TCC has recently been conducting research for the RSPCA on young people and Status Dogs – the growing trend amongst some young people of owning a dog that is perceived to be rough or tough looking in order to improve their owner’s social status. This work has now been more widely published by Cardiff University in its own research report Status dogs, young people and criminalisation: towards a preventative strategy by Professor Gordon Hughes, Dr Jenny Maher and Claire Lawson. They say on pages 6 and 64:
Alongside this original body of qualitative evidence, a comparison is made with other qualitative research and in particular with the
only existing cross-sectional survey to date of young people and status dogs which was undertaken by The Campaign Company in London…
…Given the concerns over the limited size of the sample of young people interviewed in our fieldwork, it is important to refer to the TCC report as the only other project to date which accesses the first hand accounts of young people involved with status dogs. The following findings from the TCC project lend support to the first-hand accounts of young people uncovered in our interviews and to the interpretation as social scientists we have placed upon them.
The RSPCA commissioned TCC to conduct an initial small-scale research project into the behaviour values and motivations of young people who own status dogs. The aim of the project was to identify a ‘direction of travel’ that could inform ‘behaviour change interventions’ targeting young people on a range of issues relating to status dog ownership. These included ownership patterns, training and obedience, breeding as well as organised or informal fighting, and the welfare of status dogs. TCC research, which on this project was led by TCC MD David Evans, used the following methods:
- A Focus group of 14 Croydon College Students;
- Survey using PowerQ handsets in three workshops at Croydon College covering 45 students;
- Interviews with professionals from a number of organisations;
- 5 in-depth interviews with status dog owners.
- ‘The groups were initially asked whether they understood the terminology when reference was made to status dogs and though the majority did, there was a sizeable minority that required clarification.’
2. Dog Ownership:
- Access was predominantly through friends, relatives, ad-hoc breeders & easy access on the internet: ‘One had been given a two-year old staffie by his mate because it “was a bit out of control”. In turn, ‘Only five of our thirty-two participants had obtained their dog from a rescue centre, breeder or pet shop. Almost all dogs had been obtained through informal family and friend networks – often as presents’.
- Family members played a significant role in allowing access to dogs and looking after them financially: ‘Participants demonstrated low levels of awareness about the true costs of responsible dog ownership even those that owned dogs All of the young people appeared to live at home and relied on goodwill and funding of other family members to help feed and care for their dog’.
- Access is too easy and has influenced desire for dogs: ‘the supply of dogs is clearly a contributory factor (for motivation). Any behaviour change programme should seek to tackle the supply issue as part of a holistic approach.’
Ownership – issues identified
- The majority of dog owners owned a bull-breed.
- Youths were upset and angry about being viewed negatively by public: ‘I spoke out in the conference but I felt bad about it coz everyone thinks now that all pit owners are the same. Every time I walk down the street I get funny looks or people cross over, I don’t want that, I just want to be protected’.
- People had misconceptions of their dog due to the prevailing media stereotype: ‘What I was thinking was if they could have watched that film but then seen my dog and how she’s soft as a brush, they would have thought differently.’
- Some of these youths also reported victimisation at the hands of other dog owners: ‘…several participants recounted tales of when they or their families have felt intimidated by dogs that have been unleashed and had been running at them.’
Motivations for and Influences on Ownership
- There are various reasons for dog ownership – including status among some young people: ‘This means that people own dogs for a variety of reasons, however there is a dominance of ‘prospector’ outer directed values. The result of this is that the dominant narrative in areas of high status dog ownership is that many people often behave in a way that seeks to enhance their status within their community. Their behaviour, and underpinning perceptions, opinions and attitudes, reflects their need for the esteem of others. This will be key when designing any behaviour change strategy.’
- Protection is a key motivation for ownership, and this is not necessarily a bad thing: ‘Settler (sustenance, safety and security values) dog owners: people who own dogs because it provides a real sense of security for them personally and their family… The dog therefore fulfils the sustenance need for order in addition to that of physical safety.’
- There is still a need for basic needs – e.g. companionship, security as motivation for ownership: ‘Those with inner directed Pioneers values living in deprived communities where there is a prevalence of status dogs and sense of insecurity will still have basic sustenance needs to fulfil and these may be met by dog ownership.’
- The youths recognise the fact that other youths are not ‘good’ owners, but neglectful and out of control. And that those involved in the research disassociated themselves from this stereotype of youth dog owner However each one said they knew others who used their dogs to either ‘look hard’ or ‘act hard’.
- Ownership is motivated primarily by companionship, socialising and protection – identified as ‘the need for security and sustenance needs and esteem issues’.
The Role of Dogs
- Young people feel victimised/negatively portrayed by their community. ‘Those with ‘Settler’ sustenance driven values who are not dog owners: people who see dog ownership as undermining security for them, their family and the community they live in. This group tends to view the dog owners unfavourably.’ & ‘outer directed ‘Prospectors’ who are not dog owners: people who think dog ownership within the community undermines their own wider status. This group tends to view dog ownership unfavourably even when they live in close proximity to status dogs’.
- There is a distinction between having a dog for status and actually using it in an offence (seldom happens): ‘They believed that young men mostly use status dogs to look tough rather than engaging in criminal activity’.
- Protection is re-active rather than proactive – it empowers young people: ‘Young men feel not only safer walking with their dog but feel more secure and empowered by its presence.’
3. Problematic Forms of Behaviour among Dog Owners
- Young people are involved in accidental breeding and were unprepared for this: ‘Several participants had bred their dogs and others had been closely involved in the breeding of dogs by close family or friends. Often breeding would be accidental and with the owner not having any formal training or even basic information about the welfare of the mother or puppies’.
- The prevailing use of punitive measures to train dogs and lack of training skills: ‘Given that we also found an almost universal belief that to train a dog using play and reward for good behaviour would result in failure, any behaviour change strategy may need to focus on individuals gaining control through treating their dog better.’ Furthermore, ‘The prevailing view was that control and obedience would be achieved through administering punishment for bad behaviour.’
- There is a lack of formal training – mostly through peers and often not very good advice: ‘we also identified that the information most owners have about how to train or care for their dogs is word of mouth and often provided or influenced by role models who are at best misinformed, and at worst malign. Given the two previous key findings, this is a significant opportunity to design interventions that work better for dog owners to meet their underlying values’.
- Youths predominantly trained their dogs themselves and felt they had good control over them: ‘They all said that they had trained their dogs themselves: “I understand what they were saying, and that, but we shouldn’t all be labelled as bad. I trained my dog and she obeys my every word no matter where we are or what we are doing”’
- Young people believed their training methods were appropriate – problem with definition, rather than desire to be cruel: ‘The line between what constitutes mistreatment and abuse and corrective (and therefore acceptable) punishment is somewhat blurred. But there was universal acceptance of punishment to control and train dogs across values modes groups’.
The Link to Criminality
- There is a link to ad-hoc and accidental dog fighting rather than organised due to variety of reasons – lack of control or understanding and cultural norm: ‘No-one we spoke to admitted to having been present at a formal dog fight. But there were anecdotes about formal fights taking place in the area or nearby. Accidental or informal fights were mentioned as occurring. The reasons for this ranged from behavioural issues – simply an owner being unable to control a dog, to rather more ritualised behaviour.’
- There are some young people who engage in purposeful criminal behaviour with dogs, however, this is not the majority: ‘there is a relatively small but destructive group of young status dog owners who use their dogs as weapons to assist in criminal activities and to fight other dogs in formal and informal settings. They provide the stereotype of the urban status dog owner. It is likely that these owners will have trained their dogs to be aggressive by using unlawful training techniques.’
4. Responding to Status Dogs
- The reluctance of young people to engage with training: ‘This reluctance is compounded by a belief that any advice or training would not be appropriate for them as it would be “too regimented”.’
- The need for FREE dog training classes, but delivery/deliverer was important: ‘police should train ‘scouts’/community leaders in how to train young people to control their dogs and teach dog welfare programmes. These could take place in open spaces or community centres close to home. Again – it was felt that people would not attend if costs were involved.’ In turn ‘the Police were not considered to be an acceptable training provider’.
- The need for engaging key dog owners (gatekeepers) in the community to communicate with youths: ‘Engaging existing dog owners within communities to become formal and informal trainers and reference points for the appropriate training for status dogs. This should be proactive explicitly designed to support dog owners achieve their personal goals whilst communicating important messaging about dog ownership. Empowering trainers and those who they train to gain an enhanced status position within their local community through reward and community recognition. This could include messaging in community media and events including those specifically directed at young people’. ‘Working with appropriate agencies we would develop a community-focused localised ‘Effective Street Dog Training’ programme targeted at status dog owners. This training would not only educate, but would support the behaviour change necessary to move people to providing higher standards of welfare appropriate to their dog and their circumstances. We believe we have already identified several status dog owners who would make effective participants in a pilot programme.’
- The need for early education in schools: ‘The design and delivery of a programme in schools using dog owners working with expert agencies.’
Impact of the Dangerous Dogs Act (DDA) and Enforcement
- The use of services is limited by fear of seizure, but used RSPCA and other welfare agencies somewhat when needed most: ‘However, we believe that there is evidence to suggest that a minority of status dog owners are prepared to engage with formal agencies about the welfare of their and other animals (indeed several mentioned contacting the RSCPA out of concern for the mistreatment of other animals), but a majority were uncomfortable about seeking advice or assistance due to concern about having their dog seized’.
- The focus on breeds, and ad-hoc breeding may result in bigger more dangerous breeds: ‘predict a growth in the ownership of bigger and more powerful dogs going forward which will create an even greater climate of fear and risk of instability within communities’.
This is pioneering research in an area where behaviour may have to be modified in a positive direction over a sustained period. This may also have to be communicated to young people for very different motivational reasons than many public bodies and their staff necessarily would adopt. Much of the focus will be shifting the achievement of self-esteem in more pro-social ways. This research is not just relevant to the RSPCA but also to the Police and Local Government. The latter might, for example, be able to link improved dog training to engaging over health and well-being with young men under their future public health responsibilities.
TCC have blogged before that a generic values based segmentation approach enables one to make the linkages between different areas of public policy such as community cohesion, public health, the Big Society and Status Dogs. This is in contrast to the continuous creation of separate forms of segmentation for each public policy challenge which is often the approach in many other research projects.
Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. I would also like to thank TCC MD David Evans for his suggestions regarding this blog posting. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.