Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Is the plan a bureaucratic nightmare or an overdue clean-up?
The title of Berlin’s new “driver’s license for dogs” admittedly sounds a bit misleading. The new permit, whose draft was approved Wednesday, doesn’t actually allow canines to get behind the wheel of a car, it’s a license without which dog owners will not be allowed to walk their pets leash-free. The crazy name aside (the German’s genuinely call it a Hundeführerschein or “dog’s driver’s license”), the plan sounds quite sensible. It is still controversial with the owners of the city’s 100,000-odd dogs, who over the coming decades will come to be regulated like never before.
To get the license, which will only be required for new dogs, owners will need to demonstrate that their pet has basic training and is essentially manageable. If the dog passes the test, which costs €100 ($112), it will be largely exempt from a list of new laws restricting canine behavior and access. The most important of these makes leashes compulsory for dogs taller than 30 centimeters. That’s roughly 12 inches, which means the average Corgi, Jack Russell or Miniature Schnauzer should still be all right un-tethered. Leash-free larger dogs will from now on be restricted to dog parks. Meanwhile, in a move that will no doubt prove popular with dog-less Berliners, owners that don’t take their dogs into Berlin’s streets armed with a poop bag risk a fine.
The reaction to the new rules has been tetchy. Some media have damned it a “bureaucratic monster” while many owners feel put upon. Last year, dogs were already barred from a few city beauty spots, typically around lakes (such as Schlachtensee) where humans bathe in summer, and there’s a fear that for the four-legged, the walls are closing in. Some people have also highlighted the apparent randomness of the rules, given that a dog of less than 12 inches in height can still pose a danger to a small child.
And finally, there’s the cost. On top of the €100 fee, there’s an annual €40 ($45) dog tax, the extra expense of which could mean posh pooches get to roam free while their proletarian siblings stay shackled.
The kickback is somewhat strong. Germany is a dog-obsessed country—arguably without parallel in Europe—and the idea of forcing four legged citizens through the same levels of regulation that their biped companions face has raised a few hackles. So is this a negative case of Germans regulating everything into oblivion?
Not necessarily. If anything, the German capital’s dogs have got off lightly in the past. Even large Berlin dogs go pretty much anywhere (cafes, bars, subway trains). That in itself isn’t a problem. More egregious is that some owners can be so slack about cleaning up after them that, in a few soiled streets, you might wonder if the dogs are staging some form of mute fecal protest. Such unusual laxity seems out of whack in a city where, as a human, crossing the street somewhere other than a crosswalk can get you hissed at by strangers. Berlin’s dogs may end up on a tighter rein, but making their owners more careful is unlikely to do them good in the long run.