Consider a few numbers. Every day some 55 tons of dog excrement are deposited on the streets of Berlin alone (Kneist 2011), while dogs in the US are said to produce 10 million tons of poop each year (Browdie 2012). For the year 2000, Webley and Siviter reported that in Paris alone US$6 million have been absorbed for the removal of dog feces as part of park maintenance. Extant data on trends in dog ownership in different countries vary quite considerably. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) states that some 78 million dogs are owned in the United States, which is consistent with statistics published by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.2 This would mean that the average dog population is almost 40% of the human population, that is, more than one dog for every three people in the US. For Germany, various sources state that less than 10% of each household owns a dog but that more than 15% of the population over 14 years of age lives with one.3In France almost 40% of each household owns a dog. There are 1.5 million dogs in the Netherlands, and some 90% of dog owners have at least one dog. In general, it is agreed that the number of dogs per inhabitant in Western countries has been rising significantly since World War II (cf. Derr 2004).
Traditionally, the popularity of dogs in Western countries is related to the fact that people are living longer. However, in addition to the elderly and retirees of today, it is increasingly young people who want to own a dog, due in part to the growth in popularity of hobbies such as jogging and walking (where having a dog as a companion has become part of daily normality) and in part to the phenomenon of counting dogs as quasi-family members in what are often single person households or patchwork families. In this context of greater popularity, dogs have been researched extensively as best friend and companion for humans in general (Haraway 2003; Sanders 1999) as well as with regard to their importance, for example, in shaping family and home life (Power 2008). They have also been researched with regard to their connection with religious beliefs (Menache 1997), the spatial conflicts between humans and dogs (Holmberg 2013), their role as a perceived nuisance (Fielding 2008), and the broader issues of risk raised when humans encounter dogs, including more general issues regarding dogs in modern society per se (Lodge 2001). However, although dog feces are occasionally discussed in the media in terms of being a source of groundwater pollution and, more specifically, a carrier of various diseases (cf. Wells 2006), the question of how poop disposal is actually done on the ground and how it often is kept separate from the overall issue of dog ownership has so far not received any scholarly attention. Among the few studies I found after extensive database search is one by Webley and Siviter (2000) and a one page summary by Arhant and Troxler (2009), both on the demographics of ‘responsible and irresponsible’ dog owners (cf. Wells 2006). Not surprisingly, Arhant and Troxler mention disgust as a main factor for not picking up the feces. In order not be disgusted, owners try to ‘unknow’ about poop: what you do not know will not disgust you. However, none of these studies questions the successful strategies and varieties of dog walking and pooping practices in societies with otherwise high standards of hygiene in everyday life.
To be sure, at first glance, dog walking seems straightforward. Walk the dog, let it poop, then walk the dog home. But this simple description raises a fundamental question: why it is that the poop falling out of the dog is not taken care of, and if it is, how exactly is this done? Decisions made at this juncture of the dog walking process may have a profound impact on the result of how the excrements are disposed. This article is to be understood as a first exploration of some of the habits involved in walking one’s dog by exploring some of the strategies available for dealing with dog poop in public. In particular, the article examines the practices enacted by both dog owners and, albeit to a lesser degree, by those who do not own dogs of strategically diverting their attention away from the fact that, on many sidewalks and in many public parks, dog poop is increasingly to be seen and smelt. This seems quite remarkable given the general hype of cleanliness in relation to the human body, human fear of infection from almost any source (human or nonhuman), the importance of wearing clean clothing, and the habit of having a daily bath or shower (at least once) in many countries (cf. Geels 2005; Shove 2003, 93–116; Twigg 2001). Whereas the presence of human feces on the street is widely considered in the West as a throwback to medieval times in Europe, the depositing of fecal matter by dogs appears to be accepted as a normal aspect of habits and practices, often with little resistance from humans – despite the fact that occasionally dog feces in urban environments are an issue in public debate in Europe and North America. Educational events and information leaflets on how to dispose poop can be found in most European cities. In some cities dog feces are being flagged with the respective countries’ flag (see Figure 1 from the city of Leipzig in Germany). In Poland, even primary school pupils receive little flags to mark the piles on pavements and in parks.4 This article seeks to provide a preliminary frame for analyzing the relationship between humans and dogs in order to shed light on the strategies that facilitate the seemingly ‘anomalous’ strategy of dealing with dog feces in public by allowing it to remain where it has been dropped – namely in the middle of human societies
Dog walking and the importance of not knowing
In line with some elements of ANT and relational or process-oriented sociology (Archer 2012; Crossley 2010; Powell and Dépelteau 2013) as well as recent strands of practice theory (especially as developed by Elizabeth Shove and colleagues, cf. Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012), the classical antinomy between structuralism and approaches that focus on the individual as a social actor is being resolved by conceptually connecting the interplay between structural elements and non-social entities (things, material ‘resistances,’ etc.) and individual ideas.6 Practices are thus based on the different relations that lead to certain associations. These also include accidental ones or relations that happen in passing, something John Law (2012) refers to as ‘collateral realities.’ In general, strategies of walking one’s dog so that it can do its business include the competence of knowing when and how to hold a dog on a leash, where to let the dog run, pee, and poop, and how to make the dog go in a different direction. The material involved is not only the leash and the dog’s body but especially the poop itself as well as the places and the surfaces (e.g. grass) on which the poop is deposited, and perhaps even displayed for passers by. This activity meanders between presenting oneself to passers by with a well-behaved dog, a simple excuse for taking a walk by oneself, and perhaps even a strategy used by the dog owners to express their own freedom by permitting the dog to poop wherever it wants.
In any such strategies, actors deal with the unknown. Unlike in classical approaches to knowledge in society, where ignorance is thought of as the absence of knowledge, more recently scholars have challenged this assumption, exploring the ways in which ignorance has a social life of its own (cf. Beck and Wehling 2012; Bleicher 2012; Gross 2010; McGoey 2012). Central to this strand of thinking is the possibility of moving towards an enhanced capacity to cope with ignorance. Recent research has further augmented this strand by showing that in order to do something successfully an actor needs a known residue of ignorance, which can be referred to as non-knowledge (cf. Gross 2012), to avoid the ambiguity and negative connotations of the term ignorance. Thus understood, non-knowledge should not generally be understood as ignorance, unawareness, or as the mere absence of knowledge, but rather as a specific kind of knowledge about what is not known (cf. Gross 2010). This understanding also departs from the view in which ignorance is seen as necessarily detrimental; instead, it analyses how non-knowledge can even serve as a productive strategic resource (Gross 2010; McGoey 2012; Roberts 2013; Vitek and Jackson 2008).
Central to the strategy used by dog owners while walking their dogs, letting them poop, and cleaning up after them only to drop the bag later on is that they apparently take ignorance and non-knowledge actively into account. One can speculate that this is based on a process of weighing up its strategic outcome when deciding whether or not to clean up the dog’s droppings. In the following, I will elaborate further on the relationship between dogs and their owners paying attention to the strategies involved in permitting a dog to poop wherever it wants.
Observing ‘irresponsible’ dog walkers
Around 2003, I started observing dog walkers and their practices of walking the dog and taking notes about different kinds of relations to dog excrement. I often did this when I walked one of my three kids in a stroller in nearby parks, often later in the day so they could fall asleep more easily. In this sense, some of the results I present in this paper are based on what Martin Bulmer (1982) referred to as retrospective participant observation. At the time I decided to do some more systematic observations of dog walkers, the human–dog interaction, and the relations between the dog walkers and other people and to write a paper on it, I had been observing them for some 10 years in different cities in Germany and abroad (we moved five times between 2002 and 2013). Thus most of the observations were made during leisure time. However, in the summer term from April to September 2012 I was guest professor at Martin Luther University in the neighbouring city of Halle (Saale) so I was commuting and taking the train in the morning and later in the afternoon on weekdays. On the way to the train station I had to walk some 20 minutes along urban green space, a road construction site with fences and flashing lights as well as long pavements crowded with commuters such as me and dog walkers. In order to get more observation data I left the house in the morning some 15 minutes earlier to walk to the train station slowly so I could observe the dog walking activities with more time as a covert observer. After this I entered the train and had some 40 minutes time to sit down to write my field notes. I did the same when I returned in the evening, taking field notes when home. Whenever possible I walked some 20–25 meters behind each dog walker in order to witness a dog fouling. In this way, my approach to dog walking habits is what Kusenbach (2003) has referred to as ‘go-along,’ the practice of accompanying things going on as part of daily routines in order to capture expressions, emotions, and interpretations that informants normally keep to themselves or will not talk about. Even more so, my few attempts to ask dog walkers about their habit were often met with aggression towards the questioner (‘mind your own business,’ ‘don’t you have anything else to do with your time?’ were among the more friendly statements) so that a more silent go-along became the method of choice. In that six months in 2012, on average, I was able to observe 10–12 dog-owner collectives talking a walk in the park or on the greenbelt to the train station. I normally went to the station in the morning between 7:30 and 8:30 am. During this time the park was almost exclusively frequented by dog walkers, probably because the dogs were taken out before the owners went to work. In contrast, in the afternoon, the green space was more crowded, but mainly with playing kids as well as walkers with no dogs. For the most part, it was during the morning hour that dog owners did not clean up after their dog although they had been watching their dog defecating. In the afternoon, most dogs were leashed and dog owners appeared much more attentive to excrement removal than in the morning hour. This was most interesting since after a few weeks I knew most of the walkers and their dogs from seeing. Those that did not clean up in the morning did regularly clean up in the afternoon, those who did clean up in the morning also cleaned up in the afternoon. To support my observations, I have also closely followed the public debate about cleaning dog’s poop in local media and Internet blogs.
‘Where else should my dog poop?’
Another sentiment points to a lack of reflection, that is, pretending not to even know what the problem may be: ‘Where else should my dog poop? After all, it has to poop somewhere.’ Statements such as this frequently occurred when another person shouts at the dog (not the owner) to move on and not to poop here – even if ‘here’ is the person’s own lawn. The dog seems to have a right to poop wherever it wants and the dog owner is supposed to defend this right. Poop is thus an important link in the networked relations between dogs and humans.
Picture the scene of one of my observations where a pensioner out walking his dog stops to rebuke another visitor to the park (without a dog) who has just thrown a yoghurt carton into a bush. This scene and several variations of it have been personally observed, incidentally. This rebuke – presumably intended to prevent the pollution of the environment7 – occurs, however, just as the pensioner’s dog is depositing a huge pile of excrement on the ground not far from where the yoghurt carton is lying. The dog-owning pensioner appears to be completely oblivious to the notion that a pooping dog may also be considered an agent of pollution. Thus, unlike a yoghurt carton, dog poop appears to count as a special part of nature for many current dog owners – or at least as something that in some sense ‘belongs’ to the place where it has been delivered. However, pooping on the lawn and knowing that neighbours or other people watch the act of the poop falling out of the dog may lead to a pretension of the dog owner that he or she does neither see the pooping dog nor anybody else watching. When dog owners look away from their pooping dog, they are able to claim afterwards that they did not know it had happened – a useful defense in case a neighbour or passer by decides to reprimand them.
Not paying attention to cleaning up one’s dog poop can be assumed as a type of strategic non-knowledge, that is, to pretend that to know or to reflect what it means to poop in public is considered either unimportant or perhaps even detrimental. The strategic element entails the desire to avoid having to deal with the issue seriously, since it would perhaps harm the close relationship between the owner and their dog and possibly even call into question the general importance of the dog as a friend that helps the owner to stay healthy – thanks to daily walks (cf. Johnson, Beck, and McCune 2011). Thus understood, dog owners letting their dogs poop in public without cleaning up after them can be theorized as a case of strategic non-knowing in the sense that the act of pooping should look as if the dog owner does not know about it.
When a dog owner uses a bag to dispose of their dog’s poop, he or she often seems to take good care that somebody else is watching. Jackson even reports this phenomenon in a public dog park in Northern California, where dog owners appeared less attentive to excrement removal at less busy times. Some ‘actively looked away when their dog was making a mess’ (Jackson2012, 267). At least one can say, as I have observed many times, that right before the dog owner grabs for the poop with the bag she or he takes a look over the shoulder perhaps to make sure that he or she can be rendered a ‘good’ dog owner. It was at this point that I as a ‘go-along’ ethnographer occasionally entered the life world of the dog owner when he or she spotted me and took me as a point of reference or ‘social control’ to make sure their understandings of appropriate behaviour for dogs in public places is registered properly. In turn, if the poop is not cleaned up after the dog has done its business, the owner will sometimes pretend that he or she has not seen the dog pooping – for example, by talking earnestly into their cell phone or using an iPad. This could be read as a kind of civil inattention, as Goffman (1971) once prominently coined it – the key difference being that the aim of being inattentive in such a case is not to establish a respectful distance to anyone nearby; rather, the aim is to conceal the fact that one end of the Hudogledog (to use Michael’s term) has done something that may be considered objectionable by such a person, who may then express their objection to the other end of the hybrid. In other words, the dog’s business is done as if one part (the dog owner) is unaware of it.
Shit trees, wrapped poop, and natural waste
Vidya Kauri (2012) from the Canadian newspaper National Post is also stunned by some of her dog walking fellow citizens and explains as follows: ‘It’s almost like they pick it up and they feel proud of themselves, and then they just don’t do that extra step. But because they’ve picked it up, there’s no guilt in leaving it.’ A park visitor is stunned and reacts with irony: ‘Maybe some people think there’s a poop fairy that comes along and takes it.’ Another park visitor has a more telling explanation when she says that dog owners generally do not want to pick up after their pet, but they feel like they have to, so they rebel against this by making others look at what they have picked up. It almost seems as though the dog owners concerned want to tell their fellow citizens something by presenting the dog poop nicely wrapped on pavement sidewalk or up in a tree. Perhaps it is important to them to be seen to be doing what is expected of them while at the same time rejecting this social expectation and expressing their scorn towards those who demand it by parodying the act (though only when they can be sure no one is looking – apart from the dog, of course). This can be explained as a way of staying true to their dog’s ‘nature’ and the relative liberty to poop in public wherever they want yet without offending the expectations of non-dog owners nearby. The offence is only caused later on when the poop cannot easily be attributed to a particular dog (owner), thereby potentially inciting the antipathy of non-dog owners towards all dog owners. It may be a type of mischievousness by the dog owners.
This can be seen as an act of strengthening the association between dog and dog owner through the medium of poop. It is the competence of skilfully keeping the poop away from other people’s sight and smell, only to allow it to reappear with a vengeance – anonymously – later on. While the poop is laboriously and skilfully wrapped, it is then connected with some compensational activity (such as convenience due to missing trash bins). Thus the poop lying on the pavement nicely wrapped up in a plastic bag can be understood as a form of collective communication to the dog-less outside world: ‘Look, I tried, but….’ It may even be understood as a further step in identity formation among dog owners, who are thus able to demonstrate that they can leave their (dogs’) waste wherever they want – at least when no one is watching. Dogs may not be able to wait until no one is watching, so the owners have to pretend to clean up after them. Subsequently the wrapped poop can be placed in an even more strategically visible spot. In other words, by wrapping the poop and displaying it later on, the owners may show even more how engrossed they are in the task of cleaning up the mess, thereby defending the natural right of the dog to defecate wherever and whenever it wants.
Furthermore, once the poop is bagged and thrown into a bush, it will not rot easily (as it would without a bag). Instead it will most likely stay there for weeks and perhaps even months. The dog owners have then created a memorial to their belief that their dog’s nature should not be regulated. This memorial, or statement of belief, can be seen as part of sustaining the practice of dog pooping in public, namely by extending the period of ‘freshness’ and visibility of the poop longer than would be the case if it were simply allowed to rot on the grass. Thus understood, several elements in the dog-poop-owner hybrid have been reshaped on different scales.
Let us now take a closer look at the different types of strategies that develop when it comes to pooping in public.
Changing collectives: from walking the dog to preserving excrement
However, if the interpretations made above are reasonable then the development of dog poop practice has recently taken another turn – the furtive turn, as I call it here (see Table 1). In addition to finding his or her way to the park, the dog owner still needs to know how to wrap up the dog’s excrement, how to do so when many people are watching, and also how to skilfully get rid of the freshly filled bag when no one is watching. Some dog owners drop the bag in a garbage can in the park or even bring it back home and, supposedly, dispose of it there. However, some dog owners deposit the bag in a special and, where possible, highly visible place. Besides the phenomenon of ‘shit trees,’ I have even observed over the course of the last few years that wrapped dog poop is displayed near or on fences of construction sites, especially on top of construction fences that do have flashing lights. Although I never saw anyone actually hanging up the bags there and I do not know yet on how to interpret this, maybe the bags are hung there so they get special attention even during their night stage via ‘disco flashlights’ or the like? Be that as it may, ‘presenting’ wrapped dog poop in visible places has been an issue in many places (see Collins 2012; Kauri 2012; Smithers 2012 as well as numerous debates on the Internet). Even the UK Marine Conservation Society has reported that the volume of dog excrement wrapped in bags and left on the ground rose 11% between 2010 and 2011, while Scotland recorded an increase of as much as 71% in a single year.9 The increased appearance of dog poop in plastic bags found by the side of a pavement has fostered debates on numerous web blogs.10
Public pooping through the strategic usage of nonknowledge
The aforementioned strategies can be interpreted to mean that both causal and communicative attributions can alternate within the practices and the reshaping of certain elements. The dog owners, although they may know their dogs well, always have to wait and see where their ‘best friends’ will do their business. They do not know in advance when their neighbours or other passers by will be watching them and their dog. Perhaps one can say that this networked collective between dogs and owners is characterized by a situation in which the owners find themselves in a reality constituted by double contingency. However, unlike in the classical notion of double contingency as introduced by Talcott Parsons (1951, 6) and further developed by Niklas Luhmann (1995, 103–136), who both used the concept to account for the uncertain possibility of social interaction, I will extend the idea also to non-social interaction. After all, dog owners know neither where exactly the dog will do its business nor what their best strategy will be for where and how to get rid of the poop, as they do not know whether, when, or where other humans will be observing them. The owners thus seem to proceduralize this contingency through the strategic usage of non-knowledge. After all, this moment of contingency may give dog owners that extra kick they need.
Of course, if dog poop is accepted and established via the strategic goal of secretly depositing faeces in visible places (as in strategy No. 3 of Table 1), this will likewise call for new strategies and habits with new elements added to it by other park users and will certainly change the way parks and green spaces are used by non-dog owners as well. It is to be expected that the projected increase in the number of dog owners and the amount of waste thus created in the future will certainly also become a crucial factor in new patterns of the use of public spaces such as parks.
Outlook: the return of the repressed?
What can be said is that walking the dogs and taking care of faeces has provided a case of analysis of the ordering of world in mundane strategies via strategically knowing or not knowing about excrement. Like other activities, picking or not picking up dogs’ droppings is dependent on several elements in the collective including to strategically know how to use a plastic bag to wrap excrement as part of the expression that one is a responsible citizen and dog owner. Framed in this way, different strategies of getting rid of dog poop not only have careers of their own (e.g. from responsible scooping to designing ‘shit trees’) but also deliver room for new interpretations, attributions of meanings of different activities, and well-founded speculations.
This exploratory study thus suggests that observing activities and strategies of defecating may provide new insight into human–animal relationships by exploring the role of droppings. An important prerequisite for successfully displaying poop and for diverting attention away from the fact that dog poop is increasingly to be seen in public is that the actors involved are skilful enough to attest to non-knowledge about the production of excrements by their best friends.
2. See the respective websites of the two associations: http://www.aspca.org and http://www.americanpetproducts.org.
3. According to www.mapsofworld.com, the top 10 countries for dog population figures are the US, Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, South Africa, France, Italy, Poland, and Thailand. However, these numbers also include estimates for stray dogs, so it is difficult to gauge the number of dogs owned per inhabitant. See also http://www.stadthunde.com andhttp://www.deathrowpets.net/PDFs/Update_5/A%20Different%20Perspective.pdf.
4. I owe this story to Maria Świątkiewicz-Mośny, who also pointed out to me that shit in Polish is kupa and kupa also means ‘heaps of’ and ‘lots of.’ So a lot of the public debate on the topic focuses on this play with words. Further info on Polish school kids’ educational program on poop can be found here: http://rudaslaska.naszemiasto.pl/artykul/galeria/sztuczna-kupa-w-rudzie-slaskiej-na-rynku-zdjecia,2204974,t,id.html (last accessed, September 3, 2014).
5. An excellent discussion on different ways of conceptualizing nonhumans as actants can be found in Sayes (2014). For critical debates on actants and ANT as regards its usefulness for environmental sociology, see Voss and Peukert (2006).
6. Practice theory is a wide field. Normally the origins of this approach are associated with some of the writings of Pierre Bourdieu (esp. Bourdieu 1977). Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory (esp. Giddens 1984) is another important source. Newer strands of practice theory such as the works of Brand (2010), Schatzki (2010), Spaargaren (2011), and Wilhite (2012) also bring the ecological aspects of everyday practices into focus.
7. The question is, however, what are the real intentions of the pensioner? Since I only observed this without talking to the pensioner, I simply assume that he was keen on a plastic-free environment for him and his dog. Of course, motivations for such a behavior can be quite different.
8. See for example http://www.bucksherald.co.uk/news/more-news/latest-hang-up-dog-waste-bags-in-bushes-1-4916736 orhttp://www.sheffieldforum.co.uk/showthread.php?t=629421 orhttp://www.kentonline.co.uk/kentonline/news/2012/february/3/dog_poo.aspx for a selection of the online public debates to be found in the English language. See also BBC News on ‘Bags of dog waste hung from trees’:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/berkshire/8163255.stm. A Google search with the words dog, poop, bushes, and hanging leads to several hundred debates and reports of hanging poop bags all over the world. A Google search with the German words Hundekot, Tüte, and hängen leads to similar results. Discussions with colleagues from Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, and France have led to similar results. A Google search with the French terms chien and Sacs de merde, in addition, delivers many amusing photos, see for example: http://avignon.midiblogs.com/media/02/02/934838066.jpg.
9. See the society’s website at http://www.mcsuk.org/press/view/397.
10. As a blogger on http://exurbanpedestrian.wordpress.com stated: ‘I’m human and no matter from which angle I examine this phenomena, I cannot explain it. You walk your dog. Your dog poops. You go to all the trouble of bringing a plastic bag; wrapping your hand in the bag; picking up the warm poop, tying a knot in the bag; and then you just drop the bag? Why not just leave the poop so it has some hope of biodegrading in the next thousand years? Only aliens could do something so inexplicable.’ Furthermore, a Google search for ‘wrapped dog poo(p)’ leads to numerous debates on ways of depositing wrapped poop in places that are not waste bins.
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