Australians Face a Penalty for Not Walking Their Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

walking your dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • New legislation in Australia aimed at people who fail to walk their dogs is targeted toward abusers identified for continual abuse and neglect of dogs, including failure to walk them every 24 hours
  • The stiffest fines and jail time set forth in the legislation are issued when dogs are kept confined in crates, or the equivalent, for 24 hours a day, as by law they’re to be given at minimum two hours of exercise in a 24-hour period
  • Failure to walk, feed and water dogs regularly, or provide shelter and protect their mental welfare could lead to penalties under the new legislation
  • The most severe penalties for failure to treat dogs as sentient beings include fines, jail time, confiscation of the dogs and an interim ownership ban
  • The law focuses on perpetrators of animal cruelty, so it won’t have an unjustified or unnecessary impact on the majority of owners who do care about the welfare of their dogs

On occasion, people forget the most basic needs of their canine companions. It's hard to believe, but for their own convenience, some of these individuals leave their dogs cooped up in cages all day, and sometimes all night. Conscientious dog owners understand how important it is to walk their dog at least once daily, and offer them multiple opportunities to engage in healthy play, relieve themselves, and get fresh air, exercise, food, water and shelter from the elements.

However, not all dog owners are dog lovers, which is why the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly passed the Animal Welfare Legislation Amendment Bill 2019 in October.

The animal welfare law requires dog owners who neglect to walk their dogs daily to pay fines as high as $2,700 (AU$4,000), CNN World1 reports, but other fines in regard to animal welfare were also put in place. Christ Steel, ACT Minister for City Services, noted that failing to provide water or shelter for a dog is also an offense subject to fines for owners:

"Under the new laws, if serious animal welfare abuses are committed, the Animal Welfare Authority can impose an interim ownership ban of up to six months. The Authority can also seize, retain, sell or rehome an animal where appropriate. The maximum penalties for serious cruelty offences have also been increased with up to three years jail time for aggravated cruelty."2

New Recognition of Dogs as 'Sentient Beings'

Steel noted the Territory's zero-tolerance approach to animal cruelty and made several observations regarding the new law, which were listed in an ACT news release:3

  • They reflect the values for how to treat domestic animals, livestock and wildlife
  • They'll "enable better enforcement of laws to protect animals"
  • Officers will find it easier to issue fines for offences "as part of the new escalating enforcement framework to deter further acts of cruelty from happening"
  • For the first time, animals are recognized as feeling emotions and pain
  • The new laws will make the ACT a leader in animal welfare within Australia and Canberra at large

The purpose for the bill points to a new categorization of dogs as "sentient beings," which the Australian legislature explains is the reason for such stringent measures. According to The Bark:

"It is also the first time under law in Australia that animals are being considered as sentient beings. This is a huge shift in legal understanding moving animals out of the category of property — like a couch, or lamp, and instead recognizing that dogs are capable of feeling emotion and pain, and that laws governing their care need to take that into account.

The legislation dictates that animals have intrinsic value and deserve to be treated with compassion and have a quality of life that reflects their intrinsic value. The law makes clear that it is not enough for the physical needs of an animal to be met, but in addition their mental welfare must also be taken into account when looking at the quality of life of dogs."4

However, the law has a narrow focus on perpetrators of animal cruelty, so it won't have an unjustified or unnecessary impact on the majority of dog owners, who do care about the welfare of their dogs.

Who Is the Australian Legislation Meant For?

Due to health problems, work schedules, emergencies and other factors, some owners find it's not always possible to walk their dog every morning and evening without fail, and on those occasions may take a quick spin with their pooches — or just allow them a romp in an enclosed backyard — just long enough for the necessary potty break.

Understandably, this has caused some anxiety on the parts of those who are actually very responsive to provide for their pet's needs and give them ahealthy, happy life.

But those aren't the individuals the law was targeted toward. Persons deemed guilty of an offense as stated by the law's phraseology are those who confine their dog so it isn't able to exercise for a continuous 24-hour period; further, that the dog is neither exercised nor allowed to exercise itself for the next two hours, or "The next 1 (one) hour and for another hour in the next 24-hour period."5

The measure specifies that the law is not for owners who keep their dogs in a house or yard where they're free to move around and get exercise, and it's not for dogs that must be kept confined for their own safety. An example of that would be when a veterinarian advises that a dog be kept in a crate following a surgical procedure because free roaming would be dangerous for its health.

Dog owners are not subjected to fines when someone in the role of guardian is staying with the dog while the owner is away from home, nor, as mentioned, is the law for households where dogs are free to move around inside during the day or spend the majority of their day-to-day life with their families either in the home or in the yard.

Instead, the law only pertains to situations where "dogs [are] kept confined (in crates or small runs) for 24 hours a day," and aren't given "appropriate opportunities to display behavior that is normal for the animal."6 Additionally:

"The legislation is designed to enforce the idea that (dogs) have the legal right to be and act like dogs, to play and move freely at least for a very limited amount of time each day. This new legislation doesn't actually dictate what kind of exercise a dog gets just that they must be given space and time to freely move."7

More Points in the Australian Animal Welfare Legislation

To encapsulate the new law, you could say that when dogs aren't given a chance to do anything other than sit, stand or lie down on a continual basis, they're being abused.

But another "arm" of the law gives investigators the authority to help dogs that are victims of such abuse and neglect. At the same time, the law exacts stiffer penalties on convicted abusers. Not only are fines a possibility for pet abuse perpetrators, but depending on the circumstances, jail time of up to three years is a possible penalty.

Interestingly, not only are electric shock devices like collars also banned under new sections of the law, collars that administer shocks to the dog when they cross a property boundary ("invisible fences," for example) are also prohibited.

Another newly introduced point in the dog legislation concerns pet-related businesses, which are now required to acquire a license if they sell any animals, board animals or if they have direct dealings with pets. CNN World reported other penalties designed to help curb animal neglect:

"Owners can face heavy on-the-spot fines if they fail to provide basics like shelter, food and water. People who confine dogs for 24 hours must also allow them to move freely for the next two hours or face prosecution."8

RSPCA Australia (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) says its mission is to "prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection." Michelle Robertson, RSPCA ACT CEO, issued a statement of support, stating:

"We need strong laws to help protect animals and to deter animal cruelty. We also need strong sentencing to be passed down for animal cruelty offences that will bring consequences for animal cruelty in line with community expectations."9