Despite a frostily aloof demeanour, my dog, Oscar, is a prodigious pooper. I dread to think how much of my one wild and precious life has been spent standing in all weathers watching him squat, bony spine rounded, nether regions a-quiver, wondering what his stony stare conveys: shame, defiance, gratitude, enjoyment? I can, however, estimate quite easily how many times I have placed a thin plastic bag over my hand and picked up his ejections: at least four times daily for 13 and a half years. That adds up to more than 18,000 bags of warm shit. Well, mainly bags: like any dog owner, there are the times I have been caught short, being forced to use tissues, leaves and even, recently, a surgical mask (quite effective, actually).
Of course I pick up, even when it’s tricky. Everyone I know picks up. Everyone you ask picks up. And yet, there is dog poo everywhere – as much, if not more, than ever. I’ve been intrigued ever since my friend Rob, a sociologist, drew my attention to the horrible flowering of turds during the first Covid lockdown. By early 2021 he was vindicated: we were widely considered to be “in the grip of a dog mess emergency”. Being a sociologist, Rob called it a “statement of populist nihilism” in the face of an existential threat. Other, more prosaic explanations included the decline in levels of social surveillance in unusually empty lockdown streets allowing people to indulge their innate irresponsibility, and the explosion in pandemic dog ownership, with inexperienced owners discovering and rejecting this unappealing side to caring for their new companions.
But things do not seem to have improved since: from local press coverage and the NextDoor app to neighbourhood Facebook and WhatsApp groups, it’s apparent that dog poo is a live problem. Our anger at this faecal flouting of the social contract is real: “waste”, “mess”, “fouling” – pick your euphemism – has been a community flashpoint for decades and shows no sign of abating. Non-dog people hate it, obviously, and so do responsible dog owners, because it tars us with the same brush as the feckless. My preferred response is the traditional British Paddington hard stare and mutter; my French husband likes to hand out poo bags with steely politeness.
“It’s the most passive-aggressive subject in neighbourhood social media,” says a friend, whose local group has been bemoaning a “return to the 80s”, dog poo-wise. (Side note: dog poo did not go white in the 1970s and 80s, because it lay around for longer, but because of high levels of calcium in dog food back then.) A 2017 UK survey found that 47% of adults think dog fouling is one of the most annoying things they experience in public places, worse than litter, pollution, traffic and smoking.
A call for dog-poo tales brings me various targets of anger: at full poo bags hanging from “shit trees”, at unrepentant recidivists and pretending-not-to see sneaks. One correspondent relates a poo war of attrition with a neighbour that has forced her to acquire a “dedicated shovel” for flinging it back on to his property. “We have been doing this for more than 20 years,” she writes. “Poo wars are forever.” They are also international: an acquaintance sends me a florid tale from the Netherlands of a neighbourhood near Rotterdam “full of steaming faeces”, where one end-of-tether local ended up posting a box of shit through the suspected culprit’s letterbox.
Is dog poo really that bad? It’s horrible to step in, and contact carries a very small risk of toxocariasis, an unpleasant infection that can cause blindness and seizures. But it’s organic matter: surely that’s not as bad as plastic waste that takes six lifetimes to decompose. Recent research on popular dog-walking routes in nature reserves in Belgium suggests it’s not that simple. The excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in dog faeces can upset the delicate balance at these sites, allowing certain plants (such as brambles, nettles and hogweed) to outcompete more fragile species that need low-nutrient environments to survive.
“You get biodiversity loss and lower-species richness in these ecosystems,” researcher Pieter De Frenne of Ghent University explained recently to the BBC.
So what can we do? In 19th-century London, “pure finders” would collect dog poo (known as “pure” for its cleansing qualities, improbably) and sell it to tanneries, for up to a shilling a bucket. The closest contemporary equivalent was perhaps Taipei’s 2011 dog-poo lottery, where participants got a ticket for every bag handed in, giving the chance to win a gold ingot.
In cash-strapped 21st-century London, things are more prosaic. Camden council – once reportedly second in the league table of London dog-poo complaints – tells me its strategy includes “Providing the Love Clean Streets app for our residents, through which they can report dog mess on the street to the council for cleaning up. In addition, we offer free biodegradable poop-scoop bags and cans of pink chalk spray that residents can use to warn passersby of dog mess and to highlight it to our street-cleaning teams who regularly patrol the borough and educate residents on responsible dog ownership.” Offenders can also be fined up to £100 if caught in the act.
The history of more innovative solutions is as littered with failure as the ground around a dog-poo bin. Occasional flurries of excitement at the likes of poo-powered street lamps or a drone duo – an airborne drone to find the poo and a ground one to pick it up – have so far come to nothing. In the 1980s, Paris deployed “motocrottes” – motorbike-mounted hoovers – to tackle its notorious pavement problem. Their failure was attributed to cost and poor efficacy (a poorly positioned nozzle caused poo-mageddon), but, more Frenchly, to masculinity issues. “When you see a biker in his helmet and leather gear, it’s very virile… then taking care of the poop is in a way the role that was historically attributed to women,” according to Yves Contassot, the Green politician partly responsible for their introduction. Riders struggled with cognitive dissonance: “I have to be a Rambo on my motorbike and then at the same time I am being asked to do something that is a bit demeaning.”
What if you could identify with certainty whose dog is responsible? You already can: that’s the PooPrints business model. The US company registers dogs’ DNA in its world pet registry using a cheek swab (10 seconds on each cheek). After that, participating housing communities and local authorities can take a sample of rogue deposits (there’s a graphic description on the website of how you need to shake up samples until they have a “milkshake-like consistency”, sorry) and match them up. It’s already being used in some UK private rental developments, and by a small number of local authorities in Ireland.
The obvious question is why anyone would sign up to be caught out. PooPrints offers treats and discounts to owners who agree, but the main draw, according to Roger Southam, who works with the company in the UK, is tangential: “DNA registration is a very useful thing for theft and loss; it’s the only verifiable means of identification that’s not going to change. You’re signing for all the benefits of keeping your dog safe.” According to Southam: “Just publicising the existence of PooPrints within a community or a council, we see a 70-80% reduction in dog fouling.”
The problem with scaling up is who pays, with few councils keen to foot the bill. J Retinger, PooPrints’ CEO, argues that since pet licensing was abolished, a wider debate on the cost of man’s ever-increasing numbers of best friends is needed. “Communities have to start thinking about the impact of the pet population on our budgets: how are those costs being made up?”
Is there a less crap in, less crap out solution? I ask Louise Glazebrook, dog behaviourist and dog diet evangelist. “Dogs who are fed well on fresh diets, especially those on raw diets, tend to have excellent poo,” she tells me. “It is firm, small, calcifies quickly and is super easy to pick up.” If your dog’s poo is loose, like Mr Whippy but warmer, then it’s an issue. Kibble (dry feeding) and canned foods, she says, can potentially lead to “a mountain of wet, sloppy poo that no one wants to pick up. If we paid more attention to what we put into our dogs, we could afford to pay less attention to what we pick up, as it would be easy and no bother.” It’s only a partial solution. Oscar, being both fussy and French, insists on pricy human-grade food, but still generates mountains of (admittedly high-quality) manure.
Alternatively, perhaps if we can get a handle on why people leave dog poo unpicked up, we can unlock how to make them stop. Dr Matthias Gross is an environmental sociologist who has researched what dog walkers in Germany do faced with a squatting dog. (Yes, someone has made the “doctoral faeces” joke already.) Gross divided these “defecating strategies” into “traditional” – not picking up – and “responsible”, noting the model citizen’s ostentatiously flourished poo bag, and how bags have become increasingly colourful and decorative. Then there’s “furtive”: the ones who scoop, then discard full bags. Gross points to the use of “strategic nonknowledge” – a lovely phrase for consciously choosing or pretending not to see – to avoid poop-scooping. “iPhones play an important role, because you can earnestly talk into your phone and pretend that nothing happened.”
Gross has also tried to fathom the mysterious phenomenon of the “shit tree”, where poo is picked up, but then left on display. “I had the impression it’s a kind of revenge people take,” he says. “To show their environment and society, look, I fooled you, I was a good citizen, but look here. If I was a dog owner, I could get a laugh out of it: my dog, who I admire and love so much, to see its poop hanging somewhere.”
More generally, he theorises, rogue poo behaviour might be about liberty, and our lack of it in civilised contemporary society. “Perhaps it is the freedom taken away from humans to poop in nature that encourages them to project this freedom on to their best friends.” If the solution to dog poo is more human poo, this may be one problem where the cure truly is worse than the disease.