Seoul city enlists pet dogs and owners to sniff out trouble during walks

Launched in May 2022, the dog patrol programme started with only 64 members, with the number of participants increasing to more than 1,000 in 2023. Seoul authorities hope to hit 2,000 teams by the end of 2024.

Wendy Teo

Wendy Teo

The Straits Times


Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon (centre) with some of the dog patrol teams at the 2024 Seoul Canine Patrol Activity Commencement Ceremony on April 20. PHOTO: SEOUL METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT/THE STRAITS TIMES

April 29, 2024

SEOUL – Louie was once in need of rescue, but is now a rescuer himself.

The abandoned cream poodle suffered much abuse in the first eight months of his life – he was severely underweight, with matted fur, and so traumatised from being physically abused that he would not let anyone touch him.

He was adopted in 2019 by office worker Choi Hyo-jin.

Five years on, Louie’s now fluffy exterior belies an attentive hound with a heightened sensitivity for others in trouble.

While on patrol one night on a walk around their home in Seoul’s Mapo district in September 2022, Louie suddenly stopped in his tracks, sniffed hard and started pulling Ms Choi towards a drunken man who was sprawled asleep on the road while hugging a lamp post. Ms Choi, 42, immediately called the police and watched over the man until they arrived, to make sure the man did not get run over by a car.

Ms Choi and Louie are among 1,464 voluntary owner-pet dog patrol teams appointed by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to report any suspicious activity or safety risks to the authorities while going on walks around their neighbourhoods.

Launched in May 2022, the dog patrol programme started with only 64 members. But as more dog owners found out about the programme, the number of participants increased to more than 1,000 in 2023. The Seoul authorities are hoping to hit 2,000 teams by the end of 2024.

At the 2024 Seoul Canine Patrol Activity Commencement Ceremony on April 20, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon noted that more than one in four Koreans now own a pet, based on 2023 figures.

The ceremony commemorated the start of the third year of the project, with nearly 300 new teams joining.

Mr Oh said: “Canine patrol is a citizen-friendly policy to prevent crimes and risks through the simple act of residents walking their pet dogs. This year, too, the dog patrol teams will continue to play a significant role in creating a safe and secure Seoul.”

Dog owners who sign up for the programme have to undergo screening, while their pets are tested for their ability to obey instructions and remain calm in unexpected situations while out on patrol duty. The selection process is overseen by a panel of four dog experts, and about two-thirds of the dogs pass the test.

The successful teams are then trained on things that they should look out for and how to report suspicious activity while ensuring their own safety first.

The patrol programme has since expanded to other cities in South Korea, including Incheon and Busan.

The Seoul city authorities told The Straits Times that as the programme is relatively new, they have yet to study the patrol programme’s effects on crime rates, but they plan to start soon. They have, however, received feedback from residents who say they feel safer with the programme in place.

Louie and Ms Choi are among the pioneer teams in the initiative, having signed up after seeing a recruitment poster and beginning patrolling in August 2022.

ST met them during one of their patrols in the Hongdae area on April 23, together with golden retriever Charo and his owner Kim Yeon-hee.

Dog owners in the programme join group chats with other teams in their neighbourhood to share information or to arrange to patrol together for both safety and social reasons.

The two teams wear fluorescent green vests during their patrols and are often stopped for pats from passers-by who coo in delight when they see the two dogs.

Ms Choi said: “When we first started the patrols, Louie would get nervous about wearing the safety vest because of his past trauma, but now he has adjusted well to it and looks forward to our walks.”

They go for walks twice a day, totalling three to four hours.

Now that he is a more confident dog, Louie takes the lead in deciding the walking routes for the day.

Due to his lower height, he is good at spotting dangerous items such as broken glass on the ground, and it was also why he was quick to discover the drunken man sleeping on the road.

Ms Choi usually keeps a lookout for things beyond Louie’s eye level, such as broken street lamps.

Like Ms Choi and Louie, Madam Kim and Charo’s daily walks are largely uneventful, although they once spotted a dead body floating in the Han River.

“We were with other friends as well. Someone spotted a suspicious object in the water and asked for my help to confirm if it was a dead body before we called the police. It was actually the corpse of an old lady,” said Madam Kim.

The 41-year-old housewife and four-year-old Charo joined the programme in September 2023.

She walks Charo two or three times a day, clocking up to 12 hours in total on most days.

Madam Kim makes it a point to detour and patrol the smaller lanes during night walks to accompany women who are walking home alone.

She says that apart from making her neighbourhood feel safer, the dog patrols have also fostered closer relationships within the community.

“Nowadays, the residents will come out to greet Charo during our patrols. We have met people who are no longer afraid of big dogs after seeing us every day. The elderly people also tell us that they used to feel lonely and even afraid when walking alone, but now they feel more assured.”

In Hoamsan Mountain in south-west Seoul, a big black Labrador retriever that used to be feared by residents is now hailed as the guardian of the neighbourhood. The community often sees drunken people and delinquents hanging out in the forested areas of the Hoamsan hiking trail.

Named Oiji, Korean for cucumber pickles, the 10-year-old dog is the faithful companion to photographer Kim Kyung-deok, 62.

The pair have been hiking at Hoamsan Mountain three or four times a day for the last eight years, even before they became among the first to join the patrol programme in May 2022.

“On our hikes, we met people who told us about feeling unsafe in certain areas, so I thought the programme was one way I could contribute,” Mr Kim told ST.

He and Oiji have since received three commendation awards – for helping a runaway autistic boy reunite with his family, helping a grandmother find her lost grandson, and breaking up a group of fighting teenagers.

Mr Kim thinks that he will likely stop the patrols in two years’ time, as he and Oiji are getting older.

But Ms Choi and Madam Kim plan to continue for as long as they can.

Ms Choi said: “Since we walk every day, it’s nice to do good deeds at the same time. It’s also a way of setting a good example for other pet owners.”

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