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Is the Dog Poo Problem Solvable?

It's really complicated, researchers say. So probably not.
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(Photo: Innocent Coppieters/Flickr)

(Photo: Innocent Coppieters/Flickr)

Dog dung has precipitated fist fights, the dispatching of undercover private eyes, and even the use of canine forensic databases. Is there any foolproof way to stop people from leaving dog crap everywhere?

The results of a new comprehensive feces audit of eight well-trodden dog-walking thoroughfares and a national survey of dog walkers in the United Kingdom suggest the problem may be much more complicated than imagined. The study, led by the University of Central Lancashire's Christopher Lowe and forthcoming in the International Journal of Environment and Waste Management, alsoindicates that threats of fines are only a modest influencer of the behavior.

In the United Kingdom, eight million dogs produce somewhere north of 1,000 tons of crap a day. Abandoned excrement is not only a bane to environmental and human health; it's an incredible strain on economic resources. An area with poo blight can see lower rates of "inward investment and tourism." Additionally, local agencies in England and Wales spend a total of "£22 million per year" on "dog waste collection" and related services, the study says.

Public campaigns, the threat of fines, and concerns about being "confronted by members of the public" don't seem to have a significant effect on the behaviors of dog walkers.

But for all that, public campaigns, the threat of fines, and concerns about being "confronted by members of the public" don't seem to have a significant effect on the behaviors of dog walkers, according to the researcher's analysis of a 933-person survey. Instead, the simple belief that picking up was the "'right thing' to do" and an interest in "reducing the spread of disease" were the most important drivers of the behavior.

A troubling minority also emerged. Three percent of respondents "strongly agreed that dog walkers should not have to clean up after their dog(s) in any location," while eight percent said "they would only clean up the dog waste if it was on the path."

Because the problem might actually be due to this small portion of dog poo savages, the investment in ticketing may not be cost-effective. The authors offer a potentially cheaper determent strategy: "[I]mplementing a requirement ... for dogs to be kept on [leashes] may lead to a reduction in the presence of dog waste as a direct association can then be made between the owner and the defecating dog."

The audit, which counted the numbers and locations of poos, painted an even more nuanced picture. Situational factors and location-based perceptions also seemed to explain some of the behaviors observed. In one instance, the researchers found relatively little poo in a "formal" park. But the scientists found much more in the "unmanaged, often overgrown area" directly adjacent to it, and "a hotspot" on the border. "The high frequency of bagged dog waste at the interface between these two areas may have arisen through a reduced sense of guilt/responsibility and/or visibility to other path users," the researchers write.

A strategy tailored to different types of areas and dog walkers might be necessary, but an effective answer might be a long way off. "It is suggested that significantly more research is required to assist in addressing this emotive yet complex problem," the authors conclude.