New ACT dog attack laws worthless: family of toddler scarred by attack
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New ACT dog attack laws worthless: family of toddler scarred by attack

Phoebe Hettinger just wanted to pat a dog she saw at the local shops.

Instead, the three-year-old was bitten on the face, scarred for life, and left emotionally traumatised.

Donna and Mike Hettinger with their daughter Phoebe, four, who was attaked by a dog last year.

Donna and Mike Hettinger with their daughter Phoebe, four, who was attaked by a dog last year.

Photo: Rohan Thomson

Her parents have called for changes to recently updated ACT laws after the owner of the dog was hit with a minor charge and escaped with a fine.

The dog's owner, David Mark Birnie, 51, was on Wednesday fined $1000 in the ACT Magistrates Court after pleading guilty to a charge of being the carer of a dog which attacked a person.

Phoebe Hettinger after the attack.

Phoebe Hettinger after the attack.

Photo: Supplied
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The court heard Birnie had been sitting with his dog, which was secured by a lead, at O'Connor shops when he was approached by the Hettingers in December last year.

The family sought and were granted permission for Phoebe to pat the American Staffordshire Terrier-Border Collie cross.

But the dog instead attacked the toddler, tearing open an area above and on her mouth and cheek.

Phoebe was hospitalised and required plastic surgery to fix the injury.

Phoebe Hettinger after the attack.

Phoebe Hettinger after the attack.

Photo: Supplied

The wounds left her scarred and she faces the prospect of further procedures to repair the visible damage.

Now aged four, Phoebe is also struggling with the emotional fallout of the attack.

A victim impact statement said, when asked what she would like to say to the court about the attack, she replied: "I don't want to tell the judge because it will make him sad and he won't want to be a judge anymore."

Birnie's defence lawyer told the court his client was genuinely remorseful for the incident and was at a loss why the dog – who he said was normally friendly and gentle – had attacked.

The prosecutor said Birnie had been charged with a minor offence as a more serious charge could not be proven.

Magistrate Beth Campbell sympathised with the family, but said, while the consequences for Phoebe had been serious, Birnie's culpability had been low as he had the dog on a lead and had been approached by the Hettingers.

Ms Campbell said the job of the court was to punish the conduct, not the outcome.

"The effect on the family has clearly been very significant," Ms Campbell said.

"My hands are tied by the charges that are laid."

Outside court, Phoebe's father, Michael Hettinger, said tough new laws, introduced into the ACT last year, had failed his family.

Under the laws, owners of dogs that cause serious injury face fines of up to $15,000 or a year in prison.

Territory and Municipal Services Minister Shane Rattenbury, in making the announcement last September, said Canberra had an average of 260 dog attack or harassment incidents each year, with many resulting in serious stress or physical harm to people and animals.

Despite the new laws, Mr Hettinger said Birnie had been charged at the same level as he would have been under the previous laws.

"From our perspective, the new law has not only failed to operate in line with community expectations, it is showing that in reality there has been no change from the situation before the amendments," Mr Hettinger said.

"I understand from the DPP that one of the problems with that the amended Act is that the writing is clunky, making it very difficult to apply the increased penalties.

"If this is the case, then there is an issue of public safety, where the public is under the misapprehension that they are better protected with the amended Act. In fact, the amendments aren't worth the paper they are printed on, and the Act needs to be fixed immediately."

Michael Inman

Michael Inman is a courts reporter for The Canberra Times

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