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Geneva voters' decision to tighten the law on dangerous dogs is likely to serve as a model for other cantons.

On Sunday voters in canton Geneva agreed to tighten the leash, banning dangerous dogs and requiring owners whose dogs weigh more than 25kg to have a permit to walk them in public.

Although Geneva is a canton of dog lovers – 32,000 dogs live on its territory of less than 250 square kilometres – about 65 per cent of voters came out in support of stricter rules. These follow tighter controls on the ownership of dogs passed in June 2007.

Cathy Maret, spokesperson for the Federal Veterinary Office, is convinced of the significance of the Geneva vote.

"It's the first time there has been a popular vote to ban certain breeds of dogs; and it's a clear signal by canton Geneva," Maret told swissinfo.

Dangerous dogs have been under the spotlight in Switzerland after the horrific death of a six-year-old boy killed by pit bull terriers in November 2005 in a small town near Zurich.

Bans on dangerous dogs have already been imposed in cantons Valais and Fribourg and are under discussion in several other cantons, but so far there have been no specific nationwide laws on the issue.

Geneva leads

While other cantons have been rather slow to react mainly due to political inertia, the Geneva population, prompted by several serious mauling incidents, has forced its politicians to lead the way.

Under the new measures, considered as "complementary" to the current tough regime in Geneva, 12 dangerous dog breeds will be banned and owners whose dogs weigh more 25kg will need a permit to walk them in public.

The existing law already requires all dog owners to follow a complete obedience course with their animal, and people who walk dogs for other people to hold a licence.

Owners of dangerous dogs must also hold a licence, prove they have completed a dog-training course and that the animal comes from an approved breeder. It is strictly illegal to breed or cross fighting dogs, and just one dog of a dangerous breed is allowed per household. Dangerous dogs also have to wear a muzzle in public spaces.

Since June 2007, the number of dangerous dogs in the canton has fallen from 900 to 660.

But Verena Ammann, spokeswoman for the Swiss Canine Association, felt tougher cantonal laws on dangerous dogs such as those in Geneva were unfair to the ordinary dog owner.

"We know that it's not the breeds, but individual dogs that are dangerous. All these restrictions hit ordinary dog owners without giving more security to society," she told swissinfo.

"Dialogue of the deaf"

Yet overall, compared with France, Italy, Germany and Britain, Swiss legislation on dangerous dogs is considered to be among the least restrictive in Europe.

"Switzerland is certainly not top of the class," admitted Maret.

Looked at more widely, the dangerous dogs issue is more like a "dialogue of the deaf" between the population who want more restrictive measures and the response provided by the vets and dog-lovers, she said.

"My impression is that if we voted to ban [dangerous] dogs in Switzerland today, there is a high chance that it would pass," she added.

In December 2005 the tabloid newspaper Blick launched a petition to ban pit bulls, collecting more than 175,000 signatures.

At the federal level, following the 2005 fatal pitbull attack, parliament debated measures to protect the population and called on the government to strengthen federal legislation.

A parliamentary commission was set up and is currently finalising a draft law on dangerous dogs.

Although the cantons are moving faster than the Swiss parliament, Maret believes there is a political willingness to find a federal solution to the dangerous dog debate in the coming months.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

In brief

A fatal attack by three pitbull terriers on a six-year-old boy in 2005 sparked renewed debate about a law on dangerous dogs.

Parliament debated measures to protect the population against dangerous dogs. The Senate and the House of Representatives supported a motion calling for legislation at federal level.

Under current Swiss legislation each of the country's 26 cantons is responsible for setting laws to control dog ownership.

The law on the protection of animals made it compulsory from January 1, 2007 for all dogs to have a tattoo or microchip.

Since May 2006 dog bites and dogs behaving aggressively have had to be reported to the cantonal authorities.

Each year around 13,000 people in Switzerland are bitten by a dog and need medical treatment.

Dog owners currently are not responsible for damage if they can prove that their pets have been kept correctly. Under a draft law, to be discussed by parliament at a later stage, dog owners would also have to take out mandatory insurance.

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