A dog breed is now under threat with Victoria’s controversial breed-specific legislation constantly in the headlines. Laura Greaves explains what it means for dog owners.
Breanna Chapman’s dog, Lilla, is not just a companion — she’s her lifeline. Melbourne-based Chapman is seriously ill, and says her six-year-old American Staffy cross American Bulldog has saved her life on more than one occasion.
“I’ve had trigeminal neuralgia for 11 years. It’s a condition that affects the major nerves in my face, causing electric shock-like pain every time I speak, breathe, eat or drink,” she explains. “I can’t brush my teeth without crying. There are times in my life when I have to write in order to communicate, because I literally cannot speak at all.”
In addition, Chapman also suffers from intracranial hypotension, which is low pressure inside her skull that can cause severe headaches and sudden blackouts. “That’s really what Lilla helps with the most. She’s always been a very cuddly dog and my emotional support, but when I got this and started collapsing on a daily basis, she literally became my lifesaver,” she explains.
“I’d wake up to Lilla licking my face every time. She always knows when I’m about to collapse and she’ll be my absolute shadow. If I try to go from one room to another, she’ll be right beside me.”
When Chapman realised Lilla appeared to be able to detect an oncoming collapse, she began training her loyal companion, who was born with a heart murmur and would have been euthanised if Chapman hadn’t adopted her.
“Lilla can actually roll me over onto my side so there’s no chance of me asphyxiating,” she says. “I also hold onto her collar when my eyes blackout and say ‘take me to bed’ and she does. If it’s just my mother and me at home and I take a bad turn, I just say to her ‘get Nana’ and she’ll find my mum and bark at her until she comes to me.”
But Lilla’s role as Chapman’s saviour could soon be curtailed. Under Victoria’s controversial breed-specific legislation (BSL), Lilla could be forced to spend the rest of her life in a cage — simply because of how she looks.
What is BSL?
In Australia, legislation to control “dangerous” dogs includes two different types of restrictions:
* Restrictions placed on individual dogs that have been officially declared as “menacing” or “dangerous” on the basis of the actual behaviour of the dog; for example, following an aggressive incident.
* Restrictions placed on specific breeds or cross-breeds of dogs, regardless of their actual behaviour. This is known as breed-specific legislation.
According to the RSPCA’s Preventing dog attacks in the community information paper, the first breed-specific legislation introduced in Australia banned the importation of specific breeds of fighting dogs, including the American Pit Bull Terrier (commonly called simply “Pit Bulls”), Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro and Presa Canario. Of these breeds, only Pit Bulls were already present in any number in Australia.
Between 2004 and 2010, legislation was introduced in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania that restricts the keeping and management of these breeds, and in some cases cross-breeds, including the requirement that all dogs of a restricted breed be desexed.
There are no such restrictions in place in the ACT or NT, meaning that Pit Bulls continue to be legally bred (although in the ACT this is subject to the owner having a permit to keep a non-desexed dog).
The Victorian Government announced a “crackdown” on restricted breeds in late 2011 following the tragic death of four-year-old Ayen Chol, who was mauled to death by a “Pit Bull-type” dog that ran into her family’s Melbourne home. Under the state’s revised BSL, any unregistered Pit Bull-type dogs found after September 30 can be seized by local councils’ Animal Management Officers (AMOs) and may be put down, regardless of whether they have ever bitten or been deemed “dangerous”.
The government also set up a dangerous dog hotline, and developed a checklist of physical traits — including height, weight and appearance — designed to help AMOs identify restricted breeds.
What’s wrong with BSL?
According to opponents, Victoria’s breed-specific legislation is seriously flawed. Key problems include:
* Under BSL, a restricted dog is any canine that looks like a restricted dog. An individual dog may not actually be a Pit Bull or Pit Bull cross, but if it complies with enough of the appearance checklist, it can be seized and destroyed. It is not clear whether a dog suspected of being a restricted breed must meet all or only some of the checklist’s physical criteria.
* BSL does not take into account the temperament or behaviour of individual dogs.
* Animal Management Officers are often inadequately trained and poorly equipped to identify restricted breed dogs — many undergo just a half-day of training, which does not include handling any actual dogs.
* In her report into Ayen Chol’s death, Victorian Coroner Kim Parkinson called for mandatory reporting of restricted breeds by veterinarians, which BSL opponents fear will discourage dog owners from seeking veterinary treatment for conditions that may cause aggression.
* When a dog is declared a restricted breed and seized by a local council, the legal appeals process is lengthy and confusing. Many dog owners do not realise they have the right to appeal the declaration.
But the fundamental flaw with BSL, according to Australian Veterinary Association spokesperson Dr Kersti Seksel, is that it does not prevent dog attacks.
“Breed-specific legislation doesn’t work. It’s been tried since the early 1990s in lots of countries and hasn’t reduced the number of dog bites at all,” she explains. “Most of these places have repealed it because it doesn’t have the effect they want and it’s expensive.
“We have all these laws against being racist and sexist, and now we’re becoming ‘breedist’ when there’s no science behind it.”
She points out that the physical traits on the “Pit Bull checklist” can be applied to countless other breeds. “In Queensland, they had a period where a whole lot of Chihuahuas ‘passed’ the Pit Bull test,” she says.
“There was an incident in the US where a four-pound (2kg) Pomeranian killed a child and we don’t go out and say, ‘we’re going to kill all the Pomeranians in the world.’ We don’t judge people based on what they look like, yet we’re encouraging people to base what a dog might do on the way it looks.”
The RSPCA has also been vocal in its opposition of BSL, saying “any dog may be dangerous and… dogs should not be declared as ‘dangerous’ on the basis of breed. The RSPCA does not believe that BSL is in any way effective in preventing or reducing dog attacks or in protecting the public from dangerous dogs.”
According to Dr Seksel, banning certain breeds also creates a false sense of security and fosters complacency. “People think ‘I don’t have to worry about it because I’ve got a ‘safe’ breed’, but in the US last year, twice as many Golden Retrievers as Pit Bulls bit children,” she explains.
“Children do things around dogs that are unpredictable, and if we believe ‘this breed is not dangerous’ it makes people less vigilant.”
Since Victoria tightened its restricted breed laws, countless tragic stories have emerged involving dogs being incorrectly identified as Pit Bull types and destroyed, as well as gentle, well-behaved Pit Bulls being seized despite never having shown aggression.
Cobram couple Nathan Laffan and Samantha Graham’s young dogs, Kooda and Bear, were put to sleep in June last year under BSL laws. Laffan had contacted his local council after learning of changes to Victoria’s breed-specific legislation to make sure his pets would not be affected. Instead, Moira Shire Council declared the dogs restricted breeds and seized them.
Laffan and Graham became the first Victorians to appeal a restricted breed declaration under the new legislation. They submitted a statutory declaration from Kooda and Bear’s breeder which stated they were not Pit Bulls, but a Bull Mastiff cross American Bulldog and a Staffordshire Terrier cross Rhodesian Ridgeback.
Their appeal was denied, and when Kooda and Bear’s euthanasia was suddenly brought forward by a day, Laffan and Graham had just five minutes to say goodbye to their beloved pets.
In comparison, Breanna Chapman says she feels “lucky” that Lilla has not been sentenced to death. Like Laffan and Graham, Chapman voluntarily contacted her local council to make sure Lilla would not be affected by changes to BSL.
“When the legislation changed I thought ‘oh my god, so many dogs are going to get caught up in this (that) it’s ridiculous’. I never imagined Lilla would be one of them. I had my husband call Hume Council to arrange for them to come out and see her (and certify that she’s not a Pit Bull),” she says.
“We thought we’d be proactive and get on top of the situation. We thought there was no way she fit enough of the checklist to be declared. I always thought that if you did the right thing you’d be fine, but it turned out to be the biggest mistake we ever made.”
Lilla was declared a restricted breed, and while she was not seized, Chapman was told she must be kept in a large cage in the backyard and muzzled at all times, even when inside the house. “I questioned them on whether the backyard could form her enclosure and was told very specifically that that could not be allowed,” she says.
Chapman filed several unsuccessful appeals with the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). She also considered lodging a Supreme Court challenge, but ultimately realised the effect on her health was too great.
“The toll the past 12 months has taken on my health has been really difficult. My doctors have put me on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills,” she says. “I can’t do it anymore. I don’t have the strength to push any further with this, and I really feel like I’ve let Lilla down.”
Shockingly, Chapman later learned that Hume Council cannot legally enforce its decree. “Through speaking to councillors, I’ve since found out that they don’t have bylaws on the matter, so it’s not enforceable. My advice to other dog owners would be to contact everybody you can and get as much advice as you can. Make sure that everything they tell you is the truth. Don’t just accept anything they say on face value,” she says.
But she has built the required enclosure anyway, because she fears further council involvement. “My focus now is finding a way to keep Lilla safe and happy. I thank god every day that she’s an adaptable dog. She’s always been an angel, and she doesn’t understand any of this,” she says.
So what does the future hold for Victoria’s controversial breed-specific legislation? Opponents believe the current BSL is so untenable that favourable changes are inevitable.
“To me, BSL seems like a very retrograde step. It’s ludicrous to believe that by eliminating dogs that look a certain way you’re going to have a positive result, when we know it hasn’t worked elsewhere,” says Dr Seksel.
“We’re hoping a sensible solution will prevail, but that’s the unpredictable thing. There’s no doubt that the death of anybody as a result of a dog is a tragic event, but if a child drowns in a pool we don’t ban swimming pools. We put in limitations and restrictions. We reduce the risk of it, and that’s really what it’s all about.”
She believes there is a place for legislation with regard to dangerous dogs, but says it should be enforced on a case-by-case basis.
“There are dogs that are truly dangerous and owners that are truly irresponsible and they should be punished. There should be fines for people who deliberately do the wrong thing,” she says.
“There does need to be legislation for people who have aggressive dogs, not based on what the dog looks like but on what the dog actually does.”
A happy ending
Some BSL cases do end happily for both dog and owner. Melbourne’s Michael Ozzimo had forgotten to register his adored two-year-old Staffy cross, Tess — and when she escaped from his yard, she was seized by the local council and declared a restricted breed.
“I was at work and got a phone call from my housemate saying the council was there and they were going to take Tess. They’d said to him, ‘we think she’s a Pit Bull.’ I thought I had to give the dog to them so I said, ‘okay, you take her and I’ll sort it out when I get home from work.’
She had never bitten anyone, but the council said she was a dangerous dog. I was just losing my mind. Making phone calls, going online, trying to figure out what to do — but they make it so there’s nothing you can do. Of 150 people that I rang, maybe three said they could help me.
The night before my VCAT hearing, Bonnie Norton, from the American Pit Bull Terrier Club of Australia, called every Ozzimo in the phone book and got in touch with my Aunt. She said she could help me, and pretty much told me what no one else would.
I had to get a vet certificate saying what breed Tess is. I had to go and get her father and mother’s registration papers to show that she can’t be a Pit Bull. I believe she is a Staffy crossed with a Bull Mastiff cross Ridgeback, and the vet agreed.
I felt shattered without her, heartbroken. I’ve had Tess from a little puppy and we had never been apart. Imagine if someone came and took away your kids — Tess is my child, and you don’t give up on your child. A dog can’t fend for itself.
The whole time we were going to court I was thinking ‘I’m not going to get her back.’ I didn’t think I had enough proof. When I got the ruling from VCAT, I didn’t know what I was looking at, if it was a yes or a no. I read it to Bonnie over the phone and all of a sudden she screamed, ‘yes! They’re giving her back!’ I just got goosebumps. Tess was in the pound for five months. When they finally brought her out, I clicked my fingers and she came and jumped on me. As we walked out I said to her, ‘I told you I’d get you back.’
I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through. I just tell people now, ‘make sure you register your dog and make sure it doesn’t get out’ because councils will push and push and try to get rid of it.”
What can you do?
Voice your opposition to BSL by writing to your MP. You can also search “BSL” on Facebook to support a number of Australian anti-BSL groups.
The AMOs perspective
It’s all too easy to blame Animal Management Officers employed by Victoria’s local councils for snatching dogs from their owners — but as one AMO, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Dogs Life Editor Laura Greaves, it’s also stressful for those charged with enforcing BSL.
Dogs Life: How long have you been an Animal Management Officer?
Animal Management Officer: I have seven years of animal management experience.
DL: What are your main duties?
AMO: Animal Management Officers administer and enforce the Domestic Animals Act 1994 and local laws; we investigate complaints from residents, including nuisance and barking dogs complaints; we pick up dogs found wandering and investigate dog attacks; we conduct doorknocks for registration checks and educate residents about responsible dog ownership; and we patrol parks and other areas to ensure dogs are on leash.
DL: What do AMOs do with regard to breed-specific legislation?
AMO: My job is to examine dogs and form an opinion as to whether or not they are a restricted breed dog. If my opinion is that the dog is a restricted breed dog then I assess the dog against the approved standards and declare the dog a restricted breed. The owner has the right to appeal my declaration or, if they do not want to appeal, they must abide by the restricted breed dog requirements.
If the dog is currently registered and was registered prior to September 30, 2011, and if the dog has been in Victoria since before September 1, 2010, I do not have to seize the dog and the dog can live. If the dog does not meet these criteria, it will be seized. The owner has the right to appeal but the dog will stay in Council’s custody pending outcome.
The dog will be returned to the owner only if my decision is overturned. If the dog owner does not appeal or my declaration is upheld, the dog is put to sleep.
DL: What restricted breed training did you have to prepare you for this work? Do you feel this training was adequate?
AMO: In seven years, I have attended one workshop organised by the Department of Primary Industries’ Bureau of Animal Welfare. I came out of that more confused than before the training. I am currently completing a Certificate IV in Animal Control and there is no elective or component that focuses on breed identification, let alone restricted breed identification.
The training is not adequate, especially when the final decision to declare a dog a restricted breed or not lies with the AMO. Animal Management Officers have only been given a 10-page approved standards checklist to assess whether a dog is a Pit Bull or Pit Bull type. These standards are ambiguous, as the text and photos are contradictory; one photo even appears to be an English Staffordshire Bull Terrier, which is not a restricted breed dog.
There is so much inconsistency between officers and councils as to how they apply the approved standards. Some of the dogs that have been declared by other councils I would never have declared because, to me, they looked like Ridgeback crosses or Mastiff crosses, and they are not restricted breeds.
DL: How do you feel about having to do this? Does it make you think about changing jobs?
AMO: It’s heart wrenching, stressful and at times I feel so helpless because innocent dogs that have beautiful temperaments are destroyed just because of their looks. It just does not make any sense. It’s unfair. It’s discrimination at its worst. Taking a person’s pet — their companion, a family member — away from them when they have invested so much time, energy, money and care, and are responsible owners, is just not warranted. In my eyes this is criminal behaviour.
The media has not helped by putting fear into the community. Almost every dog that is out wandering is called in (to council) as a vicious, dangerous dog. Most of the time, a member of the public will tell me it’s a Pit Bull or Pit Bull cross, but when I arrive I am met with a happy, tail wagging, Staffy. In one case it was a Labrador!
I have thought about leaving my job on numerous occasions because of the great deal of inner conflict I experience. I am torn between doing my job, enforcing a law that I believe is wrong and impractical, and wanting to do the right thing by dogs and dog owners.
What keeps me going is that I may be able to make a difference by campaigning against this legislation. The emphasis must be made on changing public perception.
DL: You must frequently have to deal with dog owners who are very distressed and angry — how do you cope with that? Does your employer provide any support to help you deal with the stress of your job?
AMO: My employer offers an Employee Assistance Program which provides us with counselling, but only up to six free visits. Then I believe the employee is required to pay for any further session.
I cope by staying positive and having a support network of like-minded people. I may not be able to save all the dogs, but I am going to do whatever I can within my power to ensure that this legislation is changed.
DL: In your experience, are AMOs generally happy or reluctant to enforce BSL?
AMO: It is my experience that the majority of AMOs oppose the restricted breed legislation and are very reluctant to enforce it, but we must be seen to be doing our job.
Anyone who has handled animals, and who deals with animals on a daily basis, understands that it’s not the breed of the dog — it is the owner who is responsible.
DL: Do you believe BSL works?
AMO: No, and the community has been given a false sense of security if they believe that banning or restricting a breed means there will be no more dog attacks. In seven years of handling dogs, I have been bitten twice. One bite was from a Chihuahua and the other was a Maltese x Shih Tzu. Does that mean we should ban them or make them a restricted breed?
DL: Do you think some sort of restricted breed legislation is necessary?
AMO: No. BSL has already failed in Italy, Germany and other countries. I believe Italy had 35 breeds at one stage that were restricted. You cannot just keep adding different breeds to the list. No matter the breed, the one thing that is constant is they are owned by humans. Responsible pet ownership is the only answer if you want to reduce dog attacks/bites.