Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: October 5, 2023

Distressing dog attacks have at times prompted governments to call for bans on certain breeds.

That’s happening again, this time in Queensland.

But experts say research shows bans alone don’t work and could even lead to animals being harmed.

Why are we talking about banning dogs?

High-profile attacks in Queensland, including on a six-year-old girl at Woodridge and on an electricity meter reader at Greenbank, have prompted the state government to propose stronger dog laws.

One proposed change is to ban the ownership of five breeds including dogo argentino, fila brasileiro, Japanese tosa, pit bull terrier, and presa canario.

The breeds are already banned from being imported to Australia.

However, residents are allowed to own them in Queensland under certain circumstances.

And that’s what the state government is looking to put an end to.

But there are concerns that breed bans might not be the answer.

How are ‘restricted breeds’ enforced?

On the Gold Coast, for example, council workers determine if a dog is from a dangerous breed after a “visual assessment”.

Basically, that involves trained staff identifying the animals by eye. 

“If the officer believes the dog is a restricted breed the owner is asked to provide evidence proving the dog breeds,” the council said in a statement.

When an owner can’t offer up any evidence, the dog can be declared a banned breed whether it is a “purebred, or a crossbreed consisting of a restricted breed”.

That means the owner is not allowed to keep the dog on the Gold Coast.

But this is rare, according to the council.

The city, home to about 650,000 people, has only identified three banned dogs in the past three years.

All three dogs were identified as pit bull terriers.

Is this approach accurate?

Not according to Isabelle Resch, from the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA).

“There is no way that you could legally prove a breed on a visual assessment,” Dr Resch, who is president of the AVA’s behaviour special interest group, says.

She says identifying by sight is “incredibly inaccurate”.

On the Gold Coast, owners can use a certificate from a veterinarian or breeder papers as proof to keep their dog.

But there are even difficulties with this type of proof.

“Even on a DNA test, it is impossible to establish exact breed,” Dr Resch says.

How could these rules harm dogs?

She says it can lead to dogs being impounded while owners fight in court to keep their pets.

“Legal proceedings are not kind on anyone,” Dr Resch says.

“They’re expensive, but they’re particularly unkind to the dog if that dog is impounded because it takes months to years to get through a legal case.”

Rachel Woodrow, from the RSPCA in Queensland, also says tougher breed-specific laws could prompt costly disputes.

“The research does show that there is so much difficulty in being able to prove these dog breeds that it just can’t be effective, and it ends up costing quite a lot of money,” Ms Woodrow says.

The proposed changes to the Animal Management Act are outlined in the state government’s discussion paper.

Alison Smith, from the Local Government Association of Queensland, says a key recommendation is to fast-track decisions and appeals against seized dangerous animals.

She says councils are being forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees because of “irresponsible owners”.

“For too long, irresponsible dog owners have been able to hold the community and councils to ransom,” she says.

“That needs to change.”

How common are dog attacks?

Public health studies estimate there are about 100,000 dog attacks in Australia each year, and people end up being hospitalised in about 3 per cent of attacks.

An even smaller portion of attacks make it into the news, and when they do the outcome is usually devastating.

That’s because about 80 per cent of attacks happen in the home and children are three times more likely to be hospitalised from an attack.

Dr Resch notes that dog attacks still happen even though it’s extremely rare to find the restricted breeds in Australia.

“So, to put it simplistically and say ‘you are this breed of dog, so therefore you are more likely to attack a person’ is just really way too simplistic and a very biased view,” she says.

“It’s a little bit like saying ‘all redheads will behave in this way’.”

Concerns around ‘fear’ in proposed legislation

The Queensland government received more than 3,600 online survey submissions and 300 written submissions during the consultation period.

Agriculture Minister Mark Furner says the changes will be introduced in the coming months.

“These submissions are being evaluated with a view to legislating stronger dangerous dogs laws in coming months,” a ministerial spokesperson said.

Animal Welfare League Queensland (AWLQ) is among the thousands who wrote a submission.

The organisation is taking issue with the language of the proposed laws.

The government says aims to toughen penalties for owners of dogs that attack or “act in a way that causes fear to a person or another animal”.

AWLQ chief executive Denise Bradley says the phrasing is too broad.

She says it is important to distinguish between real aggression in dogs and normal protective behaviour.

“Penalising a dog or its owner under such circumstances seems unduly punitive and disregards the individual’s unique behavioural response.”

What else could change?

Other potential changes to the state legislation include bringing Queensland into line with the rest of the country by proposing potential prison terms for dog owners involved in the most extreme attacks.

There may also be on-the-spot fines if a dog is not being “effectively controlled” in public places and a community education campaign.

Outside of the breed ban, both Dr Resch and Ms Woodrow are generally supportive of these proposed changes, noting that education and awareness are particularly important.