For the Expat-Pet-People

It seems that I have blogged quite a bit about dogs, here at The German Way Expat Blog (There’s a Dog in the Pub and Moving with Max). The reason for this is because my evolution as an expat in German-speaking Europe has coincided with my evolution as a dog owner. This is no surprise of course, seeing as how Germany is about as dog friendly a country as you will ever find. But as I have learned, due to very comprehensive federal policies, and thus high cultural standards regarding pets, being a pet owner in German-speaking Europe comes with more responsibility than many North American (or other) expats may be used to. As with all other rules, regulations, and cultural norms, it’s important to make yourself aware of the “German way” (or Swiss or Austrian), if you plan to partake in the world of expat pet ownership.

For the most part, when it comes to the laws of the land, cats and other small pets tend to fly under the bureaucratic radar. Unlike dogs, who are taxed, require mandatory micro chipping, and must be registered within 30 days upon arrival, cats and other small animals can really just land here and be good to go. This difference in importance seems to carry over into society, where dogs are seen just about everywhere, while cats tend to exist elusively upon window sills and in farmers’ fields. This is not to say that cats and other pets are less popular than dogs here in Europe, as you will see at any pet store where sections for cat, rodent (especially rabbits), bird, and fish products, are just as vast as those for dogs.

But dogs in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, do hold an exclusive place within society that allows them many more perks than other pets. Dogs are allowed just about everywhere, such as shops, bars, restaurants, and public transportation (but are not permitted in bakeries, grocery stores, or many pharmacies or entertainment/sport facilities). Due to this public freedom, dogs here have evolved into very different, creatures, meaning much better behaved, than those I was used to back home (or is due to this better behavior that allows them such public freedom?).  So, upon arriving in Germany with my crazy Canadian cocker spaniel, it quickly became evident that my role as a dog owner was in need of some adaptation.

Both culturally and lawfully speaking, attitudes and expectations regarding the treatment of pets are just a bit different in German-speaking Europe, and these changes can require some adjusting on the part of the expat. While most laws regarding pets follow the same common sense format as those at home, concerning food, water, shelter, medical care etc., there is one additional feature of federal policy in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and much of the rest of Europe, that differs. This feature regards behavioral requirements. While there are certainly many great pet owners in my homeland of Canada, there does exist what are known as “backyard dogs,” and even more common, “couch potato dogs.” These dogs are provided the legal necessities of food, water, shelter, but really nothing more. According to the German, Swiss, and Austrian governments, this treatment is illegal, for to them, meeting behavioral requirements of pets is just as important as feeding them. In other words, things like daily walks, social interaction, and obedience training are considered part of the necessary responsibilities of dog owners here. In fact, in Switzerland, dog obedience training and first-time-owner education are now legally mandatory. To me this makes a ton of sense and I really hope that lawmakers in North America will soon follow suit.

While the pet culture in German-speaking Europe may have many positive features, I have also experienced other aspects that I consider to be less so. First, leashes: even with signs posted everywhere that they must be used, often times, they are not. Sure, it’s great that your dog is that obedient and friendly, but all animals have a degree of unpredictability, and so going leash-free along busy streets or in busy city centers may not always be wise. It just makes me nervous for a variety of reasons. Second, poop: it’s everywhere, and I swear I am the only one here who picks up after their dog. I must note here though, that although there is a poop problem here, I have experienced one exception, and that was during my adventures hiking in Switzerland. Out in the pastures along Switzerland’s marked hiking network, rules about picking up after dogs are strictly adhered to. The reason for this is actually quite cliché: dairy cows. Without going into too much detail, as I’m sure you can put it together, cows who produce milk products for human consumption should only eat clean grass. The Swiss are of course very proud of their milk and cheese, so yeah, you get it.

I feel very grateful for having been able to live in Germany and Switzerland, so that I was able to see the errors of my ways as a dog owner from Canada, and to make the necessary changes in order to better fit in. My dogs are very happy and balanced here, and thus so am I. So while adjusting to pet ownership abroad can certainly have its challenges, doing so in German-speaking Europe can be an extremely positive experience.