Victoria has toughened its dog laws after a toddler was mauled to death, but experts say the legislation will only punish responsible dog owners and won't stop new attacks.
Victoria has toughened its dog laws after a toddler was mauled to death by a pit bull-mastiff cross, but experts say the legislation will only punish responsible dog owners, and won't stop new attacks.
Under the new laws:
- All pit bull or pit bull cross dogs must be registered
- Local government authorities may classify ANY dog as dangerous, based on its appearance
- Council authorities may destroy any unregistered dog deemed to be a dangerous breed
- A standard for identifying pit bull terriers will be released
- A dangerous dog hotline has been set up for people to report dogs they believe to be restricted, and local authorities will investigate these reports
"The safety of the community is our first priority and we will be working closely with other parties in the parliament to ensure the swift passage of this legislation," Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said in a statement.
Mr Walsh said people should not have to fear being attacked by a dog when they were walking down a street or their children were playing in the backyard.
The new legislation is a 'fantastic start' toward stopping attacks, according to Kidsafe Victoria's state manager Melanie Water.
"The number of registered dangerous dogs in Victoria is very low, and I don't think it's at all representative," she says.
Under the new laws, owners would be forced to register their dogs - and be honest about their breed - and local authorities would be able to monitor them.
"We think that any law that tightens regulations on owners can only be a good thing," said Ms Water.
"What they're aiming to do is have all dogs registered, which means they can make sure the dangerous dogs are muzzled and kept in secure enclosures," she said.
RSPCA Victoria and the Australian Veterinary Association are concerned the new laws will effectively punish responsible dog owners, while irresponsible ones will easily evade them.
'HARD TO IDENTIFY'
The term 'pit bull' refers to any dog that is a cross between a terrier breed and a bulldog breed, but there are no standardised federal guidelines about them.
"We commend the government for trying to prevent dog attacks and protect the community," says RSPCA Victoria CEO Maria Mercurio.
"But our concerns are around the fact the pit bull and pit bull crosses are very hard to identify on sight."
"Even with the standardised description (under the new Victorian laws), it's very difficult to determine the breed of a dog - even experts have trouble," she says.
"Everyone thinks they can identify a breed, but they can't," says behavioural medicine expert Dr Kersti Seksel, from the Australian Veterinary Association.
BREED 'DOESN'T PREDICT BEHAVIOR'
And breed is not a predictor of any dog's character, she adds.
"Behaviour is complex. It's a mix of genetic disposition, and your environment and your education," Dr Seksel says.
Victoria's new laws will have a negative impact on responsible dog owners who have well-trained and well socialised dogs, but it won't stop others who want to own aggressive dogs, she says.
In a worst case scenario, a well-behaved dog could be classified as dangerous purely based on its appearance, obliging its owners to keep it muzzled in public and locked in a special enclosure at home.
"People who want to own a dangerous dog will just move to new breeds," says Dr Seksel.
LAWS HAVEN'T WORKED OVERSEAS
Trying to target dangerous dogs based on their breeds hasn't worked overseas - for example in Ontario, she adds.
"They've repealed these laws because they haven't worked."
"The RSPCA's policy is 'deed, not breed'," says the organisation's CEO Ms Mercurio.
Dog owners should be encouraged to understand the breed they own, and train and socialise it well, she says.
Positive reinforcement would be a more effective policy for preventing dog attacks than toughening the current laws, according to Ms Mercurio.
She says incentive programmes - like discounts on registration fees for desexed and microchipped dogs - have achieved significant increases in microchipping and desexing.
She believes the same incentives could be offered for people to properly train their pets, with positive consequences.