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  • Grant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

Nuisance bylaws on dogs are the real nuisance

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Auckland Council officials are yet to exceed my lowering expectations of them. Their proposed dog bylaws set a new low.

Local boards and regulatory committees have tried to outdo each other by delivering proposals that fail to correctly identify an issue, inadequately assess ways to approach a problem, and hopelessly consider solutions to it.

Workshops run by local boards are often dominated by those with pet peeves or pet projects. It is the empty vessels who make the most noise for facilities no one else will use and regulations that punish everyone else.

Entry-level politicians fall for it. Three years ago, many dog-owners were happy with the proposed dog bylaws until a small group suggested a late change that was sneaked in without consultation. The result was a bylaw that achieved more of a nuisance to dog-owners than the nuisance dog-owners were accused of.

So, what is the nuisance? Dog-owners not picking up after their dogs? Dogs annoying other beach-users? And how does segregation achieve that?

For a start, dog-owners must be in control of their dogs. If you can't keep them under control off-leash then you should keep them on a leash. It's that simple.

Next, beaches are tidal. At low tide, there are fewer people using many Auckland beaches other than dog walkers. So why set times banning dogs from beaches when low tides don't align?

During the week, many beaches are deserted during the day but busier during the evening. Why compress dog walking to times when many families eat dinner on the beach?

Shouldn't dog-owners have the flexibility of choosing the most practical place and time to socialise or avoid other types of beach-user?

Dog-walking is physically and socially beneficial to dogs as well as their owners. Socialising dogs is the most important aspect of training them. Containing them during the best part of the day is unfair on owners and their animals. Leaving dogs at home or in the car while the family swims is not fair.

An animal management official told me his office received more calls from "empty vessels" complaining about non-compliance with the bylaws than actual nuisance caused by dogs. It takes controllers up to 90 minutes to respond to call-outs and often, by the time they arrive, the so-called offending dog walker is nowhere to be seen.

Under the Dog Control Act, working dogs are exempt from bylaws requiring that they be on a leash. Other dog-owners can achieve the same degree of control but are unnecessarily discriminated against.

The issue should centre on the control of dogs, not assuming that dogs can't be controlled around others. The focus therefore should be on rewarding responsible dog ownership, rather than inconveniencing the majority due to the failures of a minority.

The Auckland Council already has a responsible dog owner licence (RDOL), which has the incentive of a discount on registration fees. Instead of a council inspection of the animals or premises, it often accepts a simple online application form.

In other words, we end up with a registration system that doesn't assess irresponsible dog-ownership and bylaws that punishes responsible dog-ownership.

Rather than the segregation-based approach, the council should have taken a registration-based assessment approach based on obedience, socialisation, and non-predatory behaviour.

There are already voluntary schemes that warn other dog-owners and the general public of a dog's nature. The traffic light-coloured collar – where a green collar means universally friendly, amber means not friendly around other dogs, and red means universal caution – could be adapted to dog registration discs.

Dogs would need to undergo wildlife, social, and obedience assessments to obtain a green disc, which would allow them to be off leash on beaches. An orange disc could require that a dog be on a leash on beaches and red requires that dogs be on leashes at all times in public.

Many might say that such a scheme would be expensive and time-consuming to maintain. I would argue that the council is already handing out discounts on registration with a scheme that isn't properly maintained and wasting resources enforcing superfluous bylaws. Assessment could be part of dog obedience training. The scheme would also work throughout the country.

The Auckland Council initially let the local boards set bylaws. What we ended up with was confusing and contradictory bylaws for each beach in each ward. Now the councillors are working towards universal bylaws across the region, which has resulted in proposed bylaws that are incompatible for most of the region.

Owning a dog requires and fosters empathy. Maybe some Auckland councillors need to show more empathy, not just for dog-owners but for all their constituents.

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