Owners of dogs are responsible for the behaviour of their dogs and are LEGALLY responsible if their dog attacks a person. That's official!

Recent Court judgements have been made which highlighted the need for pet and animal owners to be aware and responsible for their animals' behaviour or actions. A case in the Western Cape resulted in the owner of dogs kept as security watch-dogs being convicted of attempted murder. The owner was also convicted on seven charges of assault with intention to do grievous bodily harm: - because of his inability to prevent his dogs from carrying out attacks. These convictions were made despite the fact that the owner of the dogs was not even present when the attacks took place - but he was considered fully accountable!
The case involved the farmer's dogs attacking and injuring pedestrians.

Courts consider owners to be accountable for the behaviour or actions of their dogs, especially aggressive behaviour. Fears arose though that there could be a backlash in that the cases might create an unjustified crackdown against certain breeds or types of dog reputed to be vicious. Ironically, there were fears that these decisions might lead to a demand for exactly those types of dog.

Media interest in the recent spate of dog attacks in South Africa has led to an opportunity being grasped for the SPCA movement to put out some of its key messages on responsible ownership. Rationalising a dog's aggressive behaviour by saying "he is just being protective" or assuming the dog will grow out of it are of no help.

The SPCAs have a legally-binding policy in place which prohibits an SPCA from homing out an animals for security or safe-guarding purposes. SPCAs are also extremely cautious when it comes to homing out dogs which show signs of aggressive tendencies or if they think that an animal may pose a danger.

The NSPCA often receives calls from the public complaining about the "red-tape" when they want to adopt a dog. The bureaucracy is a safety net to ensure that only genuine adopters are allowed to take animals and that no dogs will be allowed to leave an SPCA to become "watch-dogs". The SPCAs continue to do their utmost to ensure they are not jeopardising the safety of other animals and people in the community.

Incidents of dog attacks in South Africa are not limited to plots or farmland. Reactions of landlords or property managers have been more positive than negative in that they are now getting more involved in finding out what type of dog the renter has - and whether the dog has gone through obedience training. This is definitely a case of more interest being shown.

In July 2002, the Ministry or Justice and Constitutional Development issued a statement: DOG ATTACKS ON INNOCENT PEOPLE.

The recent number of attacks by vicious dogs against innocent people countrywide has received attention both in the Government and in the media. It would appear, legitimately so, that questions are being raised regarding the control of these dogs. The accountability of owners of dogs for any damage caused by their dogs is regulated in terms of common law. The action de pauperie (action based on damage caused by animals) provides an injured person with a delictual remedy against an owner of an animal for damages caused by such animal. The action is based on the faultless liability of the owner and very few defences are recognised to exclude liability. They are vis maior, culpable conduct on the part of the injured person or a third party and provocation by another animal. Damages may be recovered from an owner for any damage to property or personal injuries.

The owner of a dog may, apart from attracting civil liability as pointed out, also be held criminally liable in terms of the common or statutory law. Criminal liability will be established where a dog has been used as an instrument to commit an offence. An example is where a dog has been incited to attack someone else which may result in a conviction for assault or even assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. A successful conviction under such circumstances will depend on whether the accused person acted intentionally. Negligence on the part on the accused person, will, with the exception of culpable homicide, exclude criminal liability in terms of the common law.

The Animal Matters Amendment Act, 1993 (Act 42 of 1993) among others, provides that a court may make certain directions in respect of injuries caused by animals. Any person as a result of whose negligence an animal causes injury to another person, shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years. A court convicting a person may make an order regarding the removal, custody, disposal or destruction of the relevant animal and the recovery of any costs incurred.

The convicted person may be declared unfit, for a specified period, to own a certain kind of animal or an animal of a specific breed or to have it under his or her control or in his or her custody.

Indeed, Government is mindful of people's rights to protect themselves and their properties against the criminal element. However, extra precautionary measures must be taken to ensure that these dogs do not become a danger to innocent people in the streets. The Ministry is furthermore appealing to Provincial governments to begin to work hand in hand with their respective local governments in addressing this issue in a more serious light. If indeed they have to pass by-laws to control the movement and the ownership of these vicious dogs, then they should do so. As a country, we cannot continue to allow vicious dogs to terrorise and even kill human beings with impunity. The owners must be held directly responsible for their actions.

Paul Setsetse, Spokesperson to Dr Penuell Maduna, Minister for Justice and Constitutional Development.

PO Box 1320, ALBERTON 1450
Telephone: (011) 907-3590
Fax: (011) 907-4013