New breed-specific ordinance in Austria causes anger from dog owners
VIENNA — Carolin Fabian jokes that the only thing her American Staffordshire terrier Tobias fights for is a place on the couch.
"He's very calm. He's happy when he can sleep, eat ... go for a bit of a walk when it's not too hot or raining," said the 35-year-old Fabian.
Sounds harmless. But starting Thursday, Fabian and owners of 11 other breeds known as aggressive "fight dogs" will be under stricter scrutiny: a hotly debated new law requires Viennese and longterm visitors who own such dogs to carry a license proving they can keep their pets in check.
Some say the measure will make public spaces safer; critics call it canine profiling.
The dog magazine Wuff tried to make that point in a highly controversial manner -- by publishing a flier that showed a young pit bull wearing a yellow star with the word "bad" inscribed in it, seated next to a Labrador puppy. A headline above the two asked: "What differentiates us?" The magazine dropped the yellow star from its campaign after protests from the Jewish community.
Months later, emotions are still running high.
Alexander Willer, a spokesman for Vienna's main animal shelter, said the list of affected dogs -- which includes Rottweilers, pit bull terriers, mastiffs and others -- was compiled "at random" and has made it harder for abandoned breeds of this kind to find new homes.
"The image of these dogs has hit rock bottom," Willer said, adding that since Christmas, the number of "fight dogs" seeking refuge in the shelter increased from 123 to 170.
"The majority of people who own these kinds of dogs are normal -- they aren't psychopaths," Willer said.
Maybe not -- but dangerous incidents still happen, said Valentina Simic, 21, whose young son narrowly escaped an attack by a Rottweiler.
"Dogs are cute and all, but if people can't handle them properly then they shouldn't be allowed to own them," she said as she sat on a park bench on a recent balmy evening.
Officials estimate that about 2,500 dogs will be affected by the new law in a city where man's best friend is often spotted snoozing in cafes, riding the subway and sitting outside shops.
If owners don't comply by this time next year and are caught without a permit, they face fines and could even see their pet confiscated by police.
"The animal doesn't have to know any tricks, fetch the paper or do a double back flip -- all the owner has to do is show that he has it under control in a city setting," City Councilor Ulli Sima said.
"This is not about the criminalization of any types of dogs," added fellow Councilor Sandra Frauenberger.
Elsewhere in Europe, the situation varies. Denmark on Thursday added 12 more dog breeds -- the American Staffordshire terrier, Brazilian Fila, American bulldog and Dogo Argentino, among others -- to an outright ban on dangerous dogs that already included pit bull terriers and tosas.
Under a 2007 law in Portugal, owners of seven breeds identified as dangerous must get a license and can only do so if they are over 18, have passed a physical and mental aptitude test and don't have a criminal record.
In the Slovak capital of Bratislava, regulations for about half a dozen type of "fight dogs" were axed a year after a successful lobbying campaign by owners of such breeds.
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-- Veronika Oleksyn, Associated Press
Photo: Carolin Fabian, right, and her son Pascal walk Tobias, their American Staffordshire terrier, on June 30. Credit: Hans Punz / Associated Press