Are dogs man's best friend, as pet lovers have long claimed? Or a very dangerous menace? The question is being asked in New Zealand following a horrific mauling this month which left a two-year-old girl playing in a public park so badly savaged that she needed 290 stitches in her face.
It was the latest in a series of vicious dog attacks this year, including one that killed a 56-year-old woman who was set upon by two animals as she walked down the street near her house.
The attack which left little Aotea Coxon horribly disfigured was followed a few days later by an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal in which University of Otago lecturer David Healey declared that dog attacks posed a "significant health hazard", especially for children under the age of five.
Healey analysed statistics, which showed that children under five accounted for nearly 25 percent of all people admitted to New Zealand hospitals with dog bites.
Their size made them vulnerable, he said, because they were often at the same height as a dog and tended to maintain eye contact, which dogs see as threatening.
As is often the case, the owners of the American Staffordshire terrier-cross that attacked Aotea after escaping from their fenced backyard, said it had never been aggressive before.
New Zealand introduced a new dog control law in 2003 after seven-year-old Carolina Anderson had chunks of her face ripped out by another American Staffordshire terrier - also in a public park - in Auckland.
That law banned imports of four breeds dubbed the most dangerous - American pitbull terrier, Brazilian fila, Dogo Argentino and Japanese Tosa. Dogs of those breeds already in the country must be muzzled in public. Newly registered dogs of all breeds must be injected with identity microchips, enabling their owners to be traced in the event of attacks and their owners are supposed to have their homes securely fenced.
Opponents of the law said that owners of rogue dogs likely to attack people were unlikely to register their dogs anyway. Rejecting calls for bans on dogs of all breeds known to be aggressive, the New Zealand Kennel Club said it was impossible to put crossbreeds accurately into defined breeds.
"Dogs of any breed are capable of attacking people if they are not trained properly or are mistreated by their owners," the New Zealand Herald noted in an editorial. "Banning particular breeds leads down a path that ends, presumably, with miniature schnauzers and dachshunds."
Prime Minister Helen Clark said she had enormous sympathy for victims of dog attacks and called for a review of the 2003 law to see if it was working effectively and if more breeds should be banned. "It gives you the creeps to think of dangerous dogs strolling around, ready to pounce on innocent people," she said.
But a breeder of Staffordshire bull terriers said that nine times out of 10 dogs attacked only if provoked or cornered. "You get the odd rogue dog but you don't see dogs walking up and down the street looking for children to bite," she told the Herald.
A home dog training website called Barkbusters says: "No breed is untrainable. No dog is too old to learn new tricks." It says: "The best way to avoid an attack by a dog you see running at you is to stand totally still. Do not move a muscle, and do not try to pat the dog. Even some dogs that appear friendly might not like being touched. Wait for the dog to lose interest in you." And if you are attacked, Barkbusters advises: "If you are knocked to the ground by a dog do not attempt to get back up. Lie totally still, roll yourself up into a foetal position and stay there.
"The dog is looking for a victory, and if you keep trying to get back up, it will only result in the dog trying to pull you back down, resulting in a vicious attack."