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Switzerland ponders controls on fighting dogs

The authorities are considering a clampdown on breeds like the Staffordshire terrier Keystone

The killing of a six-year-old boy by two fighting dogs in the German city of Hamburg last week made headlines in the Swiss media and propelled the authorities of this country into action.

This content was published on July 1, 2000 - 14:00

A working group in the Federal Veterinary Office is devising a strategy that will be proposed to the federal parliament in the autumn. "All measures are being considered", says group co-ordinator Hans Wyss, "including a ban on certain breeds and a character test on owners of dangerous dogs."

A ban on dangerous breeds was proposed last week by the German government, while France recently introduced tough laws just short of a ban - "dangerous" dogs must always be kept on a leash, wear a muzzle, and must be sterilised.

Breeds deemed dangerous are the Bullterrier, the American Staffordshire Bullterrier ("Pitbull Terrier"), and the Staffordshire Bullterrier, but some experts say other breeds such as the Rottweiler, the Doberman, the Tosa and the Martino Neapolitano should also be included in a list of banned or restricted dogs.

Until tragedy struck in Hamburg last week, Switzerland lagged behind in legislative measures against dangerous, or "fighting" dogs. The federal government recently said in response to a parliamentary motion that the banning of breeds was "problematic", and wanted to relegate the motion - which, if accepted by parliament, requires government action - to a proposition, which requires no immediate action.

Now the authorities seem pleased that parliament has given them a reason to legislate.

However, critics point to the fact that most, if not all, cantons have had by-laws for decades that forbid the careless or dangerous keeping of dogs. Antoine Goetschel, a lawyer and animal expert in Zurich, interviewed in the German-language daily "Tages-Anzeiger" on Friday, says that these laws are often forgotten or neglected by the authorities.

Veterinary expert and dog therapist Linda Hornisberger, who as a member of the Federal Veterinary Office working group is involved in the legislative process, warns against an outright ban on certain breeds. "Owners would take evasive action", she says, "and that would make it more difficult to solve the problem."

One type of evasive action would be to crossbreed dangerous animals with more harmless breeds, Hornisberger says. "You can easily cross a Tosa with a Labrador. The resulting animal can look like a Labrador, but it has the ruthlessness of a Tosa, which means it can be dangerous."

Another problem is the import of dangerous dogs, mainly from Eastern European countries - the most worrying aspect of the issue according to experts. "A ban on breeds wouldn't stop people from illegally importing those same breeds and hiding their animals", Hornisberger says.

Experts say that the Eastern European dog trade is on the increase. It feeds on the demand from individuals in crime-prone inner city social environments. Whereas the majority of owners of so-called dangerous dogs like them for different reasons, for instance for their stamina and patience with rough children, "violent dog owners want violent dogs".

Whereas breeders of pedigree dogs in Switzerland and other Western countries would train so-called dangerous dogs properly and humanely, thereby preventing them from becoming man-attacking beasts, some Eastern European breeders have no such scruples, observers of the trade say. And whereas respectable breeders would not normally sell an animal to a dubious customer, unscrupulous breeders would.

Eastern European dogs reportedly also cost substantially less. "A Bullterrier which would fetch 1500 to 2000 Swiss Francs if bred by a serious breeder in this country, the same breed can go for 300 Francs on the illicit import market," says Josef Anetzhofer, a veterinarian and expert in Biel.

No deaths from so-called fighting dogs have occurred in Switzerland so far. But there have been reports of illegal dogfights in canton Ticino, allegedly organised by Italian nationals who are said to evade the stricter Italian laws, and in February this year a four-year-old girl was attacked and seriously injured by a Rottweiler near Zurich.

by Markus Haefliger

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