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The Sociology of Crime-Fighting Dogs

The Sociology of Crime-Fighting Dogs

Crime-fighting dogs.

This is a real thing.

The research comes from a very cool article published in the June 2023 issue of Social Forces: “Paws on the Street: Neighborhood Level concentration of Households with Dogs and Urban Crime” by a team of researchers led by Nicolo Pinchak at the Sociology Department of Ohio State. (The other authors, if you are dying to know, are Christopher Browning and Bethany Boettner at Ohio State and Catherine Calder and Jake Tarrence at the University of Texas at Austin. It took a lot of people to write this one.)

No, the dogs do not pull their owners to safety when their owners are mugged.

No, the dogs are not Dobermans who attack home invaders, physically incapacitating the intruders while their owners call the police.

No, the dogs do not sniff around crime scenes, bringing significant clues to the attention of the police.

The dogs only do two dog-like things.

They bark, and they go on walks with their owners.

Barking and going on walks with their owners are all dogs have to do to reduce local crime rates.

Barking lowers rates of property crime.

Going on walks with their owners lowers rates of crimes of violence.

Pinchak et. al. collected data on both crime and dog ownership for all of the neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio. They also collected data on neighborhood trust. The dog ownership data came from marketing surveys in the Columbus area. The marketers wanted to know about the demand for dog and other pet related products. The neighborhood trust data came from a health and well-being survey. Health researchers interested in urban stress wanted to know if residents felt physically secure in their neighborhoods. To measure they asked if residents felt that people in public spaces near their house could be trusted.

The Pinchak team found two things:

a) The higher the density of dogs in a neighborhood, the lower the rate of property crime.

b) The higher the density of dogs in a neighborhood, the lower the rate of violent crime – but only in neighborhoods that had high trust. You needed BOTH high trust among neighbors AND the dogs.

What was going on? 

Why was the effect of dogs different for property crime and crimes of personal violence? To understand this, you have to understand the distinctive dynamics of property crime and crimes of personal violence.

*  *  *

Property crimes tend to be economic crimes. There are exceptions to this. A kid spray painting graffiti on a house is just being impulsive and looking for thrills. However, car thieves, burglars, stereo thieves and the like, are typically career criminals trying to earn money. Break-ins are planned in advance. The criminal is rational and calculating. The name of the game is to get the largest amount of valuable loot with the smallest amount of personal risk for the burglar.

Professional criminals are looking for easy jobs that are unlikely to go wrong. They practice one type of crime over and over again, say stealing car stereos by breaking windows, or stealing cooking equipment out of food trucks. The burglar keeps dedicated equipment for the exact job he intends to be doing. The plan is to use a standard procedure to get a standard yield, getting in and out of the target establishment quickly with a minimum of problems.

Skilled property criminals will avoid target sites that pose problems. They avoid houses with burglar alarms in cities where police respond to such alarms. They avoid locations where there might be traffic jams blocking their getaway. They avoid entering at hours when residents are likely to be home.

They avoid dogs.

Pitbulls are no more effective than any other dog. If a burglar HAD to get around a big dog, most attack dogs could be distracted with a steak, or immobilized with pepper spray. The issue is the delay, the dog getting in your way, and the dog barking. In this regard, a yappy little poodle is just as big a problem as a Saint Bernard.

So, dogs in a neighborhood reduce crime in that neighborhood, because they induce professional criminals to seek out easier targets.

*  *  *

Why do dogs reduce violent crime, but only in neighborhoods where the residents trust each other?

Violent crimes tend to be crimes of passion. Someone is angry, angry to the point of violence. Typically, a dispute is involved. The dispute may be a sudden spontaneous incident, such as two macho men fighting over a parking space. The dispute may be of long standing, such as an ex-boyfriend stalking the woman who rejected him.

Rational calculation plays a reduced role in crimes of violence. The perpetrator is not thinking clearly. The perp may easily be intoxicated. Smashing the face of one’s ex-girlfriend will not bring back the rosy days of the beginning of the relationship when everyone loved each other and the world was going to be prefect. Teaching a lesson to one’s ex-girlfriend will not make the ex-girlfriend tell all the other women in the world that the stalker is a really mean guy – guaranteeing the other women will be afraid to hurt the stalker’s feelings. There is no rational benefit that comes from beating up one’s ex-girlfriend, any more than there is a rational benefit to beating up someone who takes one’s parking space.

This means that barking dogs are not going to do much to stop a violent criminal. An outraged boyfriend will simply fight through the dog and keep on coming. Burglar alarms won’t do much either.

What does stop violent criminals?

Mutual surveillance. The neighbors watch the neighbors. Neighbors have each other’s back.

Some of what they do is provide information. “Hey, I saw your ex-husband hanging around the school today. Isn’t there a court order out on the guy?”

Some of what they do is aggressively call for help. People will often ignore aggressions committed against strangers or people they don’t know. They will take action to protect friends and close associates. Having your neighbors know you helps when there are screams coming from your apartment.

Some of what neighbors do is watch. They see something they don’t understand that is suspicious. They call the police.

Not all neighbors take care of each other. Neighborhoods where neighbors trust each other are more likely to have these networks of mutual support.

So what do dogs have to do with this?

Personal violence is reduced in high trust neighborhoods were lots of people own dogs.

This is because people who own dogs have to walk their dogs. The neighbors are out on the street regularly exercising their dogs. This turns them into de facto security guards walking up and down the streets of the neighborhood. Pinchak et. al. explicitly invoke Jane Jacobs’ classic book on urban studies Life and Death of Great American Cities(Random House, 1961) where she argues that “eyes on the street” reduce crime. Having neighbors out on the street, interacting in the street and watching what is going on provides a useful surveillance base that reduces crime. Pinchak et. al.’s title “Paws on the Street” is an homage to this argument. People walking their dogs see what is going on. They are a first line of defense against malfeasance.

In low trust neighborhoods, people mind their own business. Dog walkers walk their dogs quickly; they do not feel safe on the street, so they return home as expeditiously as they can. Dog walkers in high trust neighborhoods take their time. They stroll. They talk to the neighbors. They gossip. A dog walk is a longer and more leisured affair in a high trust neighborhood. It is also a more social affair.

If you don’t want someone to steal your laptop or your guitar, get a dog.

If you don’t want to be attacked by the Mad Slasher, move into a neighborhood where everyone knows and likes each other. If you make friends with the neighbors when you are out in the park walking your dogs, so much the better.

Get yourself a nice friendly dog.

A pitbull or a neurotic poodle might be counter-productive.

Does your shelter have any loveable mutts?

The Sociology of Crime-Fighting Dogs
The Sociology of Crime-Fighting Dogs
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