A SPLIT-second incident has devastated two families, with a teenage boy having to undergo surgery after he was injured by a dog and the animal’s owners facing the heartbreaking choice of keeping the one-year-old in a cage, or having him destroyed.
The owners of Dallas, a Maremma-German shepherd cross, have criticised the “closed door” and “unjust” approach of Newcastle City Council after their 16-month-old pet was declared a “dangerous dog”, meaning he must always be kept in an enclosure. It followed a single, but serious, incident in which the 55kg animal jumped up on and injured a child while on a walk.
The 13-year-old boy was walking home after school in December when Dallas jumped. The boy’s mother said the dog “leapt at him, completely unprovoked”, the boy turned his head and the dog bit his ear.
Dallas’ owners, the Smyth family of Broadmeadow, acknowledge the boy was hurt but said the dog was jumping, not biting or attacking, and had never been aggressive.
A council report on the incident does not mention a bite. It said the dog “without provocation … attacked”. “The dog placed its paws on the child’s chest and caused a wound to the child’s right ear,” it said. The boy was hospitalised and had surgery to his ear.
“He’s a puppy, he’s just a puppy," Pamela Smyth said of Dallas, her 21-year-old son Lachlan’s dog. “It wasn’t an attack. He wasn’t loose. Dallas was on the lead.
“Lachlan has stooped down to pick up doggy-do and these boys walked up the road and him, being a puppy, … jumped up and Lachlan pulled him back.
“We weren’t aware there had been any injury until the ranger arrived at our house.”
The “dangerous dog” label comes with a set of restrictions, including that the animal be confined to a concrete-floored enclosure for around 23 hours a day. Dallas will only be allowed out of the cage for walks, when he must be on a lead, wear a muzzle and display a bright “dangerous dog” collar. “Yes, he does need to be trained more and being a big dog we understand that,” Mrs Smyth said. “But we can’t put him in a cage, he’s too big for a cage and it just creates cruelty.”
Following the incident, a Newcastle City Council ranger visited the Smyths and Dallas was placed in the care of the RSPCA for a week. He was returned but the family was issued with an “intention to declare a dangerous dog” notice. Despite no further observations of the dog, no history of aggression and numerous submissions testifying to his good nature, Dallas was declared dangerous, the Smyths said.
They had met all the council’s requirements, at great expense including $400 for fencing and the collar and muzzle, as well as a $550 fine. But they felt the cage was a step too far. The family has until next month to construct the enclosure, which must have a minimum width and height of 1.8 metres. Then, if rangers visit and Dallas is not in the cage, the Smyths are liable for a $1700 fine. “He is our family dog; he sleeps inside, he watches TV with us,” Mrs Smyth said. “We don’t harbour dangerous dogs.”
Lachlan’s father Paul Smyth said the family could apply to have the label lifted in 12 months, but in the meantime the dog would have to live in a cage, something he did not think the family could do.
“I’ve put a large gate (up), put more fencing up and we’ve got a secure yard and all we’re saying is we will comply with everything, but we don’t feel the dog should be caged because caging a large dog like this is probably going to lead to behavioural issues,” he said.
The Smyths said they attempted to contact the council numerous times to have the matter mediated, but to no avail. Mr Smyth said, until he was contacted by the Newcastle Herald, he was not aware of the allegation the dog had bitten, and it was not in the council's report.
“It hasn’t been a thorough and fair process,” he said. “We ring all the time to talk to someone at the council and nobody is available. It’s not really a satisfactory position that we’re just left in the dark and ignored. It’s unfortunate that the council seems to adopt a closed-door approach to this. It’s not fair and just.”
The injured boy’s mother did not want to comment on the dangerous dog conditions, but said the incident had been very distressing for her son, who spent 24 hours in hospital and still struggled with the sight of large dogs.
“The incident was incredibly traumatic and unprovoked … the dog leapt at my son and tried to bite his face,” she said. “He was quick to turn away so it could tear his ear. The force of the dog was so much that he struggled to stay on his feet. It was totally unprovoked and in terms of consequences, there has to be some.”
She praised the council. “I was really comforted by … how seriously the council officers took our call and kept us informed,” she said.
A spokesperson for Newcastle City Council said the dangerous dog declaration followed an “unprovoked attack”.
“The child sustained an injury on the right ear that required hospitalisation and surgery,” the spokesperson said. “The attack was investigated by council and from that investigation the decision was made by council to declare the subject dog a 'dangerous dog' within the meaning of the Companion Animals Act, 1998.”
The spokesperson said the council considered evidence gathered during the investigation including from the victim, the dog owner, the investigating ranger and medical evidence.
When asked if the council thought it cruel to keep a dog in an enclosure for 23 hours a day, the spokesperson said the council “applies and enforces the statutory requirements mandated by the state government to ensure the safety of the public from declared dangerous dogs”.
The spokesperson said the owners could appeal to the local court, something the Smyths were reluctant to do for fear of a worse outcome.
“From what we have been told … in 90 per cent of those instances the magistrate will seize the dog and terminate the dog,” Mr Smyth said. “It’s a catch 22 you know, … whichever pathway you go down, it’s going to end up in the same situation.”