Earlier this month, owner Helen Fraser was found not guilty of a single charge – owning a dog that caused serious injury. Now that the initial flurry of social and traditional media coverage has died down, I want to put my thoughts together about what this case means.
This post is entirely my opinion as a Fear Free certified professional; I am not a veterinarian but I work with dogs every day in my canine massage and rehabilitation practice. I specialise in in-home care and my caseload of clients with reactive dogs is steadily increasing. One reason for this is that I receive referrals from a reputable dog training business which recognises that some behaviours may be caused by pain and discomfort. Referrals from previous clients with reactive dogs are also common.
You can disagree with my opinion. If you do simply be kind, courteous and professional when making comments.
A brief summary of the case
The charge under the Dog Control Act was laid by the Tauranga District Council after vet Dr Liza Schneider was bitten by Chopper on 14 October 2021 when he was brought to her clinic for de-sexing. Dr Schneider fractured her arm, requiring screws and a plate to fix it, and had consequent nerve and muscle damage.
Dr Schneider was injured badly and no one has disputed that (nor should they). I have great regard for Dr Schneider because she was an early adopter of integrative therapies (her practice is called Holistic Vets). She is the President of the Complementary Medicine branch of the NZ Veterinary Association. She is knowledgeable in her field and is well-respected by her colleagues.
After the incident, Chopper was seized by the Council and kept locked in the Tauranga Pound – all up he was kept there for 271 days.
The issue before the court was whether Ms Fraser had taken all reasonable steps to ensure Chopper did not hurt anyone. Judge David Cameron had to weigh up the evidence including statements from witnesses; these statements were conflicting including differing information from Dr Schneider and staff working at her practice about what instructions Ms Fraser had been given for when she arrived at the clinic.
In his decision, Judge Cameron felt that Ms Fraser’s account of the incident and the circumstances she, her son, and Chopper found themselves in was more believable. With the not guilty verdict, Chopper has been allowed to go back to his family.
Care of impounded dogs , the Animal Welfare Act, and the Save Chopper campaign
New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act is limited. So long as some form of shelter, food and water are provided to an animal, no other provisions must be made. This is despite the well-understood sentience of dogs and the fact that they have the cognitive abilities of a two-year old child.
Advocates for Chopper have sought, in my view rightfully so, to highlight the conditions Chopper was kept in. During his confinement, he was never allowed out to exercise and, having been labelled as an aggressive dog, he was kept in an enclosure measuring 4x4m, 2.5m high. The enclosure would be hosed out to clean it with him in it and it was reported that Chopper developed pressure sores from being kept in the enclosure with only a plastic bed for bedding. Ms Fraser was allowed to visit (many councils in New Zealand do not allow visitors) and so she witnessed him living in these conditions many times.
Anyone who has ever called the SPCA about a dog left outdoors in all weather conditions will know that the definition of what is shelter, food and water is so basic that dogs are frequently left in poor conditions around New Zealand on a regular basis with no one able to legally intervene on their behalf.
Since dogs are not allowed out on bail, like humans accused of crimes are, supporters of Ms Fraser and Chopper started the Save Chopper campaign to highlight Chopper’s situation.
Highlights and Lowlights
It has been said that from this case there are No Winners because Dr Schneider has been hurt and suffers lasting damage, Chopper has likely been emotionally scarred from his time in captivity, and his owners have had to incur legal costs to defend themselves. These are the lowlights.
In my opinion, however, there are also some highlights:
#1 We now have some case law that looks at the merits of the circumstances leading up to a dog bite.
This is critically important for animal welfare advocates. If you are appalled by the conditions Chopper was kept in, please understand that this was allowed in large part because in New Zealand, it is assumed the dog will be destroyed at the end of the case with a guilty verdict. Judges rely on case law – the collective body of knowledge of all decisions made in the past, considered to be a powerful source of law. Previous cases have always resulted in a guilty verdict (that is, if the dog owner has even defended the charge in the first place); therefore having a case with a not guilty verdict is incredibly powerful.
#2 Ms Fraser was doing the right thing – it’s lost in the media, but let’s remember that she was taking Chopper to the vet to be neutered. This has now been done at another clinic since Chopper’s release. The spay/neuter message is critically important to managing the number of unwanted animals in NZ.
#3 The case is a wake-up call for animal professionals about the principles of working with potentially anxious and stressed dogs and the need to educate staff and clients so they can work as a team. It’s an endorsement of the Fear Free approach, too.
There are things we can do to reduce the stress of a clinic visit and that is well beyond the ‘muzzle the dog and keep them in the car’ evidence that was discussed in the court proceedings. Anxious dogs can be given a pre-med at home, for example, to help reduce their starting point before they even arrive at their vet’s clinic. This is called the Chill Protocol in some of the practices that I deal with, and it is something I often recommend to clients to talk with their vet about.
Fear Free veterinary professionals learn about the concept of Considered Approach, understanding a dog’s body language, being prepared to take your time, and also being willing for the owner and the professional to delay procedures while visits are undertaken to de-sensitise the dog to the fear of the clinic and unfamiliar people wearing masks. All of these things could have, in hindsight, been implemented to help with Chopper’s reactions on the day. (It should also be noted that owners have to be willing to fund the time it takes for professionals working with them using Fear Free principles, something that I have found is not always the case.)
What happens next
Like it or not, Ms Fraser and her family have a lot resting on their shoulders. They need the right support to ensure that Chopper is able to recover from his ordeal, set him up to succeed through training and the gaining of good dog citizen/life skills, and to never-ever have another incident where Chopper bites or hurts another creature. If that happens, all the case law in the world will not save him and the animal welfare agenda in NZ will be set back for years to come.
From what I understand, the family has already sought assistance from a trainer and had Chopper fitted for a muzzle. Fingers crossed, they have started a long and effective journey together.
It is said that the Tauranga District Council is considering an appeal. I hope they do not and I hope that organisations like the NZ Veterinary Association do not push for an appeal with the goal of a guilty verdict so that Chopper can be destroyed.
Instead, it is my hope that these organisations will use the verdict as a learning opportunity – working together to help dog owners and animal professionals to understand their obligations and what they can and should do to set up all dogs for success and to keep humans safe.
Will my hopes be realised? Only time will tell.
Kathleen Crisley, Fear-Free certified professional and specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand