Dogs are beyond great. These wonderful animals are so clever, and so connected with us. For people lucky enough to be dog owners, they're truly our best friends.
Now researchers have discovered another reason to love dogs, and it's something that's not so obvious. According to new research, a higher concentration of dog ownership in a neighborhood is linked with lower crime levels. In their own way, dogs are actually helping us to fight crime. Seriously.
Not that dogs can take all the credit, mind you. Researchers from Ohio State University think the reason this link exists is because owning a dog means you need to walk it, and dog walking involves getting out and about in your community.
That increased level of civilian activity on streets – and the extra interactions with your neighbors that result – provide a heightened level of surveillance over the local neighborhood, which in turn helps to keep things safer, so the thinking goes.
"People walking their dogs are essentially patrolling their neighborhoods," says sociologist Nicolo Pinchak, lead author of the new study.
"They see when things are not right, and when there are suspect outsiders in the area. It can be a crime deterrent."
The researchers' hypothesis – inspired by the work of urban theorist Jane Jacobs – takes cues from Jacobs' "eyes on the street" concept: the idea that people in public places help to maintain order and safety simply through their presence, as it gives them an opportunity for surveillance of their surroundings.
A continuous stream of "eyes on the street" and communal interactions by people in public places helps to create a web of public respect and trust within a neighborhood, which together can help deter crimes from occurring, Jacobs argued.
While the idea has been influential in sociology, urban planning, and academic circles, Pinchak and his team say there have been few attempts to quantify whether the hypothesis demonstrably works to lower neighborhood-level crime rates.
To test this, the researchers focused on dog ownership, reasoning that the daily routines of dog-walkers fit with the theories of Jacobs (and others) on being an activity that could contribute to neighborhood surveillance and safety while building trust within a community by facilitating interactions among strangers.
The researchers used data from multiple sources, including crime statistics for neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio; a marketing survey showing the concentration of dog-owning neighborhoods in the city; and data from a separate sociological project led by study co-author Christopher Browning, measuring levels of trust and social climates of neighborhoods in the area.
While the results don't offer evidence of any kind of causative effect, the researchers did find an association between the presence of dogs and reduced crime rates.
"Consistent with Jacobs' crime control model, we found that neighborhood dog concentration is inversely associated with rates of robbery, homicide, and, to a less consistent degree, aggravated assault rates among neighborhoods higher in local trust," the team writes in their paper, noting that property crime also showed an inverse association with dog concentration, independent of levels of neighborhood trust.
The results so far have only been seen in one city. Plus, the researchers acknowledge that they can't rule out the influence of various biases in the data, so future studies are needed to explore the issue in more detail.
Nonetheless, the study does offer new data to support the idea that dog ownership and dog walking contribute to lower crimes in the community, perhaps by equipping residents with increased familiarity to identify suspect outsiders, or putting would-be offenders off, given that dog-walkers may appear more likely to intervene in the event of a crime.
More research is needed to unpack this further, the researchers say, but for now, it certainly looks like dogs could be having a beneficial effect on these neighborhoods – simply by bringing people together, and maybe the other effects flow from there.
"Trust doesn't help neighborhoods as much if you don't have people out there on the streets noticing what is going on. That's what dog walking does," Pinchak says.
"When people are out walking their dogs, they have conversations, they pet each other's dogs. Sometimes they know the dog's name and not even the owners. They learn what's going on and can spot potential problems."
The findings are reported in Social Forces.