Dog owners love their dogs, even if their neighbours might have to put up with constant barking, uncontrolled wandering and the risk of attack. So what does the law say?

The Dog Control Act 1996 sets out the general rules for controlling dogs, but it allows councils to set their own by-laws about where dogs can go and when they must be leashed, how complaints are dealt with and what penalties can be imposed if the by-laws are breached.

If you have a complaint, what will happen may therefore vary depending on where you live. In this report, we explain what you can expect in general cases.

Basic obligations

Under the Dog Control Act, every owner has some basic obligations. These include:

  • Registration: You have to register your dog with your local council and keep them up-to-date with your address details.
  • Micro-chipping: All dangerous, menacing dogs registered after 1 July 2006 must be micro-chipped.
  • Control: You have to control your dog at all times. If you're in a public place you must have a leash with you whenever your dog is with you.
  • Proper care and attention: You have to give your dog proper care and attention, including food, water and shelter.
  • Exercise: You have to make sure your dog gets adequate exercise.
  • No nuisance: You have to take all reasonable steps to ensure that your dog doesn't create a nuisance to others, by barking, howling or any other means.
  • No harm: You have to make sure your dog doesn't harm or distress any person, stock, domestic animal or protected wildlife.
  • No damage: You have to take all reasonable steps to ensure your dog doesn't damage or endanger any property.

Neighbourhood nuisance

The neighbours leave their dog barking in the yard all day and it drives me crazy. The trouble is, even discussing it with them is likely to lead to unpleasantness. What can I do?

You are not alone. Relentless barking causes more complaints than any other dog issue.

Dog owners have a legal obligation to "take all reasonable steps" to ensure their dog's barking doesn't cause a nuisance to others.

Dog owners have a legal obligation to "take all reasonable steps" to ensure their dog's barking doesn't cause a nuisance to others.
Dog owners have a legal obligation to "take all reasonable steps" to ensure their dog's barking doesn't cause a nuisance to others.

Are you sure you can't raise it with them? They may not even know the dog barks all day. But if you can't talk to them - or you try and get nowhere - call the dog control unit of your local council.

An officer will visit to assess the problem but it's also a good idea to keep your own record of when, and for how long, the barking goes on. The officer will tell your neighbours a complaint has been made and advise them on ways of reducing barking. In most cases, the owners will be given a few days' grace to make changes.

If the problem continues, a legal notice can be issued. This will give your neighbours 7 days to take some action to quieten the dog, remove it, or object to the notice. If they don't and there are further complaints, your neighbours can be fined. If problems persist, the dog can be removed.

Before things get to that point, though, the dog control officer may try to arrange mediation between you and the neighbours.

Early on in the process, you can ask the officer not to reveal your name or address to the owner, although the council will keep these details on record. If the matter goes to court, your identity will be disclosed because you'll have to give evidence.

The neighbours' dog frequently gets into my garden, where it terrorises my cat and defecates on the lawn. Can I demand that they fence their property - or at least come and clean up the mess?

You can't make your neighbours fence their property, although under the Fencing Act you can build a fence yourself between your own and a neighbour's property (after consulting with them), and require them to contribute to the cost.

You can also insist the dog is kept "under control". Tell them (politely) you don't want the dog on your property or they could argue that you had given "implied consent" to its being there.

If they make no effort to restrain the dog, call the dog control officer who will explain to them they can be fined if the dog continues to wander. They could also be fined if the dog actually attacks - rather then just frightens - your cat.

A dog owner is liable for all damage done by a dog.

It's unlikely you can make your neighbours clean up after the dog. Even if there's a by-law stating that owners must clean up dog dirt, it will generally apply to public places, and you'd have to catch the dog in the act and be prepared to make a statement to that effect before they'd be liable for a fine.

The neighbour's dog has started rushing at cars in the street. What can I do?

Allowing a dog to rush at cars (or bikes, people or animals) is "a very dangerous sport", says Christchurch dog control officer, Mark Vincent. "It can easily result in either a person or the dog getting hurt or killed."

Owners can be fined up to $3000 if a dog "rushes at or startles" a person or animal in a public place, or "rushes at a car in a manner likely to cause injury or death". A judge can order that the dog be destroyed.

Mark Vincent says his initial approach is to try to educate owners. "I point out to the owners the likelihood of someone - or the dog - getting hurt. If the kids let it out, I talk to the kids, and try to arrange a dog education programme at their school."

Dogs and parks

I was in the local play area with my kids when 2 dogs wandered in. They weren't on leads and there was no one with them. They didn't seem aggressive, but they made the kids very nervous. I called the dog control officer, who took the dogs to the animal shelter. But what happens now? Will they be back?

If the dogs are registered, the owner will be asked to come and collect them and pay a fine, and will be advised of their responsibilities.

Unregistered dogs are not released from the shelter unless someone claims them, registers them and pays all fees due for sheltering them.

In both cases there may be a fine for allowing the dogs in a prohibited area or for not having them under control. Children's play areas are routinely off-limits to unleashed dogs.

The dogs returned to the park a week later. My neighbour's kid poked one of them with a stick and it started growling and baring its teeth. The neighbour called the dog officer, and told him the dog was "dangerous". She asked for it to be put down. Can she get this done?

In this situation, the dog probably won't be put down, but it could still be classified as "dangerous", even though it was provoked.

This issue is at the heart of many incidents involving dogs. The dog may be generally friendly and well trained, but you can expect any animal to defend itself if sufficiently provoked. Children especially may frighten a dog into attacking them.

When a dog is formally classified as dangerous, the owner has to keep it under much tighter control - for example, by fencing the property, keeping the dog muzzled in public and having it neutered. The local council decides on the classification, after considering written statements from all interested parties.

If the owner objects to the classification, a council hearing will consider both sides and decide whether the classification is necessary. If it is, and the owner doesn't comply, they'll be prosecuted.

A dog can also be formally classified as 'menacing'. There are fewer restrictions on 'menacing' dogs.

The dog disappeared but I saw it a little later, chained up in a nearby house. Can the dog ranger take any action against the owner or impound the dog?

Generally, yes. If a dog officer has good cause to suspect that a person has committed an offence against the Act, including if a dog has been or is being a nuisance, they can enter the 'land or premises' at any reasonable time to check on the dog, or the conditions it's kept in and they can take the dog away.

However, a dog officer needs a court warrant to enter a house

Unleashed dogs

My sister takes her dog for a run along the beach most mornings. The by-law says dogs must be "under control" in public places. She says her dog is under control: she's with it and it's very well behaved. But I think it should be on a leash. Who is right?

If your sister is too far away from the dog to stop it retaliating if, say, a child pokes it in the face, then she does not have it under control.

She should keep the dog leashed when there are other people or animals around. However, if the dog stays close to her and calm, it would generally be considered to be under control even if it's not leashed.

A person can be fined up to $3000 for failing to keep their dog under control.

Last week, my sister's dog attacked another dog at the beach, and the other owner now wants it classified as dangerous. It's a labrador cross. What will happen?

The dog has committed an attack so your sister may be fined. The dog may be seized or destroyed unless the circumstances are exceptional.

The fact the dog is a labrador cross is irrelevant. Dog officers told us all types and breeds of dogs are involved in attacks. In one incident, an Alaskan malamute killed a Jack Russell.

Banned dogs

4 breeds of dog are banned from importation:

  • American pit bull terriers
  • Japanese tosas
  • Dogo argentinos
  • Brazilian filas

Our advice

If you've got a problem with a nearby dog, try to sort it out with the owners - if you can. As with any dispute between neighbours, the best solution is the one where everybody agrees. But sadly, that's not always possible.

... for owners

  • Talk to the neighbours before you get a dog.
  • Make sure it gets plenty of exercise in specified "dog-exercise" areas.
  • Make sure it can't get out of your property but can run around and has access to food and fresh water while you're out.
  • If you're out during the day, check with neighbours about barking or other problems.
  • If the dog barks at night, keep it inside.
  • If neighbours complain, don't get defensive. Be prepared to discuss solutions.
  • Don't leave small children alone with your dog. Just because it has never attacked anyone, doesn't mean it won't.
  • Don't mix dogs and food. If you're having a barbecue, make sure the dog is restrained somewhere else on your property. In one tragic incident, a child was bitten in the face by their own dog because the dog wanted the food they were eating.

... for non-owners

  • Teach your children how to behave around dogs or ask the school to run a dog education programme.
  • If a dog is by itself, leave it alone, even if it's tied up.
  • Ask the owner, before you or your kids touch or play with a dog.
  • Don't eat food around dogs.
  • Don't treat dogs or dog owners like pariahs. Most owners are responsible people and most dogs won't harm you unless badly scared or hurt themselves.