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Millions of dog owners prefer trails to parks, and the first few hundred yards of urban-interface hiking areas tend to be inundated with piles of shit. (Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Is Leaving a Bag of Dog Shit on the Side of the Trail Better than Doing Nothing?

Outside’s ethics guru on how to be both a responsible pet owner and an environmental steward

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Dear Sundog: I keep finding little plastic bags of dog poop all over the woods. Someone is clearly trying to do the right thing, but is this any better than doing nothing at all? —Wading Through Feces

Dear WTF: For children of the seventies, such as Sundog, the advent of the doggie bag has been a revolution of both technology and behavior. Back then a person simply did not pick up dog shit. It was not done. As a result, the little heaps were everywhere—sidewalks, streets, beaches, baseball diamonds—and tracking it into the house on a shoe sole seemed a daily occurrence (on the days when you were lucky enough to not step in it barefoot, the still warm goo squishing between your toes). There were universally ignored rules about “curbing your dog” and absurd gadgets like the miniature broom and pan that were never adopted. Picking the stuff up with your hands was never considered; garden spades were the tool of choice.

Then, in 1982, two of the biggest grocery chains in the U.S., Kroger and Safeway, switched from paper to plastic bags. Just like Cinderella slipping her foot into the glass slipper, so did Americans slip our hands into some of the 1 billion single-use sacks expended annually.

Nowadays it’s become second nature, but do you remember the first time you inserted your fingers into a precariously thin plastic membrane and grabbed hold of a hot turd just seconds after it had exited a dog’s sphincter? I sure do. I gagged. I turned away. I could hardly bring myself to invert the bag and tie the handles long enough to toss it in a nearby trash bin. It wasn’t just gross, it was awful and taboo, something you’d see in an XXX German movie, like the infamous scene of Divine eating dog shit in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos.

Skip to the present. Everyone picks up dog shit with their hands now, to the point that if you fail to do it, bystanders will publicly berate you. And our cities are so much cleaner! As for the billions of biohazardous goodie bags at the bottom of our landfills: well, that’s a problem for our grandchildren to deal with. But as plastic shopping bags are being banned because of the way they cling to treetops and swirl infinitely in the oceans, companies are selling dedicated poop bags that in forward-thinking cities are subsidized for the public good, freely distributed at parks and trailheads.

Which leads us to our problem. Millions of dog owners prefer trails to parks, and the first few hundred yards of urban-interface hiking areas tend to be inundated with piles of shit. Unlike in a city park, where one tends to linger near a trash can, a hiker is aiming to get a mile or more from the parking lot. If the pooch poops in the first 100 feet or so, it’s easy enough to run it back to the pavement. But what about at, say, the 200-yard line, a full two football fields from the nearest trash can? Sundog has watched the evolution of a solution from these well-meaning dog lovers. They bag the poop, set it on the side of the trail, then pick it up hours later when they return. After all, what sane person is going to stuff a fresh bag of dog shit into their knapsack beside the cheese and salami and haul it around the canyons for the afternoon?

It’s an imperfect system. Sometimes you forget. Or it gets dark and you can’t find your goodie bag. Or you hike a loop and return on a different trail. Or a snowstorm blows in. In any event, what was at first a minor inconvenience that would eventually decay or be kicked into the brush is now a biohazard that will last dozens or hundreds of years. In effect you’ve forced someone else to weigh whether they want to carry your dog’s poop.

Perhaps it is the most fastidious pooper-picker-uppers who are exacerbating the problem. Like you, WTF, Sundog now comes across sacks one mile, two miles, even three miles into the backcountry. What are these people thinking? At this distance from civilization, it’s not a question of remembering to carry it out. Here, there is no good reason to bag it in the first place. Left out of its plastic wrapper, the thing will decompose soon enough, a far better outcome than toting it to the landfill, where it joins the Eternal Museum of Preserved Turds.

We have arrived at the question of social versus ecological impacts. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics has argued that owners should bury or carry out all dog poop from the wilderness: “When we start adding in nutrients from pet waste,” it contends, “the ecosystem balance is thrown out of equilibrium.”

Sundog calls bull. LNT take feels a bit culty, as if the “ecosystem” is some sacred nonhuman Eden that must be worshipped but never “thrown out of equilibrium.” The intentions are admirable, but the solution is absurd. By merely being alive we will have an impact, and leave a trace, and while of course we try to minimize that for our fellow living things, it’s silly to pretend otherwise. Sometimes we must forgive ourselves for our traces. And let’s remember the joy and friendship and sanity achieved by hiking and camping with dogs. I’d like someone to do a goddamn study showing that because of dogs, humans commit X million fewer murders and Y million fewer batteries per year.

Dog shit in the woods is less an environmental problem than a social one: it worsens the experience of the human visitor. Environmental problems, in Sundog’s mind, are climate changespecies extinction, tar-sands oil being pumped across Indigenous land. Anyone carrying a sack of dog shit across the wilderness in 2022 and patting themselves on the back for saving the planet is a lunatic. In their enthusiasm to mitigate the social impacts of their dog’s feces, do-gooders are creating actual ecological impacts by leaving plastic bags in woods that will be there for their children’s children.

Sundog suggests a sort of Dog Shit Summit, an international treaty on the duties of dog owners in the backcountry. The farther you hike from the trailhead, the less important it becomes to remove the dog shit, because there is simply so much less of it. As mentioned, that first football field is where the vast majority of eager dogs do it. At some distance, the hassle of bagging turds—and the inevitability of forgetting to pack them out—outweighs the benefit. After that point, dog doo should just be nudged or flung off the trail, with a boot toe, a walking stick, a ski tip, or a snowshoe, to where no one will step in it, leaving it to the forces of nature. The best practice is still to bury the crap, just like its human equivalent, six to eight inches underground, but I predict that, as with the pooper-picker-uppers of yore, the pocket shovel will not become a widely adapted hiking accoutrement.

Since no regulatory agency has stepped up to legislate the appropriate distance of diminishing returns, Sundog will have to do it himself. Here goes:

Quarter of a mile.

Let it be decreed. For the first 400 yards or so, bag the poop and carry it out. After that, kick it off the trail, bury it as best you can, and keep walking. Your efforts will be appreciated.

Got a question of your own? Send it to sundogsalmanac@hotmail.com.

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