Mad dog mania seems to be going around, with reports about canine aggression constantly in the headlines. Victims of these attacks are running to hospitals, while most benevolent dog-owners are still puzzled about new laws introduced in the wake of the furore.

On 9 September, the government introduced emergency canine legislation through a decree issued by the ministry of health. The emergency law will be valid for one year, until definitive legislation is drawn up. The law is unclear but appears to rule that all dogs must always be on a leash and muzzled when in public. Those belonging to the dangerous dogs list of around 60 breeds including pitbulls, rottweilers and bulldogs, also require mandatory insurance and a dog permit from a certified trainer. Any training to stimulate aggressive behaviour is forbidden. The list itself was taken from the Ente Nazionale Cinofilia Italiana (ENCI, the Italian national canine board) and placed on the ministry of healths web page (see below). Dogs are now seen as a menace, and the number of abandoned pets has risen as a result.

Ignorance, accidents and tragic attacks have caused a great deal of confusion. Incompetent owners are neglecting responsibility, hence the accidents and the bad press. Others see the new law as an excuse to gripe, and have become self-appointed experts on it. Responsible dog-owners feel discriminated against. Its difficult to know whats what these days.

News from Romes municipal dog pound in Muratella indicates that since the new decree came into effect more dogs have been taken in; mainly pitbulls, the breed most frequently involved in this summers attacks. Though the pound separates dogs into individual cages, no discrimination is made with regard to breed. Press officer and volunteer Camilla Chelini says that breed is not a major factor in determining aggressive behaviour, which is why the pound pushes for better education on the subject. Many people seem to feel a dog is just a matter of image, but having one involves much more, Chelini says.

Luigi Polverini is a dog psychologist and president of the Associazione Professionale Nazionale Educatori Cinofili, Italys national professional association of canine educators, founded in 2002. His expertise is in therapeutic training for dogs and rehabilitating those with specific behavioural problems by working on both symptoms and causes. He deals with around 250 difficult dogs a year, 70 per cent of which have shown aggressive behaviour. When asked if he had seen an increase in aggression this summer, Polverini replied that the number of incidents was about average.

All social animals have some sort of aggressive instinct at the base of their survival, including man, he said. Wolves have a hierarchy and rules and a ritual before the fight commences, but dogs exposure to humans, who have lost the ritual, has been reducing those rules and rituals. His aim is the prevention of attacks through education and responsibility. He also suggests a more accurate system for checking pedigrees, as this would lead to more information and greater safety. Pitbulls in America are officially recognised, while in Italy there are no checks, he says.

Several issues need to be cleared up, and in Rome the city council hosted a debate at the end of September involving the authorities, experts, volunteers and citizens. One topic under discussion was who is to decide which breeds are dangerous, and what constitutes a suitable owner. Another was that the national decree says one thing while a proposed regional regulation says another. Lazio has recently reduced the dangerous list to 11 breeds and their crossbreeds (see below). Dogs not on the list need only a leash and insurance is not mandatory, while dogs that are on the list must be microchipped and registered. Finally, according to legal experts, the health ministrys decree as it is written is void, and the pre-existing laws from 1954 apply: owners must carry a dog ID card, a leash and a poop-scoop, but a muzzle is only necessary in specific conditions, such as on public transport.

Dog-owners are worried about insurance rates soaring and the lack of green areas where their pets are allowed to run free. Animal rights supporters hope to crack down on dog fights. Both agree that repressive laws are not a solution.

Lazio's list of "dangerous dogs" features the following breeds and their crossbreeds:

Pitbull

Staffordshire terrier

Staffordshire bull terrier

Bullmastiff

Rottweiler

Shar pei

Argentine dogo

Dobermann

French mastiff

(dogue de Bordeaux)

Brazilian mastiff

(fila brasiliero)

Cane corso

USEFUL LINKS:

Animal Service: www.animalservice.it.

Associazione Professionale Nazionale Educatori Cinofili: www.apnec.org. (A

guide to dog breeders.)

Cinofilionline: www.cinofilionline.it.

Ente Nazionale Cinofilia Italiana: www.enci.it.

La Nuova Cuccia: www.nuovacuccia.org. (The Quinto Mondo group of

animal rights supporters.)

Lazios provincial administration: www.regione.lazio.it.

Ministry of health: www.ministerosalute.it.

Porta Portese dog pound, Muratella, tel. 0665670639.

Rome city councils office for animal rights: www.comune.roma.it/animali.

Picture: How dangerous is your dog?