The Messy History of Poop Scooping

Clean up after your pet sign
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What goes in must come out — so for most dog owners, picking up after your pet is a fact of life. But you might be surprised how recent that custom is and how controversial it once was.

For centuries, most dogs lived outdoors, doing their business without making it our business. The earliest dog training manuals for indoor dogs (rather than sporting dogs) don't appear till the turn of the 20th century. Modern trainers might be amused — or discouraged — to know that the authors had to tell people not to make the same house-training mistakes they make now, such as punishing a puppy a long time after an accident.

Still, for many years, the idea was that once you'd trained your dog to go outside, that was it. But by the early 1970s in New York City, a growing population of canines leaving their waste wherever it fell became a major political issue.

Scoop the Poop? No, Thanks

What seems like the obvious solution now, though, was anything but. "It was much worse to think of touching the stuff than stepping in it," says Michael Brandow, author of New York's Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, the Dirt and Due Process.

Brandow moved to the city just a few years after the poop-scoop law took effect in 1978, before the custom of picking up after your dog had become commonplace elsewhere. "I'd never heard of such a thing," he says. "I just drew a blank — it was a combination of horror and disbelief."

His reaction was probably how most New Yorkers felt when the idea was first proposed in 1970. But this instinctive disgust wasn't the only problem: The issue quickly turned into a battle of pro- and anti-dog sentiment.

At the time, the city was full of signs that said "Curb Your Dog," instructing owners to make their dog go only in the gutter — not easy in a city where cars were parked bumper to bumper on every block. Supposedly street cleaning would take care of the result, except that a budget crisis had cut such services to the bone.

A Messy Situation

No one enjoyed stepping in a steaming pile on the sidewalk, but that was the only point of agreement. Humane organizations like the ASPCA were against the law, believing it would make people get rid of their dogs. And pet owners feared it would be the first step on a slippery slope to banning dogs in the city.

"People were terrified that the city was going to come into their homes and take their best friends away," Brandow says — and with some reason, given the public discussion at the time. One book, titled The Dog Crisis, argued that dogs didn't belong in cities; one councilman introduced a law to ban dogs from multiple-unit buildings, which is where most New Yorkers live. And one well-known activist tried to convince people that dogs were a serious health hazard despite little scientific support. The result was that being pro-dog meant being anti-picking-up.

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