'Nearly broke me': Canberra's dog rangers open up on horror year
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'Nearly broke me': Canberra's dog rangers open up on horror year

Brad Murrell knew the call would come eventually, perhaps even in his time as operations manager at the ACT's Domestic Animal Services, but when it did, he didn't expect to recognise the name.

"Just the day before, we'd had a seminar on dangerous dogs and I'd asked 'is it only a matter of time before someone is killed in the ACT?'" Mr Murrell said.

ACT domestic animal services ranger Matt Guest with the "dog of the week" Bee in the impoundment lineup.

ACT domestic animal services ranger Matt Guest with the "dog of the week" Bee in the impoundment lineup.

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

"Then the next day, it was Tania. I'm never saying anything like that again."

Mr Murrell and dog ranger Matt Guest had been out to the Watson house, where Tania Klemke was killed in October 2017, many times before. They knew the dog which fatally mauled Ms Klemke and attacked a man in her living room before being shot dead by police.

ACT domestic animal services operations manager Brad Murrell plays with a hound in the exercise area.

ACT domestic animal services operations manager Brad Murrell plays with a hound in the exercise area.

Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong
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They had returned the animal to her just months before, after he was injured defending her from attackers during a violent home invasion. At the pound on Mugga Way, they had fed him, walked him and played with him.

"But we'd never seen that side of him," Mr Murrell said. "You sort of think: 'Should we have given this dog back?' But we had to [legally].

"I knew Tania well. That nearly broke me."

Ms Klemke's death sparked an overhaul of dangerous dog legislation in the ACT, and a much-needed funding boost to DAS. For the small team, it was a sobering reminder of the dangers of their work.

"It took a big toll on all of us here and we've had a hard look at how we do things," Mr Murrell said.

"This is the toughest job in the ACT government."

Formerly with WorkSafe ACT, Mr Murrell now oversees a team of eight rangers, including a dog behavioural specialist, who work alongside three dog attack investigators.

At least five or six times a day, rangers are called out to reports of an attack or roaming dogs around Canberra. These days, they go in pairs, and all staff are schooled in defensive driving and de-escalation tactics, as well as dangerous dog training.

The phone rings. A dog is dead and a woman has called the ambulance after a dog-on-dog attack in Tuggeranong.

"You never know what you're in for when you rock up to a job," Mr Guest said.

Known as the "best handler" in the team, he still bears a nasty bite on his hand, half-healed, from an incident just months earlier. He brushes it off.

In his early days as a ranger, he recalls a night heading out alone to round up a bunch of dogs "running mad" in Chifley.

"I ended up following them to this house...and the owners set them on me!" Mr Guest said.

He swung his torch, knocking over a letterbox, which stunned the dogs just long enough for him to jump into his car and call in tactical police as back-up.

When the phone rang with news of Ms Klemke's death, it was a Wednesday, the toughest day of the week for a Canberra dog ranger.

"That's the one day we're all here and when we have our new in-house vet come in for the day, and check all the dogs over," Mr Murrell said.

"It's also the day we [usually] have to put some down.

"We do a barbecue, we look after each other...but I often go and have a teary. Everyone deals with it in their own way."

Investigations into dog attacks could also drag on, with trauma on both sides and bonds often developing between rangers and dogs.

"I've seen some horrendous attacks in the last 12, 18 months.

"Every investigation [for us] is like a murder case now."

Investigator Michelle Corlett agreed the job was similar to her previous career in the police force.

"You're still a first response officer, you're still taking statements and photographing evidence and even looking at blood splatters," she said.

"And you have to tick all the boxes because you're taking someone's dog away, that's a very emotional thing."

Greeting dogs by name in their kennels, Mr Murrell said the "feel good stories" were more than worth it.

Rehoming rates were now at about 90 per cent, he said, and almost all lost dogs found their way home thanks to "exhaustive" detective work from the team.

Right now, it's still January and more and more dogs are coming in to the 55-kennel facility lost or abandoned as people go away.

But there's also an overflow of seized dogs. "Do not walk" signs have been placed on their kennels, so the 150-strong volunteer pool who come in to walk the general population dogs each day won't approach them.

Yet, after a "horror" year for attacks in the capital, the rangers say they can finally see light at the end of the tunnel. Eight new staff are coming on board next month, in a government funding hit that will also see more kennels built at the pound and two more trucks on the road.

DAS director Stephen Algeria said the extra resources will mean the team can focus on education and prevention as well as dog attack investigations, which have been sharply on the rise in recent years.

"We've looked at international examples like Calgary in Canada where they've reduced their dog attacks over a 20 year period by about 70 per cent, and we've seen it's not an instant fix, it's a cultural change," Mr Algeria said.

"But there is a solution, we know what it is now....We want to be a world leader in this."

For 30 years, Mr Murrell said DAS had operated out of the same facility with the same number of rangers, while Canberra's population had exploded.

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Set to move into an education role within DAS later this year, he said the team finally had the resources to "break the cycle" that saw dogs end their days at Mugga Way.

"We can fix this, we can make this right."

The team's top tips to keep you and your dog safe:

  • Pick the right breed for your circumstances - Great Danes don't suit apartments
  • Register your dog and make sure they are micro-chipped, de-sexed, vaccinated etc.
  • Socialise your dog early on with both people and other dogs, whether that's popping the puppy under your arm while you're doing the shopping or taking them to a friend's house
  • Keep your dog occupied during the day with toys and treats that take time to eat (think chicken necks and cones filled with meat)
  • Keep your dog on a leash
  • And, the best tip of all, spend lots of time with them

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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