Children & Young People Now
By Gabriella Jozwiak, Monday 08 April 2013
Youth workers have warned that dangerous dog ownership among young people is complicating efforts to deter them from gangs.
Youth workers said dogs were a status symbol among young people. Image: Hugo Quintero
Their comments followed research that showed young people were using aggressive dogs as a “business asset” in illegal activity.
The study by criminologist Simon Harding found children and young people were breeding dogs to make money and protect them during illegal business, such as drug dealing and collecting debts.
A north London community engagement advisor for Jobcentre Plus, who wished to remain anonymous to ensure his work with gang members was not damaged, backed Harding’s findings.
“Unfortunately, this is a very realistic picture of how dogs are used as a weapon and a commodity within gangs in London and across the UK,” he said.
“The ownership of a well-trained and powerful dog is an enormous status symbol that amplifies the authority of a gang member and their gang, and is an asset to be used to mark territory and threaten opposing gangs.
“As well as an intimidation tool towards other groups, dog ownership is seen as a skill which earns the gang member more respect and a more secure position within their own gang.”
The youth worker said young people formed strong attachments to their dogs, which could make it harder for them to withdraw from gangs.
“When I work to re-locate ex-gang members, it can be painful for them to leave their dog behind as it has been such a protector and so embedded in their sense of personal safety,” he said.
Thomas Lawson, chief executive of the youth charity Leap Confronting Conflict, said dogs were complicating “the challenge of supporting young people to leave gangs or change their relationships with gangs”.
“The benefits of gang membership are very similar to the benefits of having a circle of friends, which include a sense of safety and feelings of status and reputation,” said Lawson.
“It is easy to see how dog ownership can enhance these benefits. The challenge for those of us who are trying to support young people to leave gangs is how we can help them to see that the benefits of leaving a gang outstrip those of staying in one.”
Speaking at a conference in London last week, Harding said his interviews with more than 100 dog-owners revealed they were using the animals as a “minder” or “heavy”.
He said that the dogs were “used in drug deals, gambling debts and loan-sharking, where their owners do not have recourse to law if the money owed is not paid because his business is illegal”.
“For many young people, dogs are increasingly viewed as a commodity that can be traded up or down like a mobile phone.
“It has become less about whether the dog will fit into family life and more about ‘what will this dog do for me, how much will it make me?’”
A 16-year-old told Harding: “It’s not just a dog, it’s a half-bullmastiff and half-pit bull. I’ll probably get another – we are looking to breed it – and we would get about £2,000 per dog.”
A 17-year-old boy said about pit bulls: “People know that if you are breeding you are making money from them.”
Figures presented by Harding from the RSPCA showed a rise in the number of illegal dogs the charity has seized from 40 in 2005/06 to more than 700 in 2008/09.
The organisation also reported a 12-fold increase in reports of dog fighting between 2004 and 2008.