Clean up after your pet sign

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.

Other approaches were proposed, some of which now seem absurd. Some argued that dogs should never go on public property, but only on paper in their owners’ bathrooms. Another idea, impractical for a cash-strapped city, was to hire special workers to clean up, at an estimated expense of a million dollars.

The most complicated scheme would have the city provide trainers to teach dogs to go only over sewer drains, which the Department of Sanitation would flush out twice a day. Owners of dogs who couldn’t be persuaded to stand on the open gratings would be provided with paper that they could spread out nearby; then they could toss the droppings in the drain. But, again, budget constraints intervened and a pilot program was canceled.

Seven years after the original proposal in 1970, the law seemed to be at a dead end. “City politicians shied away from it because elected leaders were threatened by dog-owning groups that if they supported this, they shouldn’t bother seeking re-election,” Brandow says. “It got that ugly.”

The Mayor and the Pooper Scooper

Credit for breaking the impasse is usually given to Ed Koch, who as mayor-elect in 1977 decided to take the law to the state government level. But credit is also due to the assemblyman who, during hearings, demonstrated a pooper-scooper device consisting of a bag on a stick that snapped shut. Brandow says that the show caused “a lot of laughter,” but it also convinced legislators that the elderly wouldn’t have to bend down, and no one would have to use their hands.

Just passing the law, of course, was only the first step, because police could never write enough tickets to persuade everyone to scoop. “It’s not the law, it’s the custom,” Brandow says. “It was about public education and changing our perception of what our individual duties were.”

And at first, many were not eager to embrace this duty. To avoid picking up from the sidewalk, one owner reportedly lined a room with Astroturf to persuade his dog to go indoors. The owner of Sandy, the dog starring in the Broadway show Annie, moved to the suburbs in protest.

Fights also arose over the details. At first, people weren’t allowed to deposit their bagged poop in public trash cans. A court case had to clarify the language of the law so that anyone walking a dog, not just its owner, had to clean up. Yet another case determined that requiring Orthodox Jews to scoop on the Sabbath was not a violation of religious freedom.

But with the first successful poop-scoop law in a major city, New York started a trend that spread all over the country and the world. One city that followed quickly was San Francisco in 1978: The 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk immortalizes a moment where the mayor steps in a pile as part of a publicity campaign for the proposed law. And while many companies got into the business of selling elaborate poop-scooping technology, most people got over the public embarrassment of bending over and realized that they could reuse all kinds of bags — a fact that may well keep some subscribing to their print newspaper, since Internet news will never be delivered in a handy plastic bag.

Czech poop bag

Future Scoop

Despite how accepted it now is to pick up after your dog, some still resist. Although it has had the law for many years, Paris is still known as a hotbed of scoop-scofflaws, despite a force of around a hundred plainclothes officers tasked with enforcement of this and other littering laws. And even New York recently had to up the fine from $100 to $250 in the face of an increasing number of violations.

But dog poop marches with the times like anything else, and both enforcement and encouragement have gone high-tech. It’s now possible to identify an individual dog’s droppings by DNA, and a company called PooPrints offers its services to property management companies so they can determine who’s neglecting to clean up after their dog in common areas.

Elsewhere, there are attempts to use positive reinforcement: In Mexico City, an Internet company is running a promotion that gives free minutes of Wi-Fi when poop bags are deposited in a special bin. And in Taiwan, one city gave out lottery tickets in exchange for bags of poop with a chance to win a prize of $2,000.

But perhaps the most forward-thinking approach is happening at a dog park in Arizona with a specially designed device that converts dog waste to electricity to power a light. Created by graduate students at Arizona State University, the technology is playfully named Energy Transformation Using Reactive Digestion, or E-TURD. There’s still work to be done to educate dog owners to use it, and it may sound crazy now, but remember: At first, so did the poop-scoop law.