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Dogs as Scapegoats for Social Problems
Dogs as Scapegoats for Social Problems
by Judy Mann


The killing of a 6-year-old boy by two attack dogs has created a firestorm of hysteria in Germany that is symptomatic of growing stresses between Germans, imported Turkish laborers and the German underworld.

Within days of the June 26 attack on the Turkish child by a pit bull and a Staffordshire terrier, the German government passed laws banning three breeds: pit bulls, American Staffordshire terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers. Many of Germany's 16 provinces then passed their own laws banning various breeds of attack dogs and restricted ownership of up to 30 other breeds. Owners of the restricted breeds are required to have permits and to leash and muzzle their dogs. They also face heavy licensing fees, and dog law violators are subject to steep fines and jail terms.

As a result, owners have been dumping dogs at shelters across Germany, a country that loves its dogs. In Hamburg, where the attack took place, shelter facilities filled up with more than 300 dogs, and 90 have been euthanized, according to Max-Klaus Frey, a lawyer who owns a Turkish livestock guardian dog known as a Kangal and who runs an Internet mailing list, "Friends of the Livestock Guardian Dog."

Attack dogs have become a growing problem in Germany. The animals are favored by Turkish workers, young toughs, drug dealers, pimps and skinheads, and there have been a number of attacks on humans. Frankfurt tightened its rules in 1997 after an attack dog killed an elderly woman. Bavaria has banned a small number of breeds since 1994, said Frey in a phone interview, and "if any fighting dog is detected, the whole might of Bavarian authorities is going against him."

But in other parts of Germany, Frey said, authorities have ignored the problem of attack or fighting dogs, which have become increasingly numerous in crowded city slums. In Hamburg, he said, "they didn't pay attention to this problem for years, and now who was the first to have the most severe regulations?"

The pit bull involved in the death of the boy had attacked three dogs in April, and the owner had been ordered to keep it leashed and muzzled. The man, who is Turkish, and a woman companion were arrested after the attack for failing to leash and muzzle the pit bull. The owner faces possible manslaughter charges. Hamburg has one of the most extensive lists of banned and restricted breeds.

Dogs on the list of restricted animals include the three groups of Ovcharkas and the Kangal, large dogs bred to guard livestock over many square miles of terrain.

Readers of this column know that my husband and I own a Middle Asian Ovcharka, the lovely 105-pound Norma. I discovered what was going on in Germany through an Internet mailing list I subscribe to because of her. Postings on the list describe an atmosphere of hysteria and fear in Germany, which Frey confirmed. Dog owners are uncertain what to do.

"If I drive 10 kilometers, I have to abide by completely different laws," he says. Furthermore, laws are being passed so rapidly that there aren't enough experts--people who know how to identify the different breeds or their mixes--to enforce them. These laws also regulate all dogs that stand taller than 15.7 inches and weigh more than 44 pounds, and that means that for the first time, the revered German shepherd is being affected. This has brought the powerful Association for German Dogs into the controversy. There is pending litigation over the laws.

Politicians, Frey said, are shooting from the hip. What's behind the legal frenzy are serious social problems involving slums, gangs and foreigners.

"It's very difficult to get permission to wear a weapon. So all these groups are armed by these special dogs," he said.

The attack occurred in a slum that has a high concentration of these dogs, Frey said. The problem is further exacerbated, he said, because during the last decade Turks have smuggled Kangals out of Turkey and into Germany, hoping to sell them for a lot of money and then finding that people with money don't want these big dogs. "I saw a poster that shows fighting dogs, and it says, 'You can kill us, but your social problems will stay on.' You cannot solve our social problems on the backs of these dogs."

The media are fanning the anti-dog hysteria. People walking dogs are being accosted in the streets. One animal, identified as a bull terrier or a Bordeaux Dogge, was set on fire with kerosene and killed, and two others were knifed. There are also reports of people attacking dog owners.

At the moment, Frey said, there is no possibility of sensible discussion. He warned that when certain breeds are banned, other breeds will start being trained as attack dogs or fighting dogs and that differences between dangerous breeds and breeds that can be reliably socialized by responsible owners and breeders will disappear.

Germany is not alone in trying to deal with dangerous dogs. Italy, France and Great Britain have banned certain breeds, and there is support for standardizing regulations for the European Union. But what Germany has right now is a mess, brought on by years of inaction. This is not very different from the situation in the United States, where we continue to have maulings and killings but have yet to have a sensible discussion about how to protect people and safe dogs from dangerous dogs.

Banning certain breeds may be part of the answer. Enforcing laws against dog fighting is another. We should consider laws that require owners to demonstrate that they know how to manage a dog, just as we do with drivers of cars. We need to understand that livestock guard dogs need farms to live on, not two-bedroom apartments. We can learn from the German debacle and take intelligent, informed and enforceable steps to make sure that man's best friend is not again caught in the middle and turned into a scapegoat for social problems and human irresponsibility.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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