Nurture over nature.

I’m an animal lover from way back. We have been a family of dog owners, cat owners,  fish owners, and bird owners. The drug labradors and beagles make me smile. It appals me that recreational hunting overseas is legal. I wish extinction wasn’t in the English vocabulary. I grew up with the animated childhood classics of Winnie the Pooh, Barney the Dinosaur and Mickey Mouse. Sharks scare me, but if a human is killed by a shark, I never blame the shark.

Over the past few weeks, right throughout the country, a 2-year-old, a 7-year-old, a pregnant woman, and a 72-year-old female cyclist were all attacked by ‘dangerous’ breeds of dogs. Three were at home, one on the street. The victims required surgery. No doubt they all suffered trauma that could last a lifetime. If there was a quick fix then why hasn’t it been done already? You read all the news stories online, and then you read the comments. Some people sure do love their dogs, much like hostages love their captors.

We need a new approach to how we deal with dog ownership in New Zealand.

The relationship between man and his dog is probably the longest in our history and goes back well before history was even recorded. We have used them for food, war, hunting, transportation and farming and, for the past several hundred years, for companionship, security and as a surrogate child.

For the past 200 years or more, several terrier types were bred specifically to emphasise their aggression and strength. They were blood breeds used for fighting each other, bears and bulls. More than 12 per cent of all dog attacks are by bull terriers, which make up less than 2 per cent of the national dog population. Most of these attacks seemed to have been unpredictable and difficult to stop even by their owners, and therein lies some of the problem.

It is nearly impossible to completely counter two centuries of breeding with any form of training. The animals are hardwired to attack with very little provocation, and when their purpose is not fulfilled, that’s where they unleash on something or someone else. All the animals we own, either as pets, farm livestock or in zoos, have the potential to attack us when things go wrong.  A disgruntled house cat will scratch and bite when annoyed and even a budgie will nip an offending finger. But bigger animals pose a more serious threat. When an angry toy poodle bites, it leaves painful tooth marks but little else. When a terrier attacks, it hangs on and shakes vigorously in a powerful killer bite, inflicting immense damage to skin, flesh and bone. Incidences like these, I believe, are linked by inadequate training, poor control and education.


Even with expertise, tragic accidents occur. Zookeepers have been killed by big cats and elephants. These people were experts and professionals who knew the animals they were working with and knew the risks involved. With dogs, there is no requirement to know anything. Anyone can own any dog, and disaster is an all too common result predominantly because the most vulnerable dog falls into the most uneducated hands.

We’ve blamed Dobermans, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, Pitt Bulls. We’ve talked about banning an entire breed, we euthanize dogs that attack without giving it a second thought. If it were a human who attacked and killed, god forbid we talk euthanasia.

The thing is, no two dogs are the same, much as humans. No matter how much we blame, love, care and educate ourselves, sometimes our brains are wired to do the complete opposite without any preempt. A lot of circumstances surrounding this theory can be linked to just wrong place wrong time. With that being said, a number of dog attacks could have been prevented in the right hands. We need to shift the emphasis from the dogs to their owners.

This is not to apply retrospective punitive measures after an attack, but for pre-emptive prevention so that attacks don’t happen in the first place. This could mean banning a breed, but it could also mean requiring aspiring dog owners to have adequate justification and expertise to qualify for ownership, particularly of certain breeds. Owning a spaniel for companionship, a retriever for hunting or one of the many working breeds for farming should not pose a threat or difficulty. If a dog is bred to hunt, to farm, to run, or to retrieve and you are filling that purpose, you are doing your job as a responsible dog owner. And you can go about your day-to-day lives with the confidence that your dog will not chew your shoe, bark at the neighbours or run away.

Owning a powerful fighting breed for companionship in town is another matter entirely. Too many of these potentially dangerous dogs are little more than status symbols paraded around the streets and parks by people with little knowledge of dogs or how to train and control them. Some owners and breeders of these dogs vow that their pets are safe and reliable and, without doubt, most are. But the only dog which can be guaranteed not to bite is the one without teeth. Even then, they will inflict a serious attack with provocation. Fighting dog breeds can be safe in the right company, in the right surroundings and under expert control. Remove any one of those qualifications and the possibility of a tragic attack is too great a risk for innocent people to be asked to take.

If you are trained to be aggressive then you are very good at doing the damage. Similar to a martial artist who is very good at fighting but who is not any more likely than other people to pick a fight – but if they do, they are very good at inflicting injury or defending themselves.

These dogs are not born to prey on a 2-year-old, a 7-year-old, a pregnant woman, and a 72-year-old female cyclist. The problem that we are faced with is that the qualities that make these dogs tenacious players in obedience and agility games also attract highly unscrupulous people looking for strong competitors for their dog fighting rings.

I’m now a skeptic due to the ever-increasing dominance of backyard-bred junkyard dogs with no known lineage. Many of these are owned by people who want to have a tough dog on display, and many of these are encouraged to be aggressive towards people.  Nurture, not nature. Let’s ban the bad owners, not the dogs they ruined.

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