Monday, February 6, 2012

Auckland Council Review of Policy and Bylaw on dogs

Here's a short, not terribly detailed submission guide for doggie owners. 
The Review is complex, and the support documents are detailed and difficult to read. Before you get grumpy, remember some poor boffin at the Council has had to pull together bylaws from 7 different local councils plus legislation, no easy task. Summaries on the website are easier to read but lack detail; the full 2.2MB Statement of Proposal (SOP) is a bit of a curly one.
The suggestions here are mine: you can ignore them or disagree as you wish, but please do make a submission even if it's just short. Submissions can be made online here
My suggestions below are in the same order as the official submission form to make them easier to follow.

Access rules
Playgrounds. At present dogs are prohibited from playgrounds so this remains the same. While 'in the vicinity' is vague, it allows for some discretion depending on circumstances. While it doesn't really make sense to prohibit dogs from playgrounds when they are not in use we'll let this slide if it makes the region's parents happy.
Council sports surfaces. This is more difficult.  The recommended option calls for a prohibition of dogs from sports surfaces at all times, and for dogs to be on a leash in the vicinity of a sports surface when the surface is in use. The problem with this is that for many dog owners their main, or in some cases sole, dog exercise venue is the local sportsfield. This is particularly the case in those parts of the region that have few off-leash areas. An all-times prohibition is not only inequitable, but would be very difficult to enforce. While the concern about dog faeces and the Council's concerns about health risks is accepted, it would seem dog owners are receiving a double whammy, with the requirement to pick up faeces and carry a bag for that purpose at all times, with no corresponding concession that dogs be allowed to use sportsfields.  Also, in the absence of any evidence pertaining to the health risks associated with dogs exercising on sportsfields I would suggest this risk is overstated. Use of sportsfields by dogs does, however, put a clear duty on dog owners to clean up after them, and I would argue that this needs to be emphasised in any campaign targeting dog owners. It is also difficult to see why dogs exercising on sportfields would pose a greater health risk than people littering fields and leaving food scraps, including chicken bones, on them.
Our preferred option is the alternative which reads: Prohibition of dogs on sports surfaces and under control on a leash in the vicinity of sports surfaces when in use. This omits the 'at all times' clause in the recommended option. 
Requirement for dogs to be under control on a leash on roads etc. This is what has always been the case in the former Auckland City, and given that few dogs (including my own) are under control off leash, I would support this. It will also standardise across the region.
Dogs on a leash in cemeteries. Think about this. It's a no brainer.
Exemptions for working dogs. This mostly applies where there is stock on public parks, eg Ambury Park. This makes sense.
Temporary changes to access rules. Yes.
Where no other rule is specified, dogs must be in control on a leash unless otherwise permitted. Again, this makes sense.
For those of us who dwell in the long-neglected environs of South Auckland, it might be worthwhile stipulating that the Council investigate the possibility of more off-leash areas for dogs, especially if the at-all-times prohibition on dogs using sportsfields is adopted. The part of the city south of Penrose is very poorly served as regards off-leash areas. Moreover, those that exist have minimal or no amenities such as those taken for granted in other parts of the city, for example rubbish bins, plastic bag dispensers etc. In addition, off-leash areas must be able to be used as off-leash areas rather than as storage for earthmoving equipment.

Access to beaches and parks
The documentation is not clear, but what the Council is recommending is that dogs be banned from beaches and specified adjoining parks from 10am to 6.30pm between Labour Weekend and 31 March, and from 10am to 4pm from 1 April to Labour Weekend. For specified parks the times are 8am to 6.30pm between Labour Weekend and 31 March, and from 8am to 4pm from 1 April to Labour Weekend.
The suggestion for this, and I understand that this is supported by the dog clubs, is that the summer cut-off be moved from 1 April back a month to 1 March. Beaches and parks are less crowded in March as the weather starts to cool, and this would enable dogs to take advantage of the tail end of daylight saving to get out on the beach during daylight.

Local boards setting access rules for local parks and beaches
While a stated goal of the SOP is to standardise rules across the region, circumstances vary wildly, and what may be appropriate for Waiuku may not be appropriate for the more densely packed inner city. Allowing local boards to set rules cuts across the standardisation goal, but on balance would provide for more appropriate and sensible local outcomes. 

Rules that would apply across the region
Removal of dog faeces. (This also applies to the proposal - Q5.6 - that owners carry plastic baggies when walking their mutts.) I think everyone probably agrees that this would be great but - and this is quite a big but - it is difficult to see how this could be enforced. No, really, imagine the call centre gets a call from Mrs Jones who's just seen her neighbour leave a dog pooh on the grass verge. What's your neighbour's name? I don't know. What's the dog's name? I don't know. What sort of dog is it? A pitbull. (Oh yeah, right) Where does the dog live? Down the road. We'll be saying yes because it sends an important signal that dog owners need to clean up after themselves, particularly if the Council is to concede the use of sportfields to exercise dogs. But we don't have much hope that it will actually improve the general hygiene of the neighbourhood.
Retain the existing restrictions on number of dogs, with changes that restrict number of dogs per property. Fine. The people that don't look after their dogs (ie the ones that don't make submissions to the Council or walk their dogs anywhere, ever.) don't need encouragment to not look after more of them.
Requiring a menacing dog to be neutered. This was obviously put in to soothe some sections of the public but in fact there is very little evidence that neutering a dog will change its behaviour, especially if it is sufficiently badly behaved to be marked out as menacing in the first instance. We won't be saying yes to this, mostly on principle. If there was evidence that it worked then fine, but this is just pandering to talkback radio.
With regard to requiring a dog uncontrolled twice or more in a twelve month period to be neutered, the same applies. There is almost no evidence dogs stop wandering when they are neutered. The most problematic dogs are those who spend their lives tied up but manage to escape. This is a problem of problematic owners, and the Council could perhaps reflect on ways to deal with this aspect of the problem by lobbying for changes to the Animal Welfare Act.
Dogs in heat: Confinement would address issues such as wandering and aggression, but it should be noted that the aggression is usually dog-on-dog, not dog-on-human. Nevertheless, this would afford some protection to dogs who are not neutered for legitimate reasons (eg breeding dogs).

Other rules
Most of the suggestions can be supported as existing legislation covers them. 
In addition to the rules stated, I would recommend the Council advocate at central government level to strengthen the animal welfare laws pertaining to dogs. At present it is difficult to prosecute negligent owners because the protections afforded to dogs under the law are so minimal. It should not be OK to leave a dog tied to the front step on a short chain with only a small bowl of water for days on end: a survey of dog-bite reports in the papers shows that 40-50% of dogs attacks, especially attacks on children, occur with dogs which are chained up. There is a high probability that most of those dogs never get off their chains for a walk. While there is legislative provision that dogs must be allowed off to walk for an hour a day, this is too difficult to enforce at present.
With respect to barking, this is a critical issue for both dog owners and their neighbours. At present it is unclear if constant barking is covered by noise control rules or animal welfare legislation. If the Council embarks on any education campaigns they ought to include this information as part of them. It should also be prepared to remove offending dogs.

Other matters
Several other matters arise that are not covered in the official feedback form. 
Responsible dog ownership. The former Auckland City Council had a system where a dog owner could sit a test to show they were competent (at least on paper) and thereafter pay reduced dog registration costs. I suggest this system be carried over as it provided an incentive for people to learn the basics about dog ownership. An alternative might be if people could get a certificate from one of the dog training clubs saying they had attended say 12 sessions then they could pay reduced registration costs. Most dogs' behaviour will improve in 12 sessions, and doggie school helps socialise both the dogs and owners. Poor socialisation of dogs is the key driver of dog attacks and other canine bad behaviour.
Public education programmes. I would also submit that you support a public education programme of how to behave around dogs. Many recent well-publicised dog attacks involved unsupervised children, and also involved food. We need to be clear that dog bites will never be eliminated but they can be reduced by teaching people to exercise a bit of common sense. One effective place to educate the public would be through intermediate schools (intermediate-age children can have a significant influence on family behaviours).
Funding and fees. I also suggest submitters support the recommendation to set the level of funding, fee structure and level of fees through the Long Term Plan (p20 SOP). This way fees are open to consultation and feedback, and the process is more transparent than if it was just left to officers. I would support incentivising early registrations through lower fees, and cost recovery for dog custodial services (pound fees), as outlined in the alternative option. It is less clear that penalties for late fees would work as envisaged or if the additional expense would just mean people didn't bother.
Owner licencing. The final point is the issue of licencing dog owners. This appears on p6 of the SOP as an 'Operational initiative', and on p18 under Alternative Option stating 'Reduced registration fees through the Dog Owner Licence programme', and referring the reader to the policy on responsible dog ownership (p25). The policy on responsible dog ownership says nothing about licencing dog owners.
I would suggest that submitters strongly resist any suggestion of licencing dog owners. Again, this will appeal to the talkback demographic but it will do nothing to solve the problems associated with dogs including barking, roaming dogs and anti-social canine behaviour. It will simply increase compliance costs for the vast majority of dog owners who register, walk, and look after their dogs, and will do nothing to net those who do none of these things. At the margin, it will mean more people won't be bothered with the hassle and the costs, and there will be more unregistered dogs.
I suggest that in general the Council's stance of promoting responsible dog ownership is supported, as is a community education campaign. Licencing dog owners will achieve nothing and will be an additional cost on ratepayers. 

Pitbull Sharky says "Make a submission or I start with the chickens."