentification of dog breeds during microchipping and registration processes.

The NSW Deputy State Coroner Carmel Forbes is currently investigating seven fatal dog attacks, including the death of two-year-old Jyedon Pollard who died after being mauled by a Rottweiler, and an infant killed by its father’s pet, a suspected pit bull, in July 2021.

The broad remit of the coroner’s examination is to ascertain how effective the enforcement of breed restrictions is, and the efficiency of existing regulations. The results of the inquest, and inevitable reform, will affect lawmakers, animal control agencies, and the wider community.

In NSW, both breeders and owners self-report dog breeds during the registration process. To avoid the control and restraint requirements of owning those dogs, and the expense of permits or laws against breeding and ownership, these dogs are increasingly being misidentified in the registration process, if they are registered at all.

During the inquest, veterinarian Dr Emetia Cull told the court that veterinary professionals must enter the breed they were told at the time of microchipping a pet. She said a DNA test cost about $180 and could take weeks before receiving confirmation of the breed.

At present, if a council suspects a dog is a restricted breed, it serves a notice to declare a dog a restricted breed. In response, owners have the option to contest the claim through arranging a breed and temperament assessment. If the dog fails both, it is declared a restricted breed, but there is no report to rationalise the ultimate assessment, which is one area of reform the inquest is focusing on.

Under NSW law, restricted breeds can no longer be sold or given away in NSW, leading breeders to intentionally and falsely label these dogs as other breeds. It is also illegal to accept ownership of restricted dog breeds, so owners are intentionally registering their dogs under false breeds. For Sydney-based owners that already own such dogs, they must be desexed and registered with the City of Sydney. From 1 July 2020, the Government introduced annual permits for owners of restricted dog breeds and dogs declared to be dangerous.

Penalties for acts of aggression by restricted breeds are liable to penalties under the Companion Animals Act 1998, ranging from a maximum fine of $44,000 if the dog rushes, attacks or chases a person or animal, $55,000 and a potential four-year imprisonment if the dog commits any of those acts as a result of the owner’s behaviour, and $77,000 and a potential five-year imprisonment if the dog attacks or bites a person.

Failing to hold a valid permit for a restricted dog attracts a $6,600 penalty; selling or advertising such dogs results in a $16,500 fine; accepting the dog is also $16,500; and breeding or advertising a restricted dog for breeding purposes results in a $16,500 penalty.

Liz Arnott is the Chief Veterinarian at RSPCA NSW and tells LSJ mixed breed dogs are now the most common type of dog in Australia.

“The fundamental question is whether making restrictions based on breed is either useful or effective, because evidence says this doesn’t mitigate dog bite risk in the community,” Arnott says.

Her concern is that legislation is based on emotive factors and placating the public rather than evidence-based policy. For the most part, she explains, human behaviour towards dogs is the defining factor behind how dogs behave towards humans and “you can’t legislate common sense”.

She says rather than immediately assuming owners are deliberately misidentifying dog breeds, the reality is that “visual determination of dog breeds is known to be unreliable.”

Arnott says, “We’re dealing with a situation where many litters born don’t have pedigree information available to them. Sometimes the parentage is not even known where there’s been accidental breeding. Additionally, microchipping is done in animal shelters or pounds, so there’s no information about how the animal has come to be produced. How canines look as neonates or juveniles can be very different to their adult size and features. So essentially, assigning breed is really difficult.”

“A dog’s inbuilt tendency to bite is based on genetics, early experience, socialisation and training, health and the behaviour of the victim,” she says.

“Genetics is one factor of five variables, so a policy that overemphasises genetics disagrees with a lot of literature that says that within breeds there’s so much variation, so making predictions about propensity for aggressive behaviour based on breed is not accurate.”

According to Tony Gabrio, Manager of Animal Rehoming at Blacktown City Council for the past four and a half years, it is not the laws which require change. They are clear and comprehensive, he tells LSJ. Rather, there is an urgent need for a statewide campaign – similar to the sunscreen campaign designed to win over sceptics – that targets dog owners who don’t understand why, or do not want to desex, register and train their dogs.

Dog attack ‘hot spots’

Blacktown, along with Shoalhaven and Lake Macquarie, has been identified by the Office of Local Government as the area with the highest number of dog attacks in NSW. The data on attacks is provided by councils, and some councils do not provide this data, so the full number of attacks and incidents in the state is incomplete.

In the three months from January 1 to March 31 last year, Blacktown City Council reported 76 total dog attacks, 59 people attacked (22 people involved in serious attacks, 37 people in less serious attacks), and 51 animals attacked. Blacktown has a significantly higher number of microchipped dogs in its region (99,315) compared to other councils, accounting to some extent for the higher rate of incidents reported. However, the Central Coast Council has 153,370 microchipped dogs and their total number of dog attacks came to 66, with 45 people and 45 dogs attacked in the same time period.

In May last year, Blacktown Animal Rehoming Centre (BARC) opened after a decade of planning. It is now working beyond its capacity, and Gabrio is talking to LSJ from home where he’s looking after a six-week-old puppy named Alvin, purportedly a Staffy cross but this hasn’t been determined.

The extreme number of abandoned dogs reflects a problematic attitude towards dog ownership more broadly, which is reflected in the high number of attacks. Individual dogs are surrendered to BARC, but so are whole litters of puppies: a problem Gabrio says could be resolved with clear laws on desexing.

He says, “In many cases it’s ‘backyard breeders’, ill-informed people who have ended up with a litter of puppies and have made money from this. If you are not a registered breeder, then I believe you should have to have your dog desexed by law unless you have a veterinary exclusion. Then we can use local law enforcement to check and enforce that.”

Gabrio says, “Why are dangerous dog attacks still happening when we have really good legislation? Very little of the Companion Act is ambiguous. The problem is that we are only reactive, and that’s why nothing changes and attacks happen. Dogs are allowed to protect their property, so it’s about a change of mentality. We fine people until the cows come home and that’s not changing anything.”

He says the only ambiguity is within the Companion Act 1998 (NSW) S16.2, which says “it is not an offence under this section if the incident occurred (a) as a result of the dog being teased, mistreated, attacked or otherwise provoked, or (b) as a result of the person or animal trespassing on the property on which the dog was being kept, or (c) as a result of the dog acting in reasonable defence of a person or property”.

Gabrio explains, “If it comes to court, and it is argued that a dog was provoked while protecting their property, the owner can appeal whether it was declared by rangers to be menacing or dangerous.”

As for the deeply disturbing attacks on children that are being raised in the current inquest, Gabrio does not single out particular breeds as problematic, but advises that all dogs can be triggered and especially where owners do not know the animal’s full history, those triggers might be unexpected.

“I would not leave a young child unsupervised anywhere near a dog, based on a basic risk assessment. Studies have been done that dogs are triggered by the high-pitched voice of a child and some dogs just react to males, and we especially don’t know the history of dogs within a shelter environment. Importantly, children can’t predict what would trigger a dog.”

Gabrio says that in Blacktown, Fairfield and Parramatta approximately 80 per cent of dogs are Staffordshire Terrier mixes, and BARC houses a large number of Staffordshire Terrier mix breeds aged two to three years.

“Part of it is the area. This is largely a low socio-economic area, and it’s the dog of choice in those areas. These older areas have larger outdoor areas.”

He says there are a large number of dogs seized, but the council rarely ends up in court.

“Usually we work with the owner for the best outcome possible. When a dog has been declared dangerous, we request that the owner surrender the dog and we euthanase it. Around 80 percent of the time, owners willingly surrender the dog because once we’ve spoken to them, and in many cases they have witnessed their dog attack another animal or a person, many people are remorseful and didn’t realise their dog was capable of that.”

 Gabrio has redesigned his team to more holistically address animal management in the area, which required separating the animal regulatory team from the overall regulatory team (such as parking officers) to work more closely with the animal education officers and animal services officers.

“We’ve also engaged an additional resource. One person purely does inspections, which is an obligation under the Companion Act, to inspect a property annually if a dog is declared dangerous or menacing. That property needs to have signage warning of a dangerous dog, use of particular collars, and the dog has to be kept in a secure area.”

The council also produces and provides the signs so there’s consistency, and the signs abide by the code in terms of font, material, and size.

He says, “We’ve joined with the Animal Welfare League (AWL) to enable free desexing, but it’s limited because you’re competing at times with local vets. It’s difficult to provide hardship services because everyone wants something for free and how we prove that hardship is difficult.”

Gabrio says the tangible outcomes he hopes to see from the inquest relate less to legislative change and more toward proactive measures.

“Funding is the biggest one. We’ve received $360,000 from the NSW government, that comes via animal registrations, but we’ll be spending $4 million within the financial year 2023-2024  to resource our facility [BARC] and we have limited ability to then roll our education services out. We need marketing, media and literature that is issued from a central body – whether state-based or federally – so that wherever you are, wherever you move, people are experiencing the same language and discussion around animal care and responsibility. The education has spoken to the converted in the past, especially around desexing. We need to think outside the square about how we talk to people who won’t come to us.”

Arnott says, “There are limitations to the data we have, and research is needed into the many factors leading into dog bites and attacks.”

She says animal welfare and public safety are interlinked.

Those two are not mutually exclusive. Dogs experiencing good welfare are less likely to be a safety risk to the public. At RSPCA we are always going to champion evidence-based policy and that is a concern because we don’t see that happening here. We do know how to make dogs good canine citizens, confident and calm. But how committed owners are to this is hard to legislate.”

She and Gabrio are of the same conclusion that education is the key, more so than amending existing legislation which is largely effective.

Arnott says, “There’s an absolute need to for the public to understand about animal behaviour. We see so much misunderstanding of dogs who are trying to communicate to us that they are anxious or fearful and people’s response to this misinterpretation of this puts them in danger. So, there’s definitely a lot to be done in terms of education. We also need to see enforcement of those already existing laws around managing dogs in terms of containment on properties, ensuring they’re microchipped and registered so that there’s some accountability and ability to communicate with owners, and also practices around regular desexing because then we’re not we’re going to end up with dogs that are intentionally bred for behavioural traits that are incompatible with relating to people.”