The ACT has some of the strongest dog laws in Australia and they are working, says City Services Minister Chris Steel as Canberra reels from another horrific attack. But the Greens say the laws mean nothing if there are not enough on-the-ground officers to enforce them.
The mauling of therapy alpaca Mimosa by an unleashed dog in Giralang this week, resulting in it being euthanised, devastated Canberra.
Not least because the owner filmed the attack on his phone. Neither the man nor the dog, to date, have been located.
It has reignited the debate about the right approach to stopping dog attacks in the ACT, with the Liberals saying stronger laws are necessary, Labor maintaining education of dog owners is the key and the Greens suggesting "the problem is enforcement, not legislation".
The Greens and Labor are often in lockstep over the response to dog attacks but Greens spokesperson for animal welfare Caroline Le Couteur this week revealed some cracks in the pact.
“After consulting with RSPCA, Animal Defenders Office, victims of dog attacks, Domestic Animal Services volunteers, to name a few, it is clear that there are problems enforcing the current legislation," Ms Le Couteur said.
"There are reports of many unregistered dogs and off-lead dogs where there shouldn’t be.
"Resourcing is often a major barrier to effective enforcement, and this problem needs to be addressed. There simply aren’t enough DAS rangers to do all the work required. On top of that, we also need clear legal action to enforce the penalties to ensure that people understand what is and is not acceptable behaviour.”
Mr Steel said in response: "In 2018, the ACT Government doubled the number of Domestic Animal Services Rangers from eight to 16 and they are actively using the new legislation in their compliance activities".
There is little doubt owners of dogs involved in dog attacks do face hefty penalties - if they can be found and convicted.
Should the owner of the dog involved in this week's attack be located, charged, prosecuted and convicted, he could face thousands of dollars in fines and potentially time in jail as well.
After laws were beefed up at the end of 2017, the owner of a dog responsible for an attack could face penalties including:
- Up to $16,000 and a year in jail for doing something which resulted in a dog attack that causes serious injury;
- Up to $8000 for failing to give any assistance or provide their details;
- Up to $8000 for not reporting the attack to Domestic Animal Services;
- Up to $8000 for encouraging a dog to attack and
- $2400 for not effectively controlling a dog in a public place.
- Serious offences also exist under the Animal Welfare Act. When a person commits an act of cruelty on an animal that causes death, and the person is reckless about causing the death of the animal there is a maximum $32,000 fine and imprisonment of two years. Under the proposed new animal welfare laws, this would increase to $48,000 and three years's jail.
Seizure powers were also strengthened in the 2017 amendments. And a person’s dog registration can be cancelled and they can be prevented from registering any future dog where they cannot demonstrate responsible dog management, care or control.
Under the Domestic Animals Act and the 2017 amendments, a dog that is involved in an attack that kills another animal must be destroyed unless exceptional circumstances exist
Mr Steel says since new laws were introduced, 43 dangerous dogs had been euthanised after being involved in serious attacks. Another eight dogs were awaiting their fate after legal appeals.
There had been 217 seizures of dangerous dogs and 68 control orders issued.
"Often it is the case that the owner is at fault, not the dog and the circumstances around the case have to be investigated and control orders are often issued where the owner has to make changes such as putting up a new fence to stop a dog escaping," he said.
Another 117 warnings had been issued and 59 infringements issued, mainly for not effectively controlling a dog in a public place, which attracts a fine of $2400.
"We think the dog laws are working but they're only one part of the picture," Mr Steel said.
"The other part is focusing on responsible dog ownership. "
Mr Steel said the government would be releasing mid-year its response to an independent review into dog management.
"Which will have a focus on responsible pet ownership and making sure people understand that they must have effective control of their dog at all times," he said.
"But also promoting the key things which are important in reducing dog attacks such as registration, as well as micro-chipping and particularly de-sexing [to reduce aggression]."
The Liberals' acting spokeswoman for urban services Candice Burch MLA says more can be done.
"For years the Canberra Liberals have fought for legislation to protect Canberrans and their pets from dangerous dog attacks," she said.
"The ACT Labor-Greens government have repeatedly rejected every attempt, despite an increase in dog attacks every year.
"Most recently we put forward three practical reforms to enhance public safety; waive registration fees for owners who undertake approved training with their new dog, abolish fees for owners who surrender dangerous dogs to the pound and double the fees for choosing to keep a dangerous dog.
"These were introduced on February 20 and were subsequently voted down by the government, despite vocal support from members.
"It is disgraceful to see violent dog attacks continuing to take place without any real action from the Labor/Greens government.
"The government needs to stop ignoring the injuries and deaths being cause by dangerous dogs in our community, and work in a bipartisan way to protect Canberrans and their pets from violent dog attacks."
Ms Le Couteur reiterated the existing laws are not being used to their full potential and enforced to the full degree.
"When my colleague Shane Rattenbury was TAMS Minister, we strengthened dangerous dog laws to some of the strongest in the country," she said.
"ACT’s domestic animal legislation has tough penalties, but they’re only worthwhile if properly enforced and prosecuted.
"Outside of designated off-lead areas, dogs must be kept on lead and must be effectively controlled by their owners. Penalties do exist for irresponsible dog owners. The problem is enforcement, not legislation."
Mr Steel, meanwhile, says Labor believes the changes pushed by the Liberals would not result in fewer dog attacks.
"You can already relinquish your dog to DAS and they already have the provision to waive your fee," he said.
"Doubling the current fee for owning a dangerous dog would also virtually have no effect because of the eight dogs who were declared dangerous last year, seven of them were relinquished on the basis the person couldn't pay the fee."
Mr Steel said one reform being considered was yearly rather than one-off registration of all dogs in the ACT.
"That is something that would assist in identifying the owner of an animal, particularly where their personal details might have changed," he said.
"We're currently considering that as part of the development of a Canberra model for dog management and we're looking at releasing that in the middle of the year and that will really focus on responsible pet ownership.
"Ultimately, you have the best laws, and we do have the best laws in the country, the strongest laws on dogs, but you also need to make sure owners are responsible in managing their animal."