Iceland Mag

13 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag


April 3 marks the 33rd anniversary of Reykjavík lifting its ban on dogs in the city

By Staff

  • Icelandic sheepdog Descended from the dogs which the Vikings brought with them, the Icelandic sheepdog is closely related to the Shetland Sheepdog, Welsh Corgi and Norwegian Buhund, and make excellent working dogs. Photo/Vísir.

On April 3 1984 man's best friend was allowed back into the city as a 60 year old ban on dogs was lifted. This meant Reykjavík residents could finally keep dogs as pets. The Reykjavík dog ban certainly ranks among the strangest Icelandic rules which were in effect in the 20th century. It certainly competes with the beer-ban, which was in effect until 1989, as one of the strangest examples of paternalistic social controls which have characterized Icelandic society.

Dogs were exiled from Reykjavík for 60 years
The dog ban was issued in 1924, at a time when the population of Iceland was overwhelmingly rural and Reykjavík was still a small, but rapidly growing fishing town. Reykjavík was facing an acute housing shortage at the time, and as people lived in overcrowded apartments the city authorities reasoned that banning dogs would make the situation somewhat more bearable. 

Read more: 1920 map shows how Reykjavík has grown from a small town to a small city

Dogs were also believed to be particularly ill suited to city life. Which is perhaps understandable, as virtually all dogs in Iceland were working dogs, Icelandic sheepdogs who were used to chase sheep and run wild in the fields and heaths. A final argument to ban dogs in the capital was that they were unhygienic: Dogs were considered a major carrier of tapeworms which were a persistent problem at the time.

Outdated rule remains on the books
But even if the housing shortage of the inter-war years had been solved and Reykjavík had long since come to resemble a modern small city the dog ban remained on the books throughout the post-war years. The argument between the supporters of the ban and those who wanted the ban lifted was at times one of the most heated debates occupying the minds of Icelanders. The argument found its way onto the pages of the newspapers on numerous occasions over the decades, and cases of police action against people who kept dogs in violation of the rules ended in court on several occasions.

Read more: The Icelandic sheep dog: Small, hardy and happy

In the 1980s several high-profile cases involving violations of the dog ban helped sway the public opinion. One of these involved then minister of finance Albert Guðmundsson, who had been sentenced in the Reykjavík District Court for owning a pet dog, Lucy. Albert refused to pay the fine, which is roughly 500 USD in today's prices, daring the police to arrest him and sending him to prison. 

At the time the absurdity of the law was perfectly evident to most people. It was estimated that Reykjavík residents owned as many as 3,000 dogs, which were being kept in the city in violation of the ban. Every year police fined several dozen dog owners. 

Cats came to rule the city!
Despite the outright ban on dog ownership having been lifted dogs continued to be tightly regulated by the authorities. Until 2006 pet owners had to apply for a special permit from the Reykjavík health inspection if they wanted to own a dog. In an effort to keep the number of dogs down the application process and permit fees placed numerous hurdles in the way of acquiring a dog.

While the 60 year ban on dog ownership in Reykjavík, and the 22 years when dogs were actively discriminated against by the city authorities, caused dog-lovers considerable frustration, another group benefited: cats.

With dogs banned from the city cats became the pets of choice in Reykjavík! So, next time you see a cat observing you with the skepticism and indifference cats are known for, you should remember the story of the dog ban: With the dogs banned cats came to rule the city!

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