A dog's breakfast

When the Clark government, responding to particularly widely publicised dog attacks on children in Auckland, decided to require mandatory micro-chipping as its preferred antidote, there were howls of criticism from responsible dog owners and those who use farm dogs.

Despite the fact the law dealt adequately with those owners responsible for dog attacks, and the offending dogs were executed, Labour felt it needed to be seen to be doing something and it chose microchipping (later amended to exclude working and companion dogs) rather than the even more controversial banning of certain breeds or licensing owners.

The microchipping law was, of course, pointless, since providing a dog with an electronic tag will not prevent it from attacking.

But, since July 2006, it has been mandatory for all pups registered for the first time, and for older dogs impounded more than once or classified as menacing or dangerous.

Interestingly, it seems that dogs may have benefited most from the law since fewer dogs have been put down in the Dunedin animal control area, for example, since it became mandatory to microchip.

Clearly, identifying dogs has been made easier.

But now the Act New Zealand leader and Local Government Minister Rodney Hide is proposing a full review of dog laws in the belief that they are too onerous on dogs and dog owners.

It is a proposal likely to prove controversial.

He is on sound ground in arguing that some dog-control legislation is a consequence of emotion rather than good sense, but his belief that local bodies, which administer the law, are taking their powers too far is certainly a view that could not be evenly shared around all local bodies.

Some have very effective control teams and a good balance between administering the law and not being too oppressive.

Others could certainly improve.

Mr Hide will be cheered by responsible dog owners in arguing that ownership is a property right and good reasons are needed to fetter it.

The core problem, as always, is with the irresponsible and uncaring dog owners, those who thumb their noses at the law, or who believe dog ownership gives them unchallengeable rights.

That is where any review should be focused.

It seems the minister quite properly supports regulations to protect people from wandering dogs, and from dog attacks, and that farmers should have the right to shoot dogs threatening their stock.

But he does not think the increasing irrational fear of dogs in the community should require an obligation for the physical restraint of all dogs in public places, or from people owning numbers of dogs on private property.

After all, sometimes dogs behave like dogs: they bark, enjoy running about and tend to look menacingly at possible threats.

His review will also consider whether central or local government should be responsible for dog control laws; it should remain in local hands.

There are grounds for at least some suspicion that Mr Hide's interest in the dog laws has been sparked by ever-more demanding rules being applied to dog owners in the greater Auckland region, where in many suburbs dog exercise is restricted to certain designated parks and beaches at designated times.

There, it seems, a problem of roaming dogs has eventuated at least partly because of population pressure and the inadequacy or cost (or both) of the existing perfectly adequate laws being properly and firmly enforced.

It should never be easy for anyone to own a dog, and controlling dog ownership rather than dogs should be the goal of any new legislation Mr Hide's review might propose.

Ignorance is the problem and education is the proper response: intending owners should be required to attend classes on what dog ownership entails, to show evidence at registration of their dog's attendance at training and socialisation classes, and that their property complies with the safety needs of the dog and the community, including at any change of address.

Most responsible owners already voluntarily comply with these basic requirements.

A return to lax legislation is not required, but nor should responsible owners continue to be penalised through high fees for the actions of the irresponsible.

If sensible rules - firmly enforced - result in fewer miscreant dog owners, that is no bad thing.

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