What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs? - Pacific Standard

What Influences Whether Owners Pick Up After Their Dogs?

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture.
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(Photo: MarkScottAustinTX/Flickr)

(Photo: MarkScottAustinTX/Flickr)

What’s the scoop on picking up poop? New research from a team led by Christopher Lowe investigates.

Lowe's study consisted of an environmental survey of several popular dog walking locations, and an online survey that was completed by 933 participants from across the United Kingdom (83 percent were women).

Eight footpaths in Lancashire, in the north of England, were visited in March/April 2010 to check for dog waste. This included a mix of urban and rural locations, and covered the path as well as about three meters on either side. A tow path along the canal had 40 dog poos in the space of 25 meters; at a nature reserve, a path by a railway embankment had a wall along it with a pile of bagged dog feces on the other side. On a footpath at a reservoir, the researchers found 269 bags of dog waste in 1,000 meters.

The presence or absence of suitable receptacles for bags is not the whole picture, as one path with no trash cans or dog waste bins had very low levels of feces. In order to understand more about this, the researchers designed a questionnaire.

"The path audits suggested that visibility was a key factor in the behaviour of dog walkers with respect to dog waste and that some owners may only clean up after their dogs when obliged to (e.g. in the presence of others)."

Now you are probably thinking that people might not be honest in their statements about how often they pick up after their dog, and you have a point. This is an issue for any questionnaire research because people want to present themselves in a good light. The researchers tried to get around this by advertising it as a survey about dog walking, rather than poop scooping, so as to get a more balanced set of participants. And the results are still interesting, so read on.

First of all, the not-surprising result is that 98 percent of dog owners agreed that owners should pick up after their dog if it poos on the pavement, and 97 percent agreed with this for parks and playing fields.

However, they did not necessarily think they should always have to pick up after their dog. Only 56 percent agreed that, regardless of the location, people should pick up. In particular, when it came to countryside or to farmland with livestock, a significant minority thought that dog owners should not have to clean up their dog’s waste (34 percent for open countryside, 45 percent for farmland).

People thought the most important reason for picking up after dogs was that it was “the right thing to do.” Reducing the spread of disease and parasites were the next most important reasons.

The proportion of people who said they pick up after their dog in this survey is higher than the 63 percent found in observational research by Carri Westgarth et al. (2010). However, even if people have been overly optimistic about their habits, many of them still indicated that it depends on the context, and that there are some places where they don’t.

A small number of participants admitted to sometimes picking up the poo, but then discarding the bag by leaving it somewhere such as the side of a path. This can be a significant problem because it is unsightly and even biodegradable bags take time to decompose; it can cause additional difficulties for landscape workers, such as if a bag bursts while trimming; and it preserves the feces for longer.

"The path audits suggested that visibility was a key factor in the behaviour of dog walkers with respect to dog waste and that some owners may only clean up after their dogs when obliged to (e.g. in the presence of others)," the researchers write. "It was considered that given the opportunity these dog walkers would seek to discard the bagged dog waste as quickly as possible and respondents considered that this was also an important factor influencing this behaviour." It seems that some dog owners are motivated by being seen to do the right thing, rather than actually doing it.

This study shows that a number of factors influence whether or not dog owners clean up dog waste, including the location, environment, visibility, location of trash cans, perceptions of the area, as well as social and personal factors. Future research on the social psychological elements would be especially useful for designing campaigns to change behavior.

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