The recent decision of the Court of Appeal in Low v New Plymouth District Council has important repercussions for both dog owners and anyone who looks after dogs for others.
Dogs attack horse
The case relates to an incident that happened in June 2021. Ms Low operates a dog day care service and was walking five dogs unleashed along Bell Block Beach, just north of New Plymouth. As she was walking the dogs, three of them, one owned by Ms Low and the other two by clients, attacked a horse which was being ridden along the beach. The dogs jumped at and bit the horse causing cuts to the horse’s belly.
Ms Low was charged under the Dog Control Act with failing to keep the dogs under control. She was charged as the owner of both her own dog and the owner of the two other dogs that attacked the horse. Ms Low contested the charges on the grounds that she was not the owner of the two other dogs that attacked the horse.
Who is considered the ‘owner’?
The District court held that Ms Low was not the owner of the two dogs she was walking for clients. The Council appealed and the High Court disagreed with the District Court and said for the purposes of the Act she was. Ms Low appealed and the Court of appeal agreed with the High Court.
The court found that Ms Low, at the time of the incident, was the owner of all the dogs that attacked the horse.
Possession is ownership (with one exception)
The court found that a person who is in possession of a dog is the owner of the dog for the purposes of the Act unless:
- The possession of the dog is for the sole purpose of preventing the dog causing injury or damage, or for the sole purpose of returning a lost dog to its owner, AND
- The possession does not exceed 72 hours.
This means anyone who takes possession of a dog is considered its owner unless the exception above applies. So someone taking another person’s dog for a walk or temporarily caring for another person’s dog (i.e. ‘dog-sitting’) is, for the time they look after it, considered the owner of the dog.
What are the obligations of an ‘owner’?
The consequences of this is that whoever is in possession of a dog has the same obligations as the owner does so, among other things, they must:
- keep the dog under control at all times,
- take all reasonable steps to ensure the dog does not injure any person or animal, and
- take all reasonable steps to ensure the dog does not damage any property.
Ms Low now faces a fine of up to $21,000.