Trying to understand the reasons behind breed specific legislation can make as much sense as hitting a brick wall. Dogs Life attempts to shed some light on this touchy subject that is affecting thousands of dog lovers worldwide.
By Michaela Bilik
Most people are familiar with the Salem witch trials of 1692, where names were cried out and death and horrific suffering followed. Incredibly, its back, only now they are targeting innocent dogs and their owners. Its called breed specific legislation and its destroying lives in a sweeping worldwide epidemic.
Echoing similar laws introduced overseas that were spurred on by a string of dog attacks, restricted breed legislation first came into effect in South Australia in 1995, then quickly spread to New South Wales in 1998, Queensland and Victoria in 2001, and Western Australia in 2002. Restricted breeds are defined as those dogs prohibited from being imported by the Commonwealth Government and include the Dogo Argentina, the Japanese Toso, the Fila Brasilia and the American Pit Bull Terrier or Pit Bull Terrier. The legislation was supposedly put into force to outlaw fighting breeds.
A more widespread belief is that the legislation was a direct result of governments feeling pressure to respond to the flood of media reports on dog attacks. According to Dogs Down Under, a NewsPoll survey conducted in Queensland and Victoria in 2001, more than 76 per cent of respondents believed some dog breeds are more likely to bite than others. When asked how they formed this opinion, almost 75 per cent said they had read it in the papers or heard it on the news.
Breed laws down under
Australia is not a novice to such legislation. According to the German Shepherd Dog Council of Australia, in 1929 we were the first country in the world to restrict the ownership of the German Shepherd because some believed they would breed with Dingoes and produce super sheep killers.
What is more interesting is that Australia, fervently led by Queensland, is not far behind countries such as Germany and Italy in its resolve to eradicate mans best friend. Germany has restricted 16 different breeds as well as placing restrictions on dogs over 40cm at the shoulder. Italy has placed restrictions on 92 breeds including on the Corgi and Collie!
In a horrific case, a 36-year-old German dog trainer and her boyfriend were forced to move into a one-room apartment with no hot water so they could keep their Pit Bull and two crossbreed dogs. She has been spat on when she walks the dogs, people have thrown rocks at them and children have kicked the dogs from behind. When she asked the police for help, she was told they had to protect people from her dogs!
Such appalling incidents are not just reserved for overseas. Many Australian dog owners have also had their lives destroyed and their beloved friends put down.
In August 2003, due to lack of funds to abide by the restrictions in Queensland, Brigit and her husband Shane were forced to move to NSW with their Pit Bull, Tyson, who was identified as a restricted breed through a security door! Shane had to travel to Brisbane every day for work and Brigit fell into depression and had to quit her job.
In a hugely publicised case in Brisbane, the Middleton family was told their pet Ollie, who had never hurt anyone, would be seized by the Logan council on the suspicion he was a Pit Bull, despite two independent and professionally qualified vets ruling this out. Logan councillor Sandmann apparen’tly told the family: “Veterinarians are good at looking after animals, not identifying them.” Interestingly, another family’s dog had been attacked twice by a Cattle Dog without provocation, but was told by the same council there was nothing they could do.
In another appalling case, a woman had her nine-year-old Pit Bull Kane taken from her home while she was at work by Animal Control Officers. She frantically searched for him all night and finally, three days later, was told by an Animal Welfare Officer that the council had seized Kane. She was told she could appeal but this would take four or five months and she had to pay $75 per week to keep Kane at the impound, and she wasn’t allowed to see him. Because she couldn’t afford it and because she didn’t want to put her pet through the stress of being impounded for such a long time, Kane was put down by the council. After they destroyed the dog, the council sent her a letter telling her she had to renew Kane’s registration!
After a long battle with authorities, Jahni, an Australian living in America with her husband and son, had to make the devastating and heartbreaking decision to have her two beloved Pitt Bulls put down. This was due to the fact that the family couldn’t take them home, although 17-month-old Dback and five-year-old Cece had never attacked anyone. The family is still distressed at the loss. Jahni says her family will never forget or forgive the decision they were forced to make.
Rules of keeping a restricted breed
So what exactly is this legislation which produces such grief and devastation in Australia? Each state has only slightly differing specifications in its legislation. For instance, under the NSW Companion Animal Act 1998, an owner of a restricted breed must ensure:
- The dog is kept in a child-proof enclosure
- The dog is at no time in the sole charge of a person under 18
- One or more signs on their property must display “Warning Dangerous Dog”
- When in public the dog is leashed or chained with a muzzle
- The guardians must notify the council if the dog has attacked or injured a person, is lost, has died, changed ownership or moved.
Owners of restricted breeds who do not comply can be fined up to $5500. On top of that, the dog can be seized by an authorised officer who can enter your property and the dog can then be sold or destroyed within 14 days unless the officer is satisfied the councils requirements are met. In this case, you have just 14 days to move house or build the necessary enclosures.
Under the Victorian Domestic (Feral and Nuisance) Animals Act 1994, later amended in 2001, the Government requested that dog shelters put down any stray Pit Bulls to “help prevent aggressive dogs returning to the community”. Whether they were actually aggressive or not doesn’t matter, because according to the Government, ALL Pit Bulls are aggressive.
An exhaustive list of specifications constitutes Western Australias Dog Act 1976, later amended in 2002. Two of these are: restricted breeds need to wear a specified collar (alternative red and yellow stripes being 25mm wide set at an angle of 45 degrees to the rim of the collar); and all property access points must display signs.
Sign specifications are:
- A white rectangle measuring 200mm by 300mm
- Made of a durable material; contain the word “WARNING” in white capital letters 30mm high on a red rectangular panel measuring 190mm by 45mm near the top of the rectangle referred to in the above paragraph
- Contain below the panel referred to above a red circle 160mm in diameter containing the black head and neck of a dog 100mm high wearing the collar provided for in the above specifications
- Contain below the circle referred to in the above paragraph the words “DANGEROUS DOG” in capital letters, 20mm high.
Responding on behalf of Minister Stephens, Minister for Local Government and Regional Development in Western Australia, Director General Cheryl William said restricted breeds were bred for fighting, hence have an innate tendency to fight. “These breeds are considered potentially dangerous both because of their inherent size and their innate temperamental tendencies,” she said.
When asked how this legislation was different from 1929, when the Government banned the importation of German Shepherds because they believed they would mate with Dingoes and produce a massive sheep-eating machine, she replied: “The legislation is designed specifically for the 21st century.”
Around the land of oz
Queensland is hastily turning into the breed restricted capital of Australia. The government introduced a statewide framework for restricted dogs in 2001. Shockingly, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) generally supports this legislation. Penalties for not complying with restrictions can also cost you up to $22,500.
According to Linda Watson, Monash University statistician and vice-president of the Endangered Dog Breeds Association of Australia, the 1995 death of an elderly woman in Toowoomba was widely reported as an attack by an American Pit Bull. The dog was, in fact, a crossbreed of unknown origins and had been registered as a Labrador cross. As a result, several Queensland councils introduced restrictions of total bans on American Pit Bulls. Mount Morgan Shire Council even went as far as placing weight and height restrictions on dogs.
The Queensland Department of Local Government and Plannings Communications Officer, Anne Moffat, said the purpose of the legislation is not to focus on the breeds most represented in attacks, but rather to deal with the issue of regulating the breeds of fighting dog banned from importation by commonwealth legislation.
She said the legislation created a regulatory framework to provide a minimum standard for the keeping and control of restricted dogs across the state. “Local governments are primarily responsible for animal control and management issues,” she said. “A local government may impose a higher standard, including an outright or partial prohibition on the keeping of restricted dogs in their area. The Queensland legislation places the obligation on owners of restricted dogs to apply to the local government for a permit to keep the dog at a specified place. It is a matter for each local government to determine the extent to which it intends to use the discretionary powers for declaring a dog to be restricted.”
For information on breed laws in New Zealand check out www.nzkc.org.nz. There is lots of valuable information available on the Internet regarding worldwide breed laws.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this subject for dog lovers are the many studies that seem to discredit the governments legislation. According to Watson, in 1998 the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare (BAW) revealed that prominent breeds involved in attacks were the German Shepherd, Rottweiler and the Australian Cattle Dog, amongst others. Only one attack was attributed to a Pit Bull. Between 1997 and 1999, BAW conducted a study on dog bites in public places in six municipalities. A total of 700 attacks were recorded. There were 46 breeds responsible, with the Pit Bull coming 15th with 21 attacks.
Dr Stephen Collier, University of New England, says data on frequency of dog attacks by breeds in Australia reveals the Pit Bull to be exceeded by several other breeds. He said of about 14 human fatalities in Australia over the last two decades, none has involved a dog verified to be a Pit Bull.
Dr Collier further notes that the governments rationale for its legislation is to ban fighting breeds, yet two of the four banned breeds, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileoro, were developed as hunting, not fighting, dogs, he said.
In Dr Colliers research report on the subject, he cited a study by the Endangered Dog Breeds Association in 2001. Replies to inquiries were received from 19 councils, excluding Brisbane City and the Gold Coast. A total of 750 dog attacks was recorded for a 12-month period, and out of those, three were attributed to American Pit Bulls. Separate data from the Gold Coast City Council area recorded 162 dog attacks, three of them by American Pit Bulls. Further to this, a register of dogs declared dangerous by the Brisbane City Council from 1995 and totalling 751 attacks, placed the following breeds as predominant:
- Cattle dogs 200
- German Shepherds 185
- Bull Terriers 76
- Rottweilers 69
- Kelpies 43, and nine other breeds make up the rest of the list
- Two of the attacks were by two different American Pit Bulls.
Dr Colliers report also revealed that data from 1997 to 2000 showed there were 829 injuries to people caused by dogs that were reported to councils in NSW. The breeds responsible for the majority of attacks were crossbreeds, unknown breeds, Cattle Dog types, German Shepherd types and Collie types.
The most integral part of the law, and the one that causes most outrage in the dog community, is the way in which restricted breeds are identified. First, there is no scientific method to identify a breed and identification often depends on the owner declaring the breed or the breed being identified by an authorised officer. Staffordshire Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers have been seized and destroyed on numerous occasions because they were mistakenly believed to be Pit Bulls.
Moffat said the Queensland government acknowledged issues involved in the identification of dogs. “While state legislation on restricted dogs was designed to complement commonwealth legislation barring the importation of such dogs, the commonwealth legislation does not specify how restricted dogs are identified. My department, in conjunction with the Canine Control Council (Queensland), conducted statewide training in early 2002 to address this concern. This training was aimed at assisting local governments to develop procedures for identifying restricted dogs,” she said.
However, many are outraged at this so-called training, which was apparen’tly part of a one-day or half-day course and included just over two hours of training on dog identification. According to Ollies owner, the judges themselves had no expertise. “To become a judge in a particular breed in Australia takes years and is an extremely lengthy process,” Middleton said. On the basis of the training, the law considers Animal Control Officers as experts on identifying breeds and holds their expertise above that of veterinarians.
The Queensland government has a 22-point identification system that consists of 22 descriptions of a Pit Bull and a rating system of one to three. So, for example, Point Nine is The dogs eyes are round. If you think the dogs eyes are round you rate the dog at three and if not, you rate the dog at one.
Endangered Dog Breeds Australia (EDBA) demonstrated the flaw in the ID system when they applied it to Pat the Chihuahua. Out of a possible score of 66, Pat scored a total of 50 and, according to Queensland Animal Control Officers, Pat the Chihuahua “substantially meets the description of an American Pit Bull Terrier type”.
EDBA argues that if a dog that is so obviously not an American Pit Bull can officially be proven to be one by using the test, the application of the test to any dog is ridiculous. According to EDBA, since the minimum test result for a dog that bears no resemblance to a Pit Bull in any degree is 22, it is only necessary to score an additional 23 points to qualify for the death sentence.
It is difficult and challenging to accept that something so barbaric, primitive and unsubstantiated is actually happening in this day and age. The government was irresponsible in putting in force such a legislation without prior research, especially one that is so devastating and one that kills not only innocent dogs, but sometimes their owners as well, who take their own lives in despair of losing their child.
When another dog attack occurs, is it unreasonable to believe that our Pekingese or Cavalier King Charles Spaniel will be identified as a restricted breed through a security door and added to the death row list? And should there be restricted breed laws in the first place if there is no evidence that some breeds are more aggressive than others? Maybe the government should look at restricting its hasty and ill-informed decisions. If something isnt done now, there wont be any breeds left to restrict.
Penalties for not complying with restrictions can also cost you up to $22,500.
A more widespread belief is that the legislation was a direct result of governments feeling pressure to respond to the flood of media reports of dog attacks.
EDBA demonstrated the flaw in the ID system when they applied it to Pat the Chihuahua. Out of a possible score of 66, Pat scored a total of 50 and, according to Queensland Animal Control Officers, Pat the Chihuahua “substantially meets the description of an American Pit Bull Terrier type”.
All dogs have the capacity to bite, after all, dogs have sharp teeth. However, dogs that have caring guardians, which grow up with the correct socialisation and temperament, no matter what breed of dog, will very rarely bite unless their home or family is threatened. Understanding the importance of responsible dog ownership can prevent many of these dog attacks.
Do you have any issues with the legislation?
We’d love to hear from you! Write to Dogs Life/Breed Laws, Private Bag 154, North Ryde NSW 2113.