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Even within our homes dogs can be perceived as a nuisance. AAP/Mike Gee

We need a better understanding of how we manage dogs to help them become better urban citizens

Our cities are more densely packed than ever before, with people and their dogs living in smaller dwellings and vying for increasingly limited public space. The urban dog has an emerging political identity and, given its place as humanity’s “best friend”, deserves positive consideration in city planning.

No doubt, however, dogs sometimes cause trouble. In public, dogs and their owners can misbehave: dogs roam where they’re not supposed to and owners leave dog mess for others to clean up.

Even within our homes dogs can be perceived as a nuisance: barking, digging, slobbering and annoying neighbours. “Nuisance dogs” are everywhere – even if the dogs aren’t aware of it themselves.

There is an important contrast here: we choose to bring dogs into our urban world, then control them on a tight leash. Local councils aim to balance these two forces through animal management. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work well, which can harm public perceptions of dogs in the community.

We need a critical understanding of animal management to help us help dogs become better urban citizens. This stands to benefit everyone.

Animal management holds the key

Most of the more than 4 million dogs in Australia live in the cities and towns where most of the people live. Melbourne, where I undertook my research, is home to around half-a-million dogs.

Alongside roads and rubbish, animal management is a key function of local government.

Animal management is a mixed bag of three distinct activities: education, compliance and enforcement. These are outlined in each local council’s domestic animal management plan. Such plans are of varying detail and importantly are just that – plans. What happens in practice may be very different.

My recently published research demonstrates that some activities are more effective than others in managing various common nuisances. Understanding the effectiveness of animal management is really important: if we manage the nuisance of dogs well, then they are less trouble to the community and closer to being good canine citizens.

Carrots and sticks

Nuisance barking is one of the most common complaints about dogs in the city. The general procedure for resolving complaints is nevertheless quite successful in practice. This involves:

  • complainant first raises problem with owner

  • if problem continues, complainant gathers evidence and reports to council

  • council requires owner to fix the problem

  • council and courts enforce the law as a last resort.

That outcomes for each case differ does not appear to be too important to their overall success. The key to success in enforcement of animal management laws is consistency of process between cases and across councils.

The enforcement of effective control, however, is a mess. There is no agreed definition of what this means – among dog owners, officers, councils and the courts. This makes consistent enforcement nearly impossible.

The final report of the Victorian government’s recent inquiry into restricted‑breed dogs fails to define what “effective control” actually means, despite its central importance to the issue.

RSPCA Victoria argues effective control is an owner’s responsibility. My research supports this, finding that rather than being a tool of compliance, effective control is simply a part of everyday responsible dog ownership.

Going back to school

Responsible dog ownership is a learned behaviour.

Schools are an excellent place to start teaching people about managing dogs. Alan Porritt/AAP

Public education for schoolchildren is successful. In part, this is because of its focus on a particular demographic that is coincidentally pretty cheap for the government to reach. Schoolkids are a captive and receptive audience and love a visit from the dog-catcher with the friendly mutt.

As a bonus, the children then educate their parents on how to better interact with dogs.

Researchers from Monash University have nevertheless called for an increased focus on adult education to reduce the rate of hospitalisation from dog bites.

Such education campaigns are easier said than done. This is because:

  • they are expensive to run

  • they need to appeal to a very wide audience

  • they tend to focus on an individual species to the exclusion of others

  • they can take an inordinately long time, often bouncing from one government website to another as governments change, which makes material very hard to find.

This all adds up to a weak message, which lacks bang for buck.

Public education campaigns that are privately sponsored may ultimately prove more successful. Keep Australia Pet Friendly is a great example. This tackles the trouble of dogs head-on with a message underscoring the net benefits of pet ownership for the community.

These campaigns may do so out of self-interest – Pet Friendly campaign sponsor Mars Petcare Australia has some obvious skin in the game, for instance. But through a better reach and targeted message they will likely be more effective than similar government programs.

As dogs are increasingly recognised as having a genuine stake in our cities, we need to look for ways to encourage harmony between the species. Better animal management presents an obvious place to start.

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