Posted on September 12, 2013 by

Changes Imminent to the Companion Animals Act 1998

Two recent vicious dog attacks in Deniliquin and Ashcroft have prompted the Government to announce major changes to the way in which dangerous dogs are declared and treated.  Legislation which addresses the problem is not a knee jerk reaction to the two incidents.  The Government has for some time been reviewing the legislation through its Companion Animals Taskforce.

In 2011 the New South Wales State Government appointed a Companion Animals Taskforce to review dog and cat welfare strategies.  Having received 1,400 public submissions, the Taskforce produced its main report with 22 recommendations in October last year.

The issue of the regulation of dangerous dogs was separately considered and resulted in a further report in February this year.  The dangerous dog report contained an additional 16 recommendations, including the establishment of an additional category of ‘menacing‘ dog.

Recent attacks, one at Ashcroft by three Staffordshire terriers, and one at Deniliquin on 4 August, the latter resulting in the death of a 2 year old boy after an attack by a mastiff cross, appears to have prompted the Government to issue circular 13-39 to Councils on 26 August.

The circular reminds Councils about the existing reporting and notification obligations under the Companion Animals Act 1998 and then foreshadows some of the changes which will come into effect with the legislation which is promised in the spring session, with the intention of passing both Houses by November.

Although the Minister in his press release of 21 August 2013 indicated that the Government will adopt most of the Taskforce recommendations in full or in part, his release highlighted only three:

  • the introduction of a new ‘menacing dog’ category, which appears to be a lesser category of declaration falling short of being a ‘dangerous dog’.  The test appears to be that the dog creates an apprehension of danger, even though the animal has not actually attacked, and is similar to Victorian and Queensland legislation.  Menacing dogs will have to be leashed and under control of an adult in public;
  • stronger penalties and jail terms for owners whose dogs have been involved in attacks where the owner has failed to comply with measures required by legislation;
  • allowing Councils to seize unmicrochipped animals when the Council wishes to declare a dog dangerous, menacing or restricted.

It is unfortunate, but understandable, that the legislation responding to the Taskforce’s recommendations is being overshadowed by the Ashcroft and Deniliquin attacks.  There is much of value in the recommendations which are not related to dangerous dogs, such as lower registration fees for owners who purchase microchipped animals from the pound, rather than from boutique kennels.  Some of these reforms, which will impact a larger number of owners and their pets, may not recieive the attention they deserve because attention will focus on the heavier penalties and the new categories of dog.

The addition of the menacing dog category will bring NSW in line with other states.  However, it is disappointing that some consideration has not been given to widening Councils’ powers.

For example, the Local Court, but not the local Council, can make a ‘control order’ requiring owners to carry out a much wider series of actions such as training and specific measures relevant to an individual dog’s behaviour.  Why not allow Councils the ability to issue control orders also?  If an owner believed that an order was unduly onerous or unreasonable they could appeal that decision to the Court.  It would also give Councils a wider discretion to deal with animals short of a dangerous dog declaration.  Perhaps the introduction of the menacing dog category will allow Councils this discretion.

Neither the Minister’s release nor circular 13-39 indicate which recommendations specifically will be taken up.  We need to wait for the draft legislation before knowing what is proposed.

Advice from the Minister’s representative is that the legislation will be before the House this year with the intention of finalising it in this session.