By Tori Heron
The day Allison Hourigan agreed to dog sit was a day she will never forget. Eight years on since the incident and the memories remain clear like the scar left by the jaws of a ridgeback cross bull mastiff.
After putting her one-year-old son down for an afternoon nap, she went outside to play fetch to entertain the visiting dog.
She threw the ball and it ran off with the excitement of a puppy, fumbling over its paws as it clasped the tiny object into its mouth. Twenty minutes went by in a friendly to-and-fro until Allison turned her back to walk inside.
“As I started on my way I felt a big snap on my arm and as I turned he pulled me down. Being a 50-kilogram dog, he quickly dragged me to the floor.”
Allison managed to tear her arm free from his mouth and run inside. Neighbours rushed to her spine-chilling screams and accompanied her to hospital. All the while, the dog was at the back door baring his teeth.
“I could see small yellow balls all over my shirt. The doctor later told me that because I had to rip my arm to free it from the dog’s mouth I had pulled away some subcutaneous fat from my arm.”
The owner of the dog sent Allison an apology but she felt it was not enough, particularly after learning that the dog had attacked before.
When an attack like this occurs, the relationship between people and domestic dogs is challenged. Blame becomes a knee-jerk reaction and gets pointed in many directions: at government, owners, animal training, victims, and the dog itself.
The Federal Government has already tried to reduce dog attacks with two types of restrictions.
The first enforces rules for individual dogs that are declared ‘dangerous’ because of their behaviour.
The second is breed-specific legislation that bans and controls management of specific breeds, regardless of behaviour.
This means a selection of breeds are banned from importation into the country. But of the listed five breeds, only the American Pit Bull Terrier was already present in Australia.
This legislation is enforced everywhere except the ACT and Northern Territory. However, animal welfare experts are not convinced it is effective.
Dr Paula Parker, President of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), believes the laws do not achieve the desired outcome.
“What we have found when breed-specific legislation has been introduced in Australia and overseas, it hasn’t been effective in reducing the number of dog-bite incidents,” Dr Parker said.
“And I guess that happens because of the factors that would contribute to that dog biting. The dog’s breed isn’t a significant factor.”
The AVA estimates somewhere between 73 and 81 per cent of attacks occur in the domestic environment and most of those bites are from the victim’s own dog. Vets believe responsible pet ownership is the issue.
Dr Parker has urged the government to, instead, encourage owners and animal welfare providers to help dogs be treated better.
“The biggest thing with government looking at policies is investment into education, awareness and legislation that requires owners to say they have got a positive onus about what they’re doing to actively manage risk.
“That they have engaged their dog in socialisation and training, that they have made sure that their dog is healthy, and they have the ability to handle an incident if something does occur.”
Shifting responsibility to the owners is what canine behavourist, Mark Singer, says is what he has learned from 37 years of training dogs.
“What it comes down to in most cases is that people are buying dogs and they are not understanding the breed and its requirements,” Mr Singer said.
“We shouldn’t be blaming a breed because some people don’t know how to handle them.”
He says that people need to spend more time researching before buying.
” We should be educating people on what different breeds need, and when a person goes and buys a dog – whether it’s a Rottweiler or an American Staffy or a Pit Bull – they need to understand the breed they are buying and understand what environment it needs, its characteristics, its temperament.
“If you bring a dog up the right way, all dogs become loyal members of the family.”
Irresponsible dog owners are all-too-familiar to Canberra sheep farmer, Craig Starr. Over the past 20 years, he says he has lost about 100 sheep to dog attacks on his property.
On one occasion, a pair of dogs killed 28 sheep in half-an-hour. When he followed them home, he was shocked at the lack of care from the owner.
“I knocked on the door and it was a woman at home and she sort of denied it at first. [I said] I have got photographs and the dogs were covered in blood and things like that, so she was starting to get a bit angry.”
After the woman refused to reconcile the situation she allowed her dogs back inside, which surprised and alarmed Mr Starr even more.
“As I was walking around I looked in through the window and the dogs came and sat in the lounge room next to a one-year-old baby. I found it quite disturbing that someone would keep two dogs that were obviously not a worry to kill something, and she has got a little baby just sitting there.”
Mark Singer believes the training that a puppy receives is also important.
“There has been a push for this positive-only training and people are being brainwashed that it’s cruel and inhumane to correct or punish a puppy.
“But if you watch a mother with her pups, she is punishing them. She’ll give a nip or a bite or a growl and stand over them, so that they know that they have done the wrong thing.”
Mr Singer said it is a natural process to show a puppy what is wrong as well as what it right. In his mind, he says the solution is clear.
“I think it’s more than just about breeds and people buying the wrong breed. It’s about education.”
Even after her traumatic encounter, Allison Hourigan could not agree more.
“I think people buy animals with the best intentions but lack the knowledge to raise them and manage behaviours. We need to empower people to increase their knowledge before buying animals.”