After a vicious attack resulted in the death of a four year old in 2011, Victoria introduced the country’s toughest dog laws. Pitbulls were outlawed, meaning that they could be destroyed.
But some experts and councils are saying restricted breed laws don’t work. And due to the difficulty of identifying breeds, some families are finding their innocent dogs effectively kidnapped by the local council.
“Anyone can phone in anonymously and report a neighbour’s dog if you think a dog is a restricted breed,” says dog owner Chrystal Singh, “and unless it’s a Maltese poodle the dog will be taken away.”
Chrystal has experienced the heart-wrenching consequences of the laws first hand. In July last year two council rangers turned up at her home while she was at work, and took her dog Chevy away.
“She just gets into any car… so she went in not realising what was going on and they handed my son a letter and drove off.”
“In court the ranger said he had half a day’s training. It drove me to tears- it was so heartbreaking knowing that there’s someone who took my child away from me and then they evaluated her without having the proper knowledge.”
“There’s over 20 criteria to assess the dog,” says City of Monash Mayor Michaela Dreiberg.
“There is no current DNA test, so it’s quite a complex process for council to identify a breed, but professionals are quite cautious of being involved.”
Two Supreme Court decisions recently found separate councils had wrongly classified two dogs as pitbulls. The councils were ordered to pay over $200,000 in court costs.
Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said in a statement that the Government was examining the rulings.
“If Victoria’s dangerous dog laws need tightening in order to allow councils to carry out their responsibilities and protect communities, we will do so,” the statement reads. “The safety of the community is our first priority.”
Victoria is one of several states have laws that target dog breeds under the assumption that some dogs, such as pitbulls, are naturally aggressive. But experts say the way a dog is brought up plays a bigger role than its breed.
“The argument about breed is flawed, it’s scientifically not based on any evidence at all,” says Kersti Seksel of the Australian Veterinarian Association. “Any jurisdiction that’s gone down this way has found that it hasn’t reduced the number of dog bites, it’s just increased the cost to the government.”
The AVA says that despite NSW having breed selective legislation for over five years, state government figures show no reduction in attacks.
Furthermore, pitbulls ranked beneath American staffies, Australian cattle dogs and Rottweilers in terms of which ‘breeds’ attack. Other studies show smaller dogs attack more but as their bites are less injurious they aren’t reported as much.
“The qualities that make a dog dangerous are obviously size but the number one is has it been socialised or not?” says Berkeley University’s Dr Ian Dunbar. “And it doesn’t matter what the breed is, if it hasn’t been socialised then it can be extremely dangerous.”
With councils in charge and no central body to track how many dogs are put down, it’s impossible to know how many restricted dogs have been put down since the law was beefed up in Victoria. Estimates range from 20 to over 100.
In the end Chevy was lucky. After being locked up for four months, Chrystal won her battle to save her after hiring a dog expert who found she was mainly a Boxer, and not a restricted breed.
“Any dog can attack, even Chevy could one day possibly do that, and that is why as an owner I’ve got to be responsible,” says Chrystal.
“But a restricted breed is not the same as a dangerous dog. So it’s quite a silly law, and at the end of the day people with crossbred dogs that look big, we are just victimised for it.”
“The law as it’s currently in place isn’t working,” says Mayor Dreiberg. “It’s complex, it’s making our job harder, so we’re calling for it to be simplified.”
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