Ahh, the classic Roman holiday: an American tourist poses his lovely wife for a photo in front of the ancient Pantheon, he lines up the camera, then, wait, what is that mangy man and his even mangier dog doing in the picture?

Eric Schroeder and his wife Chris were delighted to be in Rome. They were less delighted to have their photo-album memory stained by a roving bum and his mutt.

Nowadays in major Italian cities it can be hard to avoid these particular hound-loving tramps. Theyre called punkabbestia or punks with beasts, and sometimes it feels like theyre in most squares.

Schroeder, a 42-year-old from Chicago, said he wasnt really bothered by the dogs or by the grimy punkabbestia smiling next to his wife in the cameras viewfinder. In a lot of ways Europeans arent as inhibited as Americans, he said.

Italian authorities arent as permissive. Theyve been frustrated by rowdy punkabbestia behaviour, most notably during the G8 summit in Genoa last year, and they are fed up with the dog waste that litters many cities leading to suggestions that they might confiscate the dogs.

Andrea Silgarda, a 33-year-old punkabbestia with a perennially sunburned face, was unfazed. If they can take our dogs away for doing what comes naturally to them, why cant we confiscate the police horses. They really make the streets filthy.

The punkabbestia is a unique kind of Italian street bum who has opted to bow out of polite society in favour of the company of mutts. An ambitious punkabbestia can be found walking the streets holding the ropes to nearly a dozen furry necks, looking something like a training squad for a poor mans Iditarod.

The dogs are for company during the day and protection during the night, said sociology professor Franco Martinelli of the Sapienza University in Rome and author of Poor Without Homes.

Bumming around with dogs has become a new fashion for younger portions of Romes roughly 2,500 homeless. According to Martinelli, most of the modern-day beast-masters migrated south from northern Italian cities or above.

These people often choose to live on the street as a statement of their liberty, Martinelli said. The primitive relationship that they have with animals is a way of expressing their counterculture attitude.

But the independent lifestyle may run up against proposed quality-of-life legislation. Earlier this year, Romes city government tired of the capitals cobblestoned streets going to the messy dogs and announced that the citys 6,500 cops could begin writing tickets of up to 150 if dog-walkers were caught without a pooper-scooper or doggy bag. Punkabbestia will be hard up to pay such costly tickets, and police could take away their dogs.

For good or bad, punkabbestia arent going anywhere soon. Even the word punkabbestia is now entering the Italian lexicon. Zanichelli, one of Italys leading dictionaries, is adding the word to its 2003 edition. The working definition is one belonging to a group of youths who live in the company of dogs and without stable homes. They dress in a dishevelled manner and tend to have piercings and tattoos.

For punkabbestia Silvio Cossu, a 45-year-old who wears an elfin tuft of white hair on his chin, definitions matter less than the freedom to enjoy a laid-back lifestyle. Up in Bologna they put mobile police stations in practically every square. The people became real jerks there, said the portly Cossu, who has travelled through Europe with his favourite dog, whose name roughly translates as Little Turd.

Punkabbestia challenge the suggestion that they and their dogs are doing any harm. They dont bother anybody, the suntanned Silgarda said, his sleeping dogs curled around his ankles. They bite only if you bother them.