Strolling along a public trail, you breathe in the fresh air and feel your stress melt away. Birds sing. Tree branches sway in the breeze. Sunlight warms your skin. And then you step in a pile of dog poop.

Yuck. The squish, the lingering stench, the sight of it stuck in the tread of your sneakers. Unfortunately, many people have endured this traumatic experience. Dog waste has long been a problem in public outdoor spaces, in trail networks and on beaches. And in addition to being disgusting, this problem is a public health concern, and can harm the environment and wildlife.

A sign by the trailhead remind dog walkers to clean up after their pets.

Now, before I dive into this unappealing topic, I need to make a confession. I go hiking with my dog, Oreo, often, and over the years, I’ve struggled with always scooping Oreo’s poop into a plastic bag when he squats in the woods. Picking up dog waste in an unpleasant task, and carrying a baggy full of it while hiking isn’t appealing either. I will admit that there have been times when I have been caught without a bag, when I’ve buried Oreo’s waste, or flicked it in to the underbrush with a stick. So I understand, first hand, why this problem exists.

I’m not here to wag my finger at dog owners. That would be hypocritical. But after speaking with numerous conservationists and trail maintainers and doing a little research into the topic, I want to share with you — my fellow dog owners — reasons why it’s important to scoop poop. Because I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to perform such a disagreeable chore, I want to know why. What good does it do? 

Let’s start in Acadia National Park, Maine’s most popular outdoor destination and one of the few national parks where dogs are permitted on almost all the trails. With visitation steadily rising each year, Acadia is seeing more and more dog-related problems, including dog feces on trails and beaches. In fact, dog waste has become such a concern that the park changed its regulations for the 2018 season, making it a citable offense for pet owners to leave their pets excrement anywhere in the park. And in June, the park launched a new Bark Ranger Program to encourage dog owners to learn and practice good etiquette.

In the program, BARK is an acronym for:

  • Bag your poop.
  • Always wear a leash.
  • Respect wildlife.
  • Know where you can go.

“In addition to the problems we’re having with dog waste, there’s simply a need for people to know the etiquette when visiting a wild place like Acadia, and an incentive for following the rules,” said Kelly Pontbriand, organizer the program.

To become an Acadia Bark Ranger, a dog (with his or her owner) must complete one of the activities outlined on the Acadia Bark Ranger checklist card, then work with a park ranger or volunteer to sign an oath agreeing to follow dog-related rules in the park. The dog then receives a special dog tag for completing the program.

“People seem just as proud of their dogs as are for their kids for completing the Junior Ranger Program,” Pontbriand said. “We’re getting pictures on Facebook from dogs from all different parts of the country [with the Bark Ranger tag].”

Derek and Oreo

But dog feces isn’t just a problem in high-traffic locations like Acadia. In fact, sometimes it’s more of an issue at remote outdoor destinations, places where dog owners are less likely to run into other trail users, rangers or park staff.

“We do get complaints about certain areas, especially remote ones,” said John Bott,  a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “And we’ve tried to move resources around to cover places that are getting more use, but we can be stretched pretty thin if you look at all the public lands and state lands. We post signs, but that’s about all we can do.”

In addition to signs asking visitors to clean up after their dogs, many state-owned properties feature dog waste stations, which is essentially a trash bin and a dispenser of plastic bags. And park staff cleans up dog waste in high traffic areas, a task that pulls them away from other projects such as educational programs and trail building, Bott said.

“I think it’s a growing problem,” Bott said. “And it’s not confined to any one area.”

Oreo on Blue Hill Mountain near the popular sledding hill.

It’s tempting to reason that one pile of poop will likely do no harm, that it will wash away with the next rain. But if everyone followed that same reasoning on a popular trail, that one pile would soon become many. Such was the case on Blue Hill Mountain, a popular hiking, snowshoeing, sledding and berry-picking location on the Blue Hill Peninsula.

A few years ago, when snow melted off the mountain in the spring, trail users started noticing dog waste peppering the trails. In response, a group of volunteers tried to fix the problem by erecting signs and constructing a dog waste station at a trailhead.

“I can say that probably 50 percent of people use it,” said Chrissy Beardsley Allen, development and outreach director for the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, which owns and maintains the trails on the mountain. “It makes a huge dent for sure… but it’s a difficult thing for us to police and monitor.”

Blue Hill Heritage Trust has never closed properties to dogs due to the amount of dog waste left on trails, but the land trust has been gifted land with the condition that dogs not be allowed once opened to the public, Allen said.

“Part of the reason is because of the diseases dogs can bring in to wildlife,” Allen said. “It’s definitely something that’s on people’s mind when conserving land.”

Dog feces often contains harmful bacteria, diseases and parasites. That’s why the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests people pick up and dispose of dog feces, “especially in areas where children might play.”

“Cleaning up after your dog will kelp keep the area clean and reduce the risk of spreading disease to people or other animals,” the CDC states online.

A dog waste station at the trailhead of the Cliff Trail in Harpswell.

But what diseases? What parasites? I did a little research and was shocked at what I found.

Let’s start with Campylobacter, a bacteria that is one of the most common causes of food poisoning. Typically spread through improperly cooked meats, this bacteria is also present in dog feces, where it can spread to humans.

Similarly, Giardia, a parasite that lives in dog’s intestines, is often found colonizing dog feces. This parasite contaminates water, making it unsafe to drink. And those unlucky enough to consume that water develop an illness that’s often called “beaver fever.” Symptoms are diarrhea, dehydration, abdominal cramps and vomiting — for one to two weeks. This is a big problem for long-distance hikers, who have to filter and sanitize water from streams and springs to avoid this debilitating illness.

Dog feces can also contain roundworm, which can be passed to other dogs and cause weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss and more. People can pick it up, too. According to the CDC, of all age groups, children are most likely to contract roundworm, which can invade the retina, causing inflammation, scarring and possibly blindness. This parasite can also invade the liver, lung and central nervous system.

Salmonella can also be found in dog feces, and while it doesn’t usually make dogs sick, it can cause serious illness when passed to people. Diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps are all symptoms people have experienced when exposed to this bacteria.

The list goes on, but I’m hoping those examples drive home the fact that dog poop can cause real health problems for people and other animals, as well as contaminate water sources.

Oreo wearing his hiking pack, which he can use to carry his own poop bags.

But at the end of the day, it’s also just plain gross. And if you really think about it, while picking up dog poop is a big inconvenience, it’s the right thing to do. Whether you’re visiting public or private property, you’re a visitor. It’s not your space to wreck. So to wrap up this extremely long blog post, here are a few tips for picking up dog poop:

  1. Double up the plastic bag, for obvious reasons.
  2. Test out one of the many innovative poop scooping gadgets on the market, such as the Tidy Turd Pooper Scooper or the Ruffwear Stash Bag.
  3. Buy a hiking pack for your dog so he can carry his own poop-filled baggy.
  4. Don’t assume trailheads will feature waste bag dispensers. Very few do.
  5. Don’t leave the bag of poop beside the trail thinking you’ll pick it up on the way back. Your route might change, or you might simply forget. Carry it with you until you find a trash can.
  6. Wash or sanitize your hands after handling dog waste. Just remember the roundworm.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...