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Bite German Dog Owners - A wave of breed-specific legislation
in Germany has raised the ire of enthusiasts and the issue of public safety
By Elizabeth Crosby Simpson

Like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo, it didn't cause the war, but the killing of a 6-year-old boy by two dogs in Hamburg, Germany, in June locked long-feuding German dog lovers, legislators, angry, tearful and frightened citizens, the criminal underworld, dog professionals and the ever-watchful world press up in a confrontation from which there was no turning back. As the smoke clears, German dog enthusiasts are finding themselves faced with a complicated and intimidating mix of breed bans, restrictions and anti-dog sentiment.

In Germany, where only police officers are allowed to carry handguns, dogs trained to attack had become the favored weapon of thugs, skinheads, drug dealers and other bothersome factions living on Germany's social margins. Criminal elements even had tried importing Turkey's national canine, the Kangal Dog, in anticipation of a strong demand from affluent Germans, but instead found few buyers for this large breed, which traditionally is used as a livestock guardian in its homeland. The courageous and massively jawed bull terrier breeds seemed easier for them to import, keep and train in aggression. For many shady owners, dog fighting also was a sport and a tidy second income.

With reports of dog bites and maulings growing more frequent, the German government has kept the idea of enacting stringent dog laws simmering on the back burner for some time. Germany wasn't the first to consider such actions, however. In 1991, England passed the Dangerous Dogs Act, which prohibited pit bull terriers, Japanese Tosas, Dogo Argentinos and Fila Brasileiros.

The breed-ban issue was brought tot he forefront, however, on June 26 in Hamburg when an American Staffordshire Terrier and an American Pit Bull Terrier stormed onto a playground where 6-year-old Volkan Kaja and his friends were playing soccer. The children fled the scene, but Kaja fell to the ground, where the dogs surrounded him, pinned him down and killed him.


Gregor von Dungen, president of the Gesellschaft der Bullterrier-Freunde (German Society of Bull Terrier Friends), spoke with reporter Nick Mays in England's OUR DOGS, calling the death of the little boy on the Hamburg playground a "Massacre ... We have since learned that the [owner of the dogs] was ... convicted 17 times for robbery, grievous bodily harm and dog fighting."

Government reaction to the incident was swift: "Attack dogs are a lethal danger and therefore have to disappear from our streets," said federal Interior Minister Otto Schily on June 27. Hamburg's mayor, Ortwin Runde, demanded an immediate ban on all breeding and ownership of fighting breeds. Vague plans to institute breed-specific laws by late summer suddenly took top priority. The attack on the little boy preceded by mere hours a similar attack in the city of Cologne on an elderly man, who claimed he was punched by another man and bitten in the face by the man's pit bull terrier-type dog for pointing out that the dog should not be running around unleashed.

Indeed, the Hamburg dogs' owner, his 19-year-old female companion and the dogs responsible for killing the little boy were not unknown to police. FOCUS, a German affairs magazine, reported in its July 3 issue that "Ibrahim K., the owner of the dog Zeus, is a 23-year-old Turk. He has already been investigated 18 times by police because of possessing drugs, bodily harm, possession of weapons [and] theft, amongst other things. In his flat police found videos of dogfights." The article included a list of his arrests and convictions over the past two years and further noted that the owner had indeed been ordered to keep his dogs leashed and muzzled in public places following at least three reported attacks by his dogs on others prior to the Hamburg killing.

Ibrahim K. also owned the other dog involved in the attack. Both canines were killed by police during attempts to rescue the child. A subsequent autopsy on Zeus showed the presence of drugs in his body and that he had been starved for approximately three days prior to the attack.

Ibrahim K.'s well-publicized failure to comply (both dogs involved in the attack were unleashed and unmuzzled), as well as a public perception that the police had not adequately responded to reports that Ibrahim K. and his friend had placed wagers on these dogs in orchestrated dog fights, promoted quickly escalating public outrage, and the German press snapped it up.

Sensational reports in the press about dog attacks, along with editorials and "opinions" about the "Koter" or "devil-dogs," kept alive a public hysteria and call for action the government no longer could ignore. Prior to the Hamburg incident, the reported killing of an 86-year-old woman by a Rottweiler already had added to the anti-dog sentiment and led the German Home Secretary (a governmental official who oversees domestic affairs) to call for a broad, immediate and outright ban on "all fighting breeds." The brutal, fatal attack on the Hamburg boy and the slaying of his canine attackers, however, gave the secretary a trump card -- and opened the door for some of the toughest breed-specific legislation ever passed worldwide.

On June 28, just two days after the Hamburg attack, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government declared that American Pit Bull Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and American Staffordshire Terriers would henceforth be banned in all of Germany. (As in this article, these three breeds often are collectively referred to as bull terriers, pit bulls or pit bull terriers.) Two days, it could be argued, is far too brief a time period for the government to have solicited, collected and carefully considered input on the Hamburg incident and the proposed ban from dog breeders, veterinarians, national registries or training organizations.

Schroeder's order further required each of the 16 German states to formulate its own breed-specific legislation to deal with the outward manifestation of festering social problems: dogs owned by the criminal element that are bred and trained specifically to attack. No differentiation among pet, show, working or vicious dogs was made, other than to identify them by breed and ask that the states follow suit.

The German state of Hessen, just south of Lower Saxony where the killing of the child occurred, was the first to formulate breed-specific legislation covering more than just bull terrier breeds. Hessen's law bans dogs in three categories: 1) fighting dogs; 2) dogs with dangerous potential; and 3) any dog more than 15.7 inches tall and 44 pounds. Catrin Walker, an English dog fancier living just over the German border in Austria with her German husband, provides a translation of Hessen's law (see "Breeds On The Blacklist"), which became the model for other states.

Hessen, like some other states, requires temperament testing before issuing a license to own one of the banned breeds. The test is videotaped, can run as long as five hours and costs the dog's owner $500, a price that includes the dog's observation and written evaluation by "experts." Dogs that fail the temperament test may be euthanized.

Even if the dog passes, ownership still must be for a "very good reason." For example, the law in Nordrhein-Westfalen states that those who want to retain ownership of a banned breed must get a certificate from the "Chamber of Veterinarians" proving that they have the "accordingly necessary knowledge and skills" to own the dog. Those who have a hunting license or "persons owning a dog ... for more than 3 years, in cases where no events have been recorded in relation on the part of the authorities for the prevention of cruelty to animals or local authorities," may be allowed to keep their dogs.


Far from settling or even quieting the controversy, the published wording of the new legislation made dogs of every breed, occupation and value -- along with their owners -- objects of public ridicule, scorn, beatings and even extermination.

According to Walker, "In the media-instigated backlash ... a lady who always took her Bearded Collie on a walk to her husband's grave was assaulted by visitors to other memorials who threw stones and garden tools at her and her dog." To Walker, there are two seemingly insoluble problems: unfair treatment of dog owners and dogs by the German government and violent, discriminatory treatment of dog owners and dogs by the German people.

Heiki Brzezinski, a Bull Terrier breeder from Selm, relates how a crowd set upon a Bull Terrier and its owner in a Berlin street. While the owner was beaten and held down, a crowd poured petrol over the dog and set fire to it, killing it.

The same day, Walker relates, an Austrian woman who shows Bull Terriers was driving along the autobahn and pulled in a service station for a short break. When she returned to her car, four men wielding baseball bats confronted her. They reportedly pointed to the Bull Terrier stickers in her car and told her that she was a "child killer" and not wanted there with her "devil dogs." The men smashed her car windows and headlights, and when she protested, they clubbed her unconscious with the bats.

Breeds that specifically have been banned are not the only ones at risk. "A Parson Jack Russell [Terrier] was kicked to death," Brzezinski says, "just because it had long legs and a patch over one eye. The attackers told the dog's owner that it looked like a pit bull and that's all they needed to know."

And living just inside the Austrian border doesn't protect or comfort Walker and her dogs because, "[Austrians] frequently cross the border, some people daily for work," she explains. "My neighbor used to run her Rottweiler loose over our fields. Now she keeps the dog to Heel when exercising. We always ran our dogs through the fields, too, [but] now we hear cries from the German tourists asking us to leash them. People do strange things when they are frightened. It has changed the way many dog owners in our area behave."

According to Walker and von Dungen, the media's coverage of the attacks and the legislation that followed has, in some cases, contributed to the hysteria. Some media reports have featured photos of muzzled dogs, dogs with teeth bared and police holding signs much like "Wanted" posters featuring the banned breeds. One media image depicted a row of five open-mouthed dogs, all banned breeds, and the headline: "We Must Remain Calm."

"Every day," von Dungen told OUR DOGS, "the newspapers give an account about new laws. It is very confusing."

He explained that the media has told people to report "fighting dogs," but as the above incidents illustrate, some have taken the law into their own hands. "Dog owners are afraid of going on the street," von Dungen continued. "People kick the dogs, insult the owners, throw rocks at them and slash the tires of cars which have stickers with heads of the discriminated dogs."

Meanwhile, Mays reports, politicians from all parties appeared on television denouncing all such dogs and calling for new legislation to control them. "The fight against the [Dangerous Dogs Act] was for nothing," von Dungen adds. "The politicians reacted as fast as they had never done before. I'm afraid that no judge in Germany will decide for [dog owners] in any legal challenges."


An internet discussion and mailing list quickly was created by concerned dog owners, along with a World Wide Web site, The site very nearly didn't survive criticism of its assessment of Germany's "Kristallnacht" for dogs, however, or even of its own name, "Dog Holocaust." Defending the list name, a woman identified only as Anja, one of the site's founders and herself a victim of a senseless "report" and persecution, writes in a posting titled "sad and angry greetings from Germany":

"I know that it's a touchy subject to make comparisons to what happened to Jewish people 60 years ago.

"As far as I am concerned, I do not know any other word that would suit the situation better. I am ashamed of being German, I hate my country and all those that are doing this to us right now and by God, I will never forget it. With my husband being American and black, we've had our good share of racism and discrimination in Germany, but what's going on right now beats everything I could ever imagine. I am sorry if Jewish families through the name of this mailing list once again get reminded of the horrible things their families and friends had to go through, but maybe remembering is what needs to be done now, so the world stands up and beats down on Germany once again! It may just be the dogs now, then their owners, but what comes next?"

Anja herself has been reported to the police for wearing a T-shirt that featured the image of a bull terrier and later had her dog confiscated when she removed its muzzle. The dog, a Schnauzer mix, wasn't on any of the banned-breed lists. The police returned her dog on August 5, approximately one month after she posted her "sad, angry greetings."

Indeed, as Anja and others in Germany past and present have asked, "Who will come next?"

Edith Steffen is a German champion of the Leonberger, a breed not specifically placed in categories 1 or 2 but perceived as a threat because of its size. She is a vocal, tireless and impassioned member of the Dog Holocaust group and has led four demonstrations against breed-specific legislation throughout Germany. According to Steffen, the crowds, numbering as many as 10,000 at the Dusseldorf protest held July 22, have been sympathetic, although she says she was surprised to see that "there were no thugs present; just respectable dog owners and citizens like themselves, concerned for their animals."

According to Steffen, even the police which were called in to maintain order, have been sympathetic and helpful. "At the Dusseldorf demonstration, they even let us use their amplifiers so all speakers could be heard throughout the square," Steffen says. Paraphrasing the famous quote of Lutheran minister, philosopher, resistance leader and World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Steffen marches with a placard illustrating four breeds, declaring, in her own translation:

"First they came for the Bull Terrier and other bull-type-breed. I said nothing as I did not own a Bull Terrier. Then they came for the Rottweiler. I said [nothing] ... did not own. Then they came for the Pyr (or any other breed). I still said nothing as I did not own. Finally they came for my Leonbergers ... and there was no one left to speak for me."

Sadly, Steffen's beloved Leos indeed had been targeted. From France she received the news that a Leonberger from Mrs. Blin's kennel was killed with a revolver by a police officer in Saint Jean de Monts in France. This happened because the dog ran away in the neighborhood. The police explained that the action was necessary for "tourist security."


Reaction in the Western Hemisphere has been slow to come, perhaps because Germany's broadcast of its "solution" to the dangerous dog problem has not been as widespread as its reporting of the violent incidents leading up to it.

Steffen hopes that more coverage abroad about the ban, however, will help change the situation in Germany. "It's our great good fortune that the press in the United States and the U.K. have come forward to cover out situation," she wrote. "I know that you aren't restrained by political considerations [as the press is in Germany] and can thus 'spread the word all over the world.' This means that every event will be brought to world attention as soon as it happens, and I think this will make some people and officials a bit more careful. They all want to have a good reputation."

Most American enthusiasts originally learned of the dangerous dog problem through internet posts and email from European friends, who forwarded copies of Mays' columns in OUR DOGS , along with Eric Pilgrim's excellent three-part series for the U.S. Military's Stars and Stripes. Washington Post reporter Judy Mann, who owns Norma, a 105-pound Central Asian Ovcharka, wrote in her July 7 column, "Dogs as Scapegoats for Social Ills," that she'd heard of the new laws only after her dog's breeder informed her it was on the internet. Her considered assessment was that the current legislation was as much about Germany's troubled society as it was about the owning and training of vicious dogs.

Mann's expert source, Bavarian lawyer Max-Klaus Frey, lives in a province where many breeds have been banned for years, and publishes "Friends of the Livestock Guardian Dog" on the internet. He notes that the prevailing mass hysteria prods owners to dump their dogs in animal shelters and estimates that 300 dogs already had been euthanized as of this writing in August. Disturbing photos of dogs' bodies filling dumpsters have appeared on the internet and fueled the protests. "They do [the killing and dumping] at night," he says. He believes, however, that "most of the dogs euthanized in shelters so far have been banned breeds that have no owners."

"Not so," said one owner on the Holocaust list, pointing out that one of the dogs in the photo was her bitch who still had stitches from a recent spay. The posting did not indicate the breed of the dog or the circumstances under which it came to be seized, however.

American military personnel living in Germany wondered how the new laws would affect their pets. In his series in Stars and Stripes, Pilgrim provided the few available answers: Quoting Millie Waters, the spokeswoman for USAREUR (U.S. Army Europe), Pilgrim told Americans that under the U.S. Armed Forces Agreement, they must comply with German laws regarding the ownership and breeding of dogs.

American soldiers, like Europeans, found themselves wrapped in the intricacies and conflicts of the new edicts. Air Force Staff Sgt. Denise Yager and her 4-month-old Mastiff are sale in the state of Rheinland-Palatinate, which so far has targeted only bull terriers and bull terrier mixes. Less fortunate is Airman Glenn Mayo of that state. He bought a Staffordshire Terrier to show and breed and is determined to fight the legislation.

"It's discrimination, and I won't stand for it," Mayo says. "My concern is that they are going to push these beautiful breeds into extinction just because of some bad owners.


Not all residents of Germany, however, are as adamant as foreigners such as Mayo. One recent poll indicates that a surprising 74 percent of Germans support the ban, according to Steve Dale's syndicated "My Pet World" newspaper column. According to Pilgrim, "Some wonder how a nation so in love with its dogs can turn on them so quickly," and to him the answer is clear: dog bites and the damage they can inflict on humans, especially small children.

Quoting a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 1994, Pilgrim writes, "62 percent of patients treated for severe dog bites were children under the age of 6 and 92 percent were 10 years or younger." The American Medical Association estimates that more than 50 percent of the bites it has documented in children have been bites to the head.

Walker provides bite statistics kept and published by the German government in 1998. The first number indicates the breed's position on the list, and the figure after the name indicates actual bites recorded:

58 breeds registered:

  1. German Shepherd Dog mixes: 2,379
  2. German Shepherd Dogs: 1,956
  3. Rottweiler: 542
  4. "Pit Bull": 320
  5. Doberman Pinscher: 223
  6. Bull Terrier: 169

Although the German Shepherd Dog conceivably would be included in category 3 because of its size, the obvious question still remains: Because Germany's own statistics find the nation's beloved national GSD heading the list in bites inflicted, why does the breed not appear in either of the first two "dangerous dog" categories with its compatriots, the Rottweiler and the Doberman Pinscher?

The answer may say more about politics than about dog breeds. Walker speculates that the inclusion of the German Shepherd Dog in the breed ban would cause a political eruption in Germany. "It is generally held that, although the GSD and its crosses cause more bites per year than the pit bull, Doberman Pinscher or Rottweiler, it would be political suicide to include it."

The government, however, has offered no explanation as to why the GSD does not appear in categories 1 or 2.


For the breeds that are specifically named, however, enthusiasts are taking up the cause. On July 19 the United States' United Kennel Club reiterated its position on its web site ( and in the print media that it is opposed to breed-specific legislation and denounced the new BSL (breed-specific laws) hastily enacted in Germany.

"[The late] Fred Miller [former UKC owner and president] devoted his life to the concept that all social problems related to dog ownership are caused by irresponsible owners and not the dogs," wrote UKC President Wayne Cavanaugh. "Fred's motto was: Punish the deed and not the breed. I hope every dog owner who reads this will let the government of Germany know that the worldwide community of dog lovers will fight these laws every step of the way."

Stephanie Ortiz, the legislative director of the American Kennel Club, reiterated the AKC's long-standing policy favoring generic temperament legislation over breed-specific acts. "Deeds not breeds should be addressed," she says. "Generally, if we are able to get in touch with local officials and tell them there is a better, more effective way to do it, they are more receptive." The AKC supports laws that establish a fair process by which to identify a dog as "dangerous," based on a generic standard of measurable actions.

"It's a heck of a lot easier to enforce," Ortel explains. "If you restrict this breed, what happens when another breed exhibits dangerous behavior?" Further, she says, identifying a dog by breed or a mix of breed is a real problem.

One of the sticking points of breed-specific legislation is that it lumps together all dogs of a breed and arbitrarily assigns them the traits of a few notorious members. A poorly socialized dog of a certain breed that was trained to be aggressive would be considered pari passu with a sound, stable member of that breed performing admirable work or providing companionship.

Another problem is purely pragmatic: Dog control officers often cannot distinguish one breed of dog from another, especially in the bull terrier breeds and crosses. Their inability to accurately identify a specific breed of dog in court has time and again nullified breed-specific cases in the United States.

Award-winning writer and immunologist Dr. Susan Thorpe-Vargas points out that dog DNA is virtually indistinguishable from that of the wolf, thus making even sophisticated testing useless in legislating against keeping wolves and wolf-hybrids in domestic situations. Indeed, she points out, "there are fewer differences between the DNA of dogs and wolves than between the various dog breeds. This is because of the severe selection and inbreeding done during the foundation of a breed."

Mays is an acknowledged expert on canine law and England's Dangerous Dogs Act - a model he doesn't recommend any legislators adapt. In an exclusive interview for DOG WORLD, Mays says:

"It is nearly 10 years since the last Conservtive Government in the U.K. acted in haste and enacted the Dangerous Dogs Act after a spate of dog attacks and the resulting media frenzy. If there was ever a piece of legislation which was badly drafted for all the wrong reasons, this was it. The late Lord Houghton, a veteran parliamentarian and true animal rights campaigner, denounced it as 'a knee-jerk reaction of the very worst kind."

"The fact is," he continues, "the DDA did not work. No breed-specific legislation works. By targeting pit bull terriers and, crucially, pit bull 'type' dogs, basically any dog which resembled a pit bull was 'fair game' for the police to seize and hold if it was not preregistered. But why would anyone preregister a purebred Staffordshire Bull Terrier as a pit bull? Or a Labrador/Boxer cross? Or a Rhodesian Ridgeback cross? Or a mongrel? Yet all these dogs were seized. It was pretty much the case that any dog with a head, four legs and a tail was a pit bull 'type.' In fact, in the discredited system of 'scoring' a pit bull 'type,' used by prosecution 'experts' in DDA court cases, based on the AKC standard, a Dachshund scored 68 points out of 100 as a pit bull 'type.'

"[That is] a fine irony when one considered the situation in Germany today. Once again, politicians have gone for their 'quick fix.' True, there have been isolated dog attacks, but instead of addressing the problem sensibly and targeting the irresponsible owners, or by ensuring that the police do their job and act upon information pertaining to 'serial' dog fighters ... they have decided to demonize dogs in general. This includes their owners. And whilst the government is seen to be doing something about 'fighting dogs,' it conveniently deflects attention from other political issues and helps to further divide the voting public. In this case non-dog owners attack dog owners.

"What makes it so much worse is that Gerhard Schroeder's administration have based their laws on the U.K.'s flawed Dangerous Dogs Act, a piece of legislation which most British politicians now acknowledge to be less than useless. But then again, when did common sense ever come into politics?

"However, the old saying of 'what goes around comes around' will one day ring as true for the German [Socialist Democratic Party] Coalition Government as it did for the U.K.'s Conservative Government. Dog owners are generally a very placid group of people ... but they will not roll over and play dead if their civil liberties and the lives of their dogs are affected. They will show their teeth to the politicians in the best way possible: at the ballot box."

For the sake of canines and their owners in Germany, and dog enthusiasts everywhere, let's hope they do.

Elizabeth Crosby Simpson, a Dog Writers Association of America member, has been a Samoyed breeder, exhibitor and writer specializing in purebred dog topics for 20 years. In keeping with her belief that "you can find anything you want on the internet," the former New Yorker met her husband through America Online in 1994. The couple, who have been the focus of TV interviews about internet relationships, live with their seven Sambushed Samoyeds at "Billmore," a former Victorian orphanage they're researching, writing about and renovating in Greenville, S.C.

Copyright 2000 Elizabeth Crosby Simpson. May not be reprinted or reproduced in any form without express written permission from the author.