An antidote to urban life? Police dogs in belle époque Paris

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Today police dogs are fairly common sights in many cities and places deemed security risks, such as airports. But it’s worth remembering that police dogs are a fairly recent invention, dating back to the very end of the nineteenth century. In 1899 the police commissioner of Ghent (Belgium) wrote to the town’s mayor to ask for permission to use police dogs to make up for human police shortages, arguing that dogs represented ‘reliable, agile and courageous defender[s]’ of their masters and provided them with ‘more assurance and boldness (audace)’ when patrolling the city.[1]

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A policeman and his dog in Neuilly-sur-Seine

 

American journalists watched these developments with interest. The use of police dogs to patrol the new spaces of European cities, such as suburbs and parks, met with their approval. J.E. Whitby, writing in Cosmopolitan Magazine, believed that police dogs were particularly well adapted to ‘lonely suburban districts where the police force is small, and the number of footpads and tramps, whose fear of the dog is proverbial, proportionately great.’[2] For his part William Fitz-Gerald celebrated the ‘canine policeman’s superb sense of duty, as well as its loyalty, vigilance, fidelity, and its indifference to bribes and salary alike.’ Fitz-Gerald highlighted how the dogs’ ‘natural sagacity had been developed by six months of scientific training’ provided an effective deterrent to criminals. The dogs’ ‘mere presence, qualities, and powers would give morale and confidence to their human colleagues.’ The article highlights the novel and transnational character of police dog deployment: here is an American publication reporting excitingly on the spread of police dogs throughout Europe.[3]

Nonetheless, police dog advocates had to make a case to convince the wider public of the worth and necessity of police dogs. Take the case of early twentieth century France. At this time, many Parisians were obsessed by crime. Fuelled by lurid crime stories in newspapers, magazines and novels, and following decades of urbanization, fear of crime stalked the city (even though rates of actual crime were falling). Writers, psychologists, self-defence experts and others portrayed the city as a dangerous place in which murders, robberies and assaults could happen anywhere. Press reports depicted criminals as mobile, anonymous, and violent, with Apache gangs amongst the most dangerous and anxiety-provoking. A 1907 article in Le Petit Journal fretted that capital was ‘in the hands of vast criminal organization’: Apache gangs ‘swarmed’ (pullulent) in both the centre and outskirts of Paris, outnumbering the police and making a mockery of their ability to uphold the law. As the criminal proportion of the population grew and crimes increased, the Apache gang member had become ‘the king of the street’ and was apparently thriving within the Third Republic’s lax criminal justice system.[1]

 

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An example of sensationalist reporting on the Apaches gangs

 

In this fearful atmosphere, how could the law-abiding citizen feel safe? Some turned to self-defence techniques based on boxing and jiu-jitsu. Others turned to dogs. Having been previously represented as loyal defenders of the private space of the bourgeois home, police officials and dog aficionados fashioned dogs into allies in the fight against the apparent criminalization of public urban space. Dogs, they argued, had the physical and mental attributes to become effective agents in securing cities from crime.

According to some observers, dogs could even counter some of the nefarious effect of urban life on the French population. In line with biomedical theories that stressed that modern urban life caused individual degeneration and higher rates of crime, René Simon observed that ‘95%’ of the modern urban population had lost the physical strength and keen senses of the ‘ancient Indian tribes,’ ‘valiant pioneers’ or ‘hardy hunters.’ Yet the modern urban dweller was under constant threat from silent yet deadly criminals. In some areas, ‘the bourgeois dared not go out at night.’ Guns and other weapons were illegal and no good if their owner could not detect the threat in time to use them. Simon identified dogs as the solution. Dogs possessed the ‘muscular suppleness, sensory sharpness, instinctive sense of smell, [and] alert attention’ that modern humans no longer had. Dogs and humans would complement each other; the dog’s instinct would complete human intelligence. Simon believed that once every home had a guard dog and every pedestrian was accompanied by a dog then the ‘bandits’ exploits’ would decrease.[1] Although some French dog breeders fretted about the deterioration of French dog breeds, dogs, for Simon, seemed immune from the physical and mental degeneration afflicting French society.

To me, Simon’s argument is interesting because it embodies so clearly fears of urban, crime life and decline that were widespread in the country at the time. But, as far as I know, it’s the only one that advocates animals as a potential solution to the problem of national and individual degeneration. It also shows that the use of police dogs did not just occur naturally, but was part of the wider social, political and economic context of urban life in the early twentieth century. As with pet-keeping, dog shows and other facets of the human use of dogs in contemporary society, there is a deep history behind the everyday police dog.

[1] René Simon, Le chien de police, de défense, de secours (Paris: A. Pedone, 1909), 3-11.

[1] Ernest Laut, ‘Le pays des apaches,’ Le Petit Journal illustré, 22 September 1907; Ernest Laut, ‘Police et criminalité,’ Le Petit Journal illustré, 20 October 1907.

[1] Quoted in Gaston de Wael, Le Chien auxiliare de la Police: Manuel de dressage applicable au chien de défense du particulier et au chien du garde-chasse (Bruxelles: Imprimerie F. Van Buggenhoudt, 1907), 17-18.

[2] J. E. Whitby, ‘Four-Footed Policemen: Use of the Dog as a Limb of the law in Belgium,’ Cosmopolitan Magazine XXXIX no. 5 September 1905, 518.

[3] William G. Fitz-Gerald, ‘The Dog Police of European Cities,’ The Century, October 1906.

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