Child's tragic death revives dispute over inadequate dog legislation

Is the dog really man's best friend? The death of an 18 month baby girl, mauled to death by the family dog, has shocked the nation and left many people wondering whether this nation of dog-lovers really knows what it is doing.

Dogs are undoubtedly the most popular house pets in the Czech Republic -and the laws relating to dog ownership are among the most liberal in Europe. Every dog owner will spend hours telling you how much joy their pet brings into their life - but news headlines tell a different story. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of cases of dogs viciously attacking both children and grown ups. Something is seriously wrong. Marcela Srostlikova is head of a dog-training centre in Prague, and she is convinced that although Czechs may love their dogs they have no idea how to treat them properly.

"I have found that people here acquire a dog and then treat it as they would a human being. They make very little effort to find out even the basic things about the species or to undergo any kind of training with it. But a dog -although domesticated - is an animal that retains certain behavioural traits from the wild. For instance, it regards the family as a pack where it has a certain place in the family hierarchy. It takes training for a dog to respect and obey its owners, and this is especially important if you are going to acquire a big dog. But most Czech owners just let their dogs run wild and then they are uncontrollable. That's asking for trouble, especially since dog owners rarely have dogs on a muzzle and leash when they take them out. Not even in the city. Many argue that this is cruelty to animals - but that is nonsense. A dog will easily get used to a muzzle and leash - and that way you would prevent many problems. Not all, but most and more could be prevented by making dog training compulsory."

Although a parliament deputy for the Christian Democratic Party is set to propose a tighter law on dog ownership, previous debates on the matter in Parliament do not give cause for a great deal of optimism. They all turned into exercises in empty rhetoric - either because deputies themselves are enthusiastic dog owners or because they feel that their hands are tied by the powerful dog lobby in the Czech Republic. However the reason for this reticence is not quite clear because there is no question of hurting the animals in question - merely demanding greater discipline from their owners and enforcing it by fines and regulations which are already in place in most European states.