With the increase in violent crimes in Boystown this summer, some may say the neighborhood is going to to the dogs, but in fact, canines and their human companions might just help save the day. The Boystown Dog Walkers Community Awareness Program — a neighborhood watch group organized by Chris Howard through Facebook and Twitter — started “hounding” the pavement last weekend with more than five groups walking more than 10 dogs throughout the neighborhood during the late-night and early-morning hours. The idea is that would-be criminals will be less likely to attack someone if there are people around.
Howard, who lives in Boystown with his girlfriend, is quick to state that Boystown Dog Walkers is not a vigilante group and the dogs are never used for aggressive purposes. According to Howard, dogs attract positive attention, and they are an easy, low-pressure way for Boystown residents to get to know each other and to keep an eye on what’s going on in the neighborhood, especially during peak crime hours.
He credits his sociable, friendly dog Icarus Drake as an inspiration for starting the group, and his friend Aaron Hoffman (who he met via the “Take Back Boystown” Facebook page) for helping him update the Facebook page and organize the walks. Here’s what else Howard had to say to RedEye:
How does Boystown Dog Walkers differ from other “positive loitering” groups?
I had heard about communities starting group dog watches through the Internet. What makes this group different from positive loitering groups is that we’re completely transparent and have no agenda. We’re non-confrontational and anyone can follow our movements on Twitter and the Facebook page. We’re not out there to promote a specific idea but to keep an eye on the neighborhood and lend our eyes as observers.
If a dog walker in the group witnesses someone getting attacked, what are they supposed to do? Are they expected to intervene?
The goal of this group is to be non-confrontational and to help the police get the quickest response time — not to intervene. That’s why we don’t encourage people to bring flashlights. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. We’re not vigilantes, we’re just people walking our dogs. Everyone in the group is encouraged to call the police and give the location and as many details to the police as soon as possible.
There will also be real-time updates posted to our Twitter and Facebook so that the community can be aware of the situation. If anyone has a camera and can safely document the incident, we encourage that as well, not just for the community, but so the police can use it as evidence. We will not intervene or use the dogs aggressively; anyone doing so is not keeping in line with our message. At the same time, we understand that everyone has their own moral compass and has to do what feels right to them, but intervening is not sanctioned by the group itself.
Volunteers sign up via a Google Doc. How does that work, especially for potential dog walkers who may not be completely comfortable with technology?
The schedule is viewable as a Google Doc spreadsheet and posted to the group’s Facebook page. People can sign up by posting which group they want to walk with on the Facebook page or by e-mailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Right now, we think this is the easiest way, but if anyone can think of an easier or more accessible way, e-mail us. We want to hear suggestions! We’re evolving and ease of use is incredibly important to us.
Talk a little about how the routes for each walk are selected. Are the walks limited to the weekends?
We put on the schedule what intersection we’re meeting at that weekend, and that [location] is completely random. If, when we meet at the corner, we have enough people to break into multiple groups, we do and then the groups walk Halsted, Broadway, and the side streets that connect the two. We’re looking to expand with more walkers so that we can cover a greater area and be even more comprehensive in our observations.
Right now, we are mainly focused on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday but it looks like we will also be expanding to Thursday, as of this week. We are trying to see where the demand is for the walkers, and if people are interested in walking other days of the week.
Are you working in tandem with CAPS? Do they know you are out there, your weekend routes and what the group’s mission is? Do you check in with someone from CAPS at some point during the walks?
This week there was a CAPS safety seminar in the neighborhood, and we encouraged people to attend that meeting. We’re trying to do a better job of making connections to other groups and programs. Last weekend, we really wanted to get the word out and work on being a cohesive group, but we also want to let anyone, any other interested groups, know that we’re looking to work together and they should contact us via e-mail to help form that relationship.
Do you encourage potential walkers to bring along dogs that are sociable and that get along with other people and dogs?
People should use their judgment with their dogs. If you would normally muzzle your dog for a walk, muzzle them before they come here.
Talk about some basic things new volunteers should be sure to bring with them for a walk.
We encourage walkers to bring plenty of water and plenty of bags. We also recommend bringing a cell phone so that we can call the police, which we hope we never have to do, and a camera, if possible, to document anything that we encounter to share with the police and the community.
Are there other groups like this around the country that you’ve heard of?
Yes. I know of a dog-walking group in Rogers Park and we’ve been in contact with their organizer, Craig Gernhardt, who has been an immense help to us. While their tactics are different, their input has aided us in creating our own vision. We’d love to share information with other similar groups around the city so that we can all work together. If there are any other programs like this around the city, we’d love to hear from them and set up a way to share information as their experiences will help mold us into better group.
What is it about canines that seems to draw people together and make people feel sociable and safe?
Every time I walk my dog, people talk to me and pet Icarus, and I figured I could use that interaction to spread a positive message. I don’t know why people love dogs, but they do, and we use our dogs purely as a tool to network with the neighborhood. We will never put ourselves, our dogs or others in situations where someone is in danger, and the dogs will never be used aggressively or for intimidation purposes.
For more information on the group, e-mail: email@example.com, or visit the group’s Facebook page.