ACT Rescue and Foster RIOTACT 22 April 2019

Government legislation on dog attacks will have little effect unless it is underpinned by systematic, long term, well-resourced and well-targeted community education in responsible dog ownership, particularly in ACT schools.

Recent reports of increasing dog attacks have put the spotlight on the importance of responsible dog ownership by all Canberra dog owners.

A small number of owners are irresponsible and it’s important to have severe financial and other penalties to both penalise and deter irresponsible owners.

Enforcement is required too, and more rangers to undertake this, but it is unrealistic to expect Domestic Animal Services (DAS) rangers – even with the small compliance team announced recently – to be stationed at all times in every park or on every street corner in the ACT or in every backyard where an attack may occur.

Canberra is a dog owning community. Dogs enrich the lives of their owners, of families and children and the elderly, and especially those living alone for whom this companionship is an important human welfare issue.

Dogs provide therapy in nursing homes, work alongside us on farms and in businesses, protect our properties, provide support to people with trauma, mental health issues and a range of disabilities. They can save the lives of epilepsy sufferers, serve with our armed forces overseas, help police to prevent crime, help customs officers prevent environmental and agricultural disasters at the border, help scientists with conservation research and so much more.

The majority of Canberra’s dog owners are responsible and caring. They look after their dogs and are careful around others. And the majority of Canberra dogs are family-friendly dogs and well behaved.

However, every Canberra dog owner can also play a role in helping to prevent potential attacks by being a responsible owner. And the ways are simple and obvious.

All dogs need to be desexed (unless the owner has a permit), registered and micro-chipped. Every dog owner needs to ensure they have suitable fencing and gates or, if the dog is not in a yard, a way to securely contain their dog.

Every dog owner needs to exercise a dog responsibly and train the dog so that it responds to commands, especially the one to come back! Every dog owner should obey the legal requirement to walk a dog on the lead in on-lead areas, including in Canberra’s many suburban streets.

Every dog owner should have a suitable collar and lead or harness for the size, weight and strength of the dog and not use ‘extended leads’ which make dogs harder to control and call back.

They also need to be careful with their dogs around other dogs and show respect for the dogs and their owners – for example by not allowing their dog to bowl up to an unknown dog on a lead while blithely saying ‘mine’s friendly’ – the other dog may not be; by not letting a dog in off-lead areas uncontrollably approach another dog (who may react to a perceived threat), people or wildlife; by not letting a dog ‘go for a run’ in an on-lead area (it’s not legal and it’s potentially dangerous for the dog, other dogs, traffic and people); and when walking a dog not getting engaged on a mobile phone and failing to watch what is happening on the other end of the lead or in the environment (a recipe for disaster); and of course the very basic requirement – picking up after your dog because it’s an offence not to do so.

Most of all, every dog owner should make a point of reminding other dog owners who are causing a potential risk to other dogs, people or wildlife to do the right thing, and if the issue is serious, report the owner and the dog to DAS.

What is important, too, and will be long-lasting, is more accessible and affordable dog training especially for young and new owners and their dogs.

Let’s make responsible dog ownership happen with more realistic governmental resources allocated for community-wide dog ownership education programs, including in ACT schools from primary level. This should be in close collaboration with relevant community organisations and the overwhelming majority of responsible dog owners.

Di Johnstone and Wendy Parsons. 

Both authors are from ACT Rescue & Foster Incan incorporated association of people in Canberra and the surrounding region who rescue dogs from euthanasia and foster them temporarily until permanent homes can be found. Wendy Parsons is the President of ARF while Di Johnstone is a committee member.