The Spaniel in the Spirea

Dog pads in South Lake Union Seattle image: Dean Koonts
Dog pads in South Lake Union Seattle
image: Dean Koonts

On my twenty minute walk to work through the streets of downtown Seattle in the morning, I came across an adorable and very well-trained Spaniel with her owner.  She kept exactly to her owner’s side; no pulling on the leash, no jumping on strangers, no barking at pedestrians. She sat at the intersection patiently waiting for the traffic signal to change and continue her journey through the concrete wilderness. Being impressed that this owner obviously took the time to train his dog well, I witnessed the inevitable doggie squat and deposit — and then the pair just kept on walking. No doggie bag, no pooper-scooper, no acknowledgement that they littered the sidewalk. Unfortunately, this is a common scene in less crowded streets that lack the social pressure of the many eyes of passers-by. “So what’s the big deal?” you might be thinking, and “How does this relate to urban landscapes and design?” Great questions. Let’s build the case starting with that first question.

“So what’s the big deal?”

We’ve all read the headlines regarding the carbon footprint of our pampered pooches: a medium-sized dog has twice the carbon footprint of an SUV over the span of a single year.1 This is an interesting comparison, but to the majority of the public, a carbon footprint is about as tangible and understood as string theory in particle physics. You might have heard about it, but if asked to explain it….well, some might be hard pressed to come up with a response. So let’s make it more real.

Just north of Seattle is Snohomish County. Snohomish County is estimated to have the same number of dogs as the city of Seattle. Snohomish County Surface Water Management Division conducted a hefty, four-year, $480,000 study on dog poop which revealed the size of the problem. There’s a very large volume of waste and it’s the top polluter of our region’s waterways. They estimated that one pooch-pile weighs on average .33 pounds, multiplied this by 365 days in a year and then by 125,000 (number of dogs estimated to live in Snohomish County in 2009). According to Dave Ward, principal watershed steward for Snohomish County the result is the equivalent of 32,000 people disposing of raw sewage every day in the streets, gardens, backyards, and planting strips of the County.2, 3 And these are 2009 numbers. In 2011, it was estimated that 154,000 dogs reside in Seattle providing a whopping 18.5 million pounds of feces a year. And those feces carry diseases and parasites.3, 4  Roundworm and their eggs can live for more than four years in moist soil. E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria, hookworm, and giardia are readily found in pet waste.3, 8 And when it rains (as it tends to do in the Pacific Northwest) storm water carries this waste into our streams and lakes, and eventually Puget Sound waterways. Live in a dog-friendly city, think twice if your child wants to play in that stream or jump in that lake to beat the summer heat.

Lawn in front of Residential Building
Lawn in front of residential building
image: Dean Koonts

Disease aside, one look at a planting strip in front of a condo building that allows pets reveals the impact. The first lesson: pet waste is not fertilizer. Yellow rings in the lawn, ornamental grasses withering to nothing, boxwood hedges bleached beige, and bare soil with a thin green sheen are evident signs of the impact. One recommendation from waste management agencies is to bag it and throw it in the garbage where it will go to a landfill with its stringent controls on stormwater runoff and environmental regulations, or flush it so it flows with human waste to treatment plants. Yet, how do we plan for the inevitable and effectively educate the public.

“How does this relate to urban landscapes and design?”

As urban populations grow and trendy employers allow pets in the office, more and more dogs will impact our urban centers. This phenomenon will require creative thought and solutions both policy and regulation driven, and based in physical design, to address not only the decimation of plants in our streetscapes, parks, and public spaces but also the very real public health risks caused by not bagging pet waste.

Effects of dog waste on groundcover
Effects of dog waste on groundcover
image: Dean Koonts

Tax, fine, or fee

One solution to help direct behavior is through the pet license fee and the scoop laws that fine individuals who believe that somehow the law doesn’t apply to them. The goal is provide a stick that helps direct people to pick up after their pets to avoid departing with their hard-earned cash. Most large German cities charge a dog tax far greater than the $50 most Seattleites might expect to pay in yearly license fee.5 In Germany, dog ownership is considered a luxury and therefore falls under the legal code for luxury taxes, much like owning a yacht, a car, or buying cosmetics. In Heidelberg, your first dog will cost you €108/year (approx, $130) and each additional dog € 216 (approx, $265).6 In other communities, it’s based on breed: a Chihuahua will cost less than a Great Dane.

In comparison with larger cities in the world, the fines here hardly seem punitive. In Paris (with 500,000 dogs), if a dog owner doesn’t scoop, it’s a € 450 fine ($550) compared to Seattle’s $54 fine.7, 8  Needless-to-say, scoop laws often create confrontations between neighbors, enforcement officers, and perpetrators so are less-than-ideal in creating a harmonious and civil society.2, 4

Design and education.

While within the last decade several books have appeared about how to landscape a backyard to make it pet-friendly (see resource list), little information has appeared regarding the design of public spaces, outside of off-leash areas, to reduce the incidence of neglected pet waste and the protection of landscapes in the right-of-way.

Within the last year, in Seattle, we’ve seen the first attempts to address this issue through design. In planting strips throughout the South Lake Union neighborhood, just north of downtown Seattle, large boulders have appeared at the planting strip corners with little “pads” of cobble rock. These obstacles protect the delicate plantings on the interior of the planting strip from the onslaught of 400 plus dogs that walk the neighborhood. The idea is that dogs will mark the boulders and defecate on the rock pads protecting the plants and making “pick up” easier. And if the waste is left on the rocks, at least it isn’t a hazard in the sidewalk (Paris reports an average of 600 injuries a year caused by pet waste on sidewalks and the resulting slippage) (7).

Dog sign public eduction
Dog sign public eduction
image: Dean Koonts

Through pet waste signs, conveniently located dog bag dispensaries and trash receptacles, and information dissemination, public education campaigns seem to be getting far more traction. Web sites, brochures, and public events have also been used in Snohomish County’s efforts at reaching residents in the county. Seattle Public Utility’s waste division does the same. The U.S. EPA has pet waste management as an education track at the 5th Annual National Conference for Nonpoint Source and Stormwater Outreach. The people’s choice winners:

  • “Pet Waste” Regional Flood Control District Las Vegas, Nevada
  • “Clean Feet” Gainesville Clean Water Partnership, Florida
  • “Clean Paws” Gainesville Clean Water Partnership, Florida
  • “Think Blue San Diego – Pet Waste” City of San Diego, California

While there are no easy answers, or quick fixes for the problem, we should ask ourselves,: Are there other ways to address this issue in a sustainable way that will also build urban communities and respects the designs of open space?

by:  Dean Koonts, ASLA, principal at HBB Landscape Architecture in Seattle, Washington.


  • Dogscaping: Creating the Perfect backyard and Garden for You and Your Dog by Thomas Barthel. BowTie Press. 2010.
  • Dog Friendly Gardens, Garden Friendly Dogs by Cheryl S. Smith. Direct book Services.  2003.
  • Petscaping: Training and Landscaping with your Pet in Mind by Scott Cohen and Carolyn Doherty. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.  2011.


  1. Vale, Robert and Brenda, “Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living,” Thames & Hudson, 2009 cited in Seattle Times, 2 November 2009, Mark Rahner, “Dog’s eco-footprint a Hummer, study says.”
  2. Seattle Times, 15 January 2009, Erik Lacitis, “Dog owner says rules about droppings stink.”
  3. Snohomish County, Department of Public Works, Stormwater Management Division. Pollution Prevention: Pet Waste,  Web Site:
  4. Seattle Times, 3 February 2012, Erik Lacitis, “Here’s the scoop on Duke, feline delinquent who got owner fined.”
  7. Hampshire, David, “France: Living and Working in France,” Survival Books. 10th Ed. 2011.

One thought on “The Spaniel in the Spirea

  1. James Hencke, ASLA, LEED AP November 7, 2012 / 9:44 pm

    Great article Dean – one of the many important “details to consider” as we head towards a planet of 9B urban Earthlings!

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