A Brief and Bizarre History of Dog Shit

Americans love dogs. We love our dogs so much we spend millions of dollars every year on them- their grooming, toys, boarding, walking, and sometimes, their feces. Dog walker and poop-picker-upper are common jobs for today’s celebrity assistants and interns- reality shows like those of Ozzy Ozbourne’s and Denise Richard’s featured lots and lots of very barky dogs scrambling around enormous mansions and leaving piles of shit in every Persian rug laden room: Ensue hilarity! Kellen Winslow Jr., a major league football player, and Mo’nique, the award-winning actress, are two stars who made headline news in lawsuits involving dog crap. The law is often brought in to threaten, control or abuse dog owners regarding their dog’s pieces of feces- typically irate HOAs in condo complexes, or high-traffic lawns of homeowners.

And those complaining about dog shit? Those with the smell in their nostrils and the dung on the bottom of their shoes? They go mental. They don’t just ‘complain’. Complaining is for losers. They go bombing and lobbing rage grenades, hate mail, lawsuits and dog shit. They say things like:

When Toxocara Canis is present in dog faeces, it can cause blindness in children. Responsible dog walkers can offer the first line of defence against a very real and unpleasant threat.”

And I thought the real concern was just general grossness and germs. But no, it’s blindness that is the true threat of dog crap. With all the dog excrement my sister and playmates and I were around and surely stepped in as kids, I can’t believe we still own the precious gift of sight.

An entire column series in the New York Times discussed the particulars of dog waste in New York, including the staggering opinion that the matter of dog shit is so important that “Tackling canine waste became a milestone in Mr. Koch’s political career.” New York Mayor Koch set into motion the first ever truly enforceable law that dog walkers must pick up waste on the streets, effecting change that made New York more hospitable and livable- more desirable. Then there is the truly forward thinking and bizarre move in Israel: dog owners are asked to submit their dog’s DNA to a database, so that it can be matched to their shit in the case that it is left on public property. Read that again. So far, it’s voluntary. Wonder how that is going?

For thousands of years, no one considered shit as a threat of any kind, outside its offensive odor. We had no understanding of bacteria’s relation to disease, and wild pigs ran in the streets as garbage eaters, leaving their feces next to the piles of horse feces. Without sewer systems, our own waste was half-hazardly managed, and it wasn’t until the 70’s that New York Mayor Koch enforced the ‘pooper scooper’ law. New York led the way for many other states to fine tune dog poop laws, but there still is no federal law. Other countries provide public cleaning services, like France, that scoop up the poop. David Sedaris writes in one of his essays about a French friend who is astonished to see a photo of Jodie Foster carrying a bag of dog waste as she walks her dog. Brut!

Dog owners who were at first so resistant to the idea of picking up dog crap are now often the most insistent and emotive about the subject. Part of this is self protective, and part of it has to be the American inclination to own smaller and smaller dogs who have become more like psuedo-children to their owners than dogs. The famous ‘dog whisperer’ Cesar Milan often discusses this phenomena, believing it is destructive to dogs psyche and behavior. Dogs aren’t meant to- and don’t thrive- dressed liked babies, held like babies, fed like humans and fussed over like brats, he notes. Dogs want their deepest biological needs for pack order and dominance, duty and responsibilities to be met. Dogs want a leader and they want a job to do. Owners of small dogren (dog/children) would no more think of leaving their waste on the lawn than we would let our toddler spread and drop a load on the neighbor’s daffodils. ( OK, one friend! But she is a total hippie. ) The dog waste of these owners is tidily and immediately swiped up, often by small and internet-procured dog bags, some made to dissolve in the toilet.

Perhaps that is a factor in my own story. We moved into our new condo without knowing–we had heard, but we didn’t know–that we were living in the tiny, ass-tight bubble of a HOA, the Homeowners Association. We knew when we had been living here less than a week and two things occurred. The first is its own bizarre little storylet which can be told another time, but involved HOA and the second involving dog shit.

Our two dogs at the time we moved into the condo were large and bumbling, knocking into teach other and barking in deep, throaty growls. Our neighbors dog was a tiny, curly haired little thing who yapped compulsively. I’m sure his poop is the size of Thumbelina and the color of golden sunsets. His owners love him. We love our dogs. The first week we moved in, our kids were taking our dogs out to go to the bathroom. This resulted in dog poop left on the lawns. With resignation, I took over dog poop duty. I knew in a HOA, I couldn’t mess around with ‘crime and punishment’ and ‘teaching the kids responsibility’- sometimes shit just needs to get taken care of. Too late! Already, a complaint had been filed. We received emailed notice that a neighbor had reported us for dog poop violation, and if we repeated the offense, we would fined. For a long time, silence. All seemed well.

The knock on the door came at 9:30pm. I was half naked, my kids asleep. Pulling on sweats, I answered the door with a bad feeling. What else but bad news knocks on your door at 9:30pm? It was my neighbor in his own sweats, trembling, his already popping eyes bulging even more out of his head, curly grey hair moping along the forehead. He began talking before I could even open my mouth. I’m sick of it! Look at this! He held up a black bag. Piles of it, I’m sick of it. It’s not MY dog! Pick up after your dog! He threw the bag at my feet, on my doorstep, and stalked away.

I stood at my doorway, pursing my lips. What to do? I squinted at the bag of shit. Hm. There is a bag of shit on my doorstep, I considered. This is worthy of some action.

Closing the door behind me, I walked the short distance from my condo door to his, and knocked. Waited. I heard his voice, talking to his wife. She stayed out of view as he answered the door, his tiny white dog cradled in his armpit. Yes? he said. I could see by the slant of his eyes he felt half-ashamed of his outburst, but the grimace of his mouth also said ‘Piss off.’

It is not my dog, I began. I am the only one who takes them out to poop, and I pick it up every time.

Well it’s not MY dog, he said angrily, shrugging the little one up closer to his face. Obviously! And we never had this problem before!

Well sir, I can’t speak to that, but I know it’s not my dogs. And I know there are other large dogs that are walked here every day, and a brand new large dog next door, actually.

Well, he said uncomfortably, looking away, maybe.

Where did you find the poop?

Here- he gestured right in front of his condo, then in an outburst, angry again- and I slipped on it in my slippers damnit! I’m just trying to take my little dog to the bathroom and there are piles of it, and I’m sick of it!

My dogs don’t ever poop there. I am with them while they are out here, obviously, and they don’t ever come all the way over here. They poop in the same two places every time, by the tree directly in front of our house, and to the left of that tree. That’s it. And again, I clean it up every time.

Well. Two dogs aren’t even allowed! Or big dogs! And I don’t know- I’m sorry if I was wrong, if it’s not you. I don’t know who it is, and I don’t want to, but I’ll have to report your- and his- (gesturing to neighbor) big dogs if this isn’t taken care of. You aren’t allowed to have two dogs. Or big dogs!

Well I am not hiding anything sir, my landlord-

(interrupting me) This cannot continue, it’s ridiculous! I don’t want to report it but I will if I have to.

Well I don’t know what else I can do besides continue to clean up after my own dogs. Goodnight.

This particular neighbor tragically had lost his granddaughter to crib death as a toddler about a year before, I happened to know, and I was not inclined to be sharp with him. I also knew that every time my dogs poop, I pick it up. Perhaps, I thught, I should photograph the evidence bag compiled by the end of the day? My two large dogs create quite a substantial amount of …evidence.

By the next morning, I was furious. After that wore off, I was just tired. Tired of worrying about the Hoars on Acid, tired of feeling bad when I know I’ve done nothing wrong, tired of this world full of sad angry people in their bathrobes, furious about everything. Tony Soprano, I’m looking at you.

In 2002, Philadelphia, two grown men fought over dog crap on the lawn for months, until they got into a physical altercation on the porch. They both had infant babies. One man was shot numerous times and died.

It’s possible that instead of making you blind, dog crap makes you insane.

The weeks went by, and no one said anything. I was satisfied that it was over, even though I hadn’t figured out the source of the un-picked-up poop in the front of my home that wasn’t our dog’s. One early Saturday morning, I opened the white shuttered blinds to the front of our condo, and looked outside, contemplating what to do with the day. A shiny-coated, medium sized black dog ran into my view. I watched as the dog circled the tree in front of my condo and took a quick poop, before trotting off, leashless. A second later, a teenager with earbuds in and hoodie up, red curls poking out both sides, followed behind the dog. A teenager I’d seen many times around our complex, who apparently had the job in his family of walking the dog, and “cleaning up his poop.” I didn’t go banging on their door with bags of shit. Instead, I moved the poop so that it sat in front of the shit-slinging neighbor’s house, in their grass.