When the bite is as bad as the bark

Dog Behaviourist Brad and one of his dogs who he uses in his training.
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Work in the dog justice system can be difficult and underappreciated. Travis Medhurst explores the issues involved in handling aggressive dogs.

It was a winter night and Denes Puskas was taking his black Labrador retriever, Bronson, for a night-time walk on the narrow street of Winfield Road, North Balwyn. The two walked by an old house with a tall fence and Denes felt the need to look back. He saw what he thought to be a bear running towards them. He fell to his knees grasping onto terrified Bronson’s leash.

The dog that attacked them was a Yugoslavian Shepherd and while Bronson is weighs a hunkering 35 kilograms, the large thick-coated mountain dog had no trouble tossing Bronson around. As Denes’s wife Jenny recalls, “the dog picked up Bronson and threw him around like a seal pup.”

“When we brought Bronson home he was terrified. He had diarrhoea and was bleeding” said Mrs Puskas, “He had a nice big bite on his rump. As a result, Bronson changed in personality. When we walked he would act like there was a sniper in the bush. From one small incident the fun of walking my dog changed.”

Each year an average 13,000 people attend hospitals in Australia for dog-related injuries. In Bronson’s local council of Boroondara on average there have been 78 reported dog attacks each year between 2012 and 2017. A 2015 survey of inner Melbourne City Councils showed there were more than 3500 dog attacks on people and animals from 2011-2014 with dog attacks being most prevalent in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.

Dealing with dangerous and menacing dogs is not infrequent and it can go underappreciated.

Brett Melke is a lawyer, whose website proclaims he is “Melbourne’s leading dog expert”. He has been a lawyer for 25 years and has specialised in animals for 11. He believes his passion for animal law stems from his childhood dream of being a zoologist. Although he specialises in dogs he has also done legal work involving cats, horses, pigeons and other birds. “I haven’t gone beyond that. I’d love to have a lion or a tiger, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“With my prosecution work I’m not always on the side of the dog,” said Melke, “I don’t go out with the attitude that we are just going to fix this dog up. No, the attitude that we try to take is to work with the community-to try to achieve the best outcome for the dog and the community. Rather than just saying, ‘the easiest solution is to put the dog down’.”

Throughout Australia, it is the local councils’ responsibility to deal with dog-related issues. They have the authority to declare dogs menacing or dangerous. A dog is declared menacing if it chases a person in an aggressive manner, snarling and growling. A dog is declared dangerous if it bites a person or animal resulting in a serious injury or death. Melke receives many cases involving dangerous and menacing dogs.

“Any dog is dangerous in the wrong conditions. Any dog can bite if it thinks it’s trapped. People do the wrong thing with dogs in that they might trap a dog into a corner- in a yard – and the dog feels it can’t run away, and all it can do is fight, so it goes for the person.”

In Australia, we have restrictions on certain breeds such as the American Pit Bull Terrier, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro and Japanese Tosa. Melke conducted the first Supreme Court appeal to successfully set aside a council declaration of a dog as a restricted breed under the 2011 changes to the Domestic Animals Act.

“It is a little bit silly that certain breeds are more dangerous than others and should not be allowed into the country. We’ve categorized six or seven dogs in that manner, but to categorize any of the others in that manner is pretty mad.”

Melke does a lot of work with Casey Council. “They’ve got powers under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Act [1986] and they’re prepared to use them. They are prepared to have a go at very difficult matters. I’d say it has been the most fulfilling work.”

Rod Bezanovic is the Team Leader of Casey Council’s Local Laws team. “We have our own internal prosecutors that manage the bulk of our prosecutions,” said Bezanovic, “but when they start getting a bit more complex (puppy farms, cruelty matters, serious dogs attacks) then we engage Brad to represent the City of Casey at the Magistrate’s Court.”

Bezanovic believes animal management activities compromise 60% of his team’s daily duties.

“At the City of Casey, my staff are the authorised officers under the DAA [Domestic Animals Act 1994] and accordingly enforce the provisions of the Act when seizing animals,” said Bezanovic.

“As far as I am aware no council receives any funding whatsoever for any aspect of service delivery within the animal management field [from the State Government]. It is wholly funded by the council itself.”

“Dealing with animals and peoples’ pets can be highly volatile, stressful and confrontational situation. The risks for staff can also be extremely high, especially if there is a seriously injured member of the public and we are required to seize the animal and on rare occasions if the dog is a major risk to community safety it may be destroyed immediately.”

Melke and Bezanovic share a frequent collaborator in dog behaviorist Brad Griggs. “He’s pretty well-known in the dog industry,” said Melke, “He works as a dog trainer in regards to aggressive dogs, and often refers work to me.”

Griggs is the owner and operator of Canine Services International. He has had a diverse career doing things such as training postal workers to operate safely with dogs and wearing full body protective gear as dogs bite at him.

“I’ve trained thousands of dogs and owners across Australia in how to mitigate the risk of dog bite and to avoid the situation in the first instance,” said Griggs.

Griggs agrees with Melke that the breed of dog is overstated in regards to restricted breeds. However, he recognises that genetics play an important role in a dog’s personality.

“In Victoria, we have type specific legislation [for restricted breeds]. There’s no scientific basis for that. But some of those dogs are dangerous because a combination of genetics and environments has caused that and some are just dangerous because of genetics,” said Griggs, “There is a cohort of golden retrievers that are known to be unstable extraverts which can make them difficult to deal with. Broadly renowned to be problem free but that’s completely false.”

Griggs believes authorised officers working for councils “chronically understaffed and certainly underappreciated. Everyone hates them.” “They’re chronically understaffed and they’re certainly underappreciated. Everyone hates them.”

“There needs to be provisions under [the law], for people to work with, appropriate professionals to actually change the behaviour of their dogs. Because a dangerous dog is a dangerous dog, right? And there are always going to be dangerous individuals.”

Mr and Mrs Puskas are satisfied with how their situation was resolved by their council.

“I don’t think we were treated any differently to a more serious situation. From my initial phone call, they phoned us 3 to 4 times,” said Mrs Puskas, “At the end of the day they don’t want anybody injured. In our situation it could have been a child who got hurt by that dog. Our council has got a good plan in place and I know now they’re on our side.”