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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

June 22, 2011

Status Companions

By David Alderton


There is rising concern in the U.K. today over irresponsible dog ownership and particularly the use of so-called "status” or "weapon” dogs by street-based youth groups. Youth criminal and antisocial behavior using these dogs has been widely reported in urban areas. But could the relationship between the youths and their dogs be positive and beneficial in any way? A new study* carried out in the U.K. by the Centre for Criminology at the University of Glamorgan in Wales reached some rather surprising conclusions.

The researchers set out to explore the relationship between youth groups, gangs, their culture and their dogs, and looked at the implications for dog owners and their community, as well as for the dogs themselves. In this pilot project, the authors shadowed youth workers in multiple locations across a South Wales city to recruit and give a voice to hard-to-reach youth dog owners. They interviewed 25 youths in total and seven animal welfare and youth professionals, including a veterinarian, a dog warden and a youth offending team warden.

Bull terrier-type dogs are favored by gang members.
Bull terrier-type dogs are favored by gang members.
All youths identified themselves as being part of a group and more than half belonged to a youth gang. The majority owned a dog and more than half of their dogs had a bull terrier-type ancestry. Companionship and socialization with friends were the main reasons the youths gave for having their dogs. Interestingly, none of the professionals interviewed highlighted these reasons when talking about why youths kept dogs.

Different and Diverse Roles

However, both youths and professionals reported that dogs were also kept for protection and enhancing a youth's perceived "tough” and "powerful” status. Some youths also used dogs as weapons to either defend themselves or take part in illegal dog-fighting contests. The authors identified more than 20 types of animal abuse involving dogs and other small animals that were carried out by young people.

"Dogs serve intrinsic functions— in other words, the dogs are companions and are part of a social group,” the researchers concluded. "But they also serve extrinsic functions—the dogs are used as accessories and weapons, and are often neglected and abused. Although inherently conflicting, youths did not recognize this paradox."

This may well be because in their own minds, the youths in groups or gangs choose to own dogs primarily for socializing and companionship. In addition, they may well have suffered both neglect and repeated abuse themselves, and so perceive such treatment differently, having grown up with it in many cases.

* Details of the paper, which is
available online, are as follows: Jennifer Maher, Harriet Pierpoint. Friends, Status Symbols and Weapons: The Use of Dogs by Youth Groups and Youth Gangs. Crime, Law and Social Change, 2011; DOI: 10.1007/s10611-011-9294-5

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