Putting a leash on Berlin dog “poolitics”

At first glance Berlin is a dog-friendly place. One can find dogs of every size and shape running alongside bicycle’d owners, trotting independently down sidewalks, frolicking in neighborhood parks, lounging under outdoor café tables or sitting tethered outside of shops. Dogs are everywhere, and Berlin loves it.

Sort of.

It wasn’t until I became a dog owner myself that I started to become aware of a distinct counter-sentiment. One afternoon last summer, line-training with my fluffy new pup, a man we passed on the sidewalk was evidently inspired to commentary at the sight of us, delivering a pointed little quip directly into my ear: “Great, another little shitter.”

I was caught off guard by the seeming rancor in the man’s tone, inclined to interpret it as a personal affront, because my pup and I had not been doing anything wrong. And then it was like the veil was lifted from my vision, because he was right: it’s everywhere.

defiled flowerbed

Yes, Berlin has a poo problem. Noted by residents and tourists alike, most often described with wry “but what can you do?” resignation, the perpetually poo-strewn state of sidewalks in some neighborhoods are the unspoken consequence of the aforementioned dog-friendliness here in Berlin, and it has cultivated real un-friendliness amongst those who cannot be won over by the charms of their four-legged neighbors.

For me and my pup that translates to a simple reality: that on sheer merit of our being a dog/dog owner duo, regardless of our specific actions, we unwittingly descend into that subtle fray of city-wide frustration and, sometimes, animosity.

When one is caught up (unintentionally) in a long-standing quarrel, it’s good practice to try to get a better understanding of the situation on both sides, not just your own, and like any situation, this one is much more complicated than first glance reveals. So, let’s pull back the layers of intrigue, shall we?

First off, let’s talk dogs, i.e. the physical source of the problem. Dogs just don’t care—well actually they do, but only in situations where they have learned to care. That is, it’s not cool when they mess indoors, but outside is quite all right. That’s the core of basic potty training, so you can’t really fault the beast for attempting to act to the best of his or her knowledge.

With that established, if knowledge is at fault, we must look further up the chain. Where does this knowledge of right and wrong come from?

The owner—it falls to the owner to impart wisdom of indoor/outdoor etiquette to their animal, and from what I’ve witnessed thus far, most owners do a pretty good job of this. German dogs have a level of discipline and emotional maturity of which dogs in my country could only dream. The number of focused, well-behaved, off-leash dogs in this city continues to impress me, and in all honesty, it’s been a goal to which to strive in training my own dog.

However therein lies one of the problems. Off-leash dogs, unless you’re really on it, means unsupervised bathroom breaks. Off-leashing demands a level of attention and conscientiousness that, frankly, gets in the way of forward progress. For instance, mum is on her bike, and mister hund trails behind, leaves a present in front of the flower shop, then runs to catch up with mum. It’s not a malicious act, but it’s careless, and these harmless bits of carelessness and/or negligence begin to add up over time, compounding into a city-wide problem.

dog with the lookSo what gives?

Sure, one encounters the usual attitudes: “It’s always been this way” or “Everyone else is doing it”. Some dog owners mistakenly believe that inclusive in the yearly 120€ Hundesteuer, the dog tax, is some sort of waste removal service, and therefore the disposal is on the city and not the individual—this might explain some of the perplexing “bag it and leave it” behavior.

Even if dog owners are wrong in this assumption, they’re not entirely incorrect. Indeed, Berlin is home to the various roving machines of the Berliner Stadtreinigung (BSR), including the large signature orange-colored Kehrmaschine who lumbers down city streets in the wee hours, and his smaller brother Borstentier dedicated to sweeping sidewalks.

In addition to these, there is the infamous but elusive Hundekotmobile, essentially a rolling wet-vac created for the sole purpose of doing the unspeakable task no one else wants to do.
However the odds are hopelessly stacked against the Kotmobile with only 14 of these machines pitted against more than 40 tonnes of waste material produced daily by Berlin’s estimated 100,000 canine residents. To further emphasize the futility of this task, according to the BSR, the city would need approximately 20 of these machines per district to effectively combat the waste production problem.

So why can’t we have that? The answer: the same reality that plagues all city governments—limited funding. Therefore the 14 Kotmobiles soldier on alone, inadequate but not to be deterred, following ever changing routes about the city of Berlin. Meanwhile, the vast majority of dog waste falls to Borstentier for removal—but face it, with his bristly front end, he’s not the ideal work-beast for the job.

When technology fails, things must circle back to the human element. Over the years the city has made unsuccessful attempts to sensitize dog owners to the dog waste problem. One can find dispensers with free waste-bags in some 350 strategic doggie hot-spots like city lawns and park entrances scattered around Berlin. Unfortunately the bags are often simply overlooked, ignored, stolen, or, most frustratingly, used but then still discarded streetside or tossed into nearby bushes where even Borstentier and Kotmobile have trouble getting at them.

There is, naturally, a fine associated with individual failure to remove waste, but the burden of proof is tedious, and at only 35€ it’s more of an inconvenience than a deterrent. Fine increases have been suggested, but even with an increase, enforcement remains the clear problem, with a demonstrated lack of manpower. For instance, I’ve not once witnessed the poo police on the prowl in my neighborhood, and we’re what you’d call a “high-traffic” location.

Borstentier and Kotmobile rumble in the distance.

Finally, when one cannot appeal to the individual, bureaucracy and legislation must, alas, intercede, clamping down on the freedoms of dogs and dog owners. In February this year the Berlin senate passed a new dog law (still due to face the house of representatives) which would require all dogs to be leashed and owners to carry waste-bags on their person. The only exception to the new leash law would be owners in possession of a dog license or “certificate of competence” for experienced handlers—that is, according to some opinions, more bureaucracy.

graffitied BSR bin

Leashing is a sensitive subject for Berlin dog owners who have long valued, and even demanded, their animals’ freedom in the midst of a changing national landscape of stricter dog laws. Some owners balk at the new license requirement, describing it as an unenforceable waste of tax money. Others express outright defiance at the idea of enforced leashing, stating that if it must come to pass they would gladly incur a fine than constrain the freedom (and the joy) of their four-legged companions. Indeed, more radical groups have even compared strict leashing laws with animal cruelty.

Previously, Berlin dogs have been prohibited from off-leashing only in certain places like playgrounds. This new leash law would require leashing city-wide, except in designated dog areas. This comes in response to not just Berlin’s ongoing poo problem, but also to approximately 600-700 dog “incidents” per year involving injury or threat. Indeed, certain “dangerous dog” breeds (Pit Bull, American Staffordshire Terrier, Bull Terrier, and Tosa Inu) would be required to wear a muzzle in public places. The law would also establish a centralized Dog Register, in which aggressive incidents could be logged.

The law is not expected to take full effect until early 2016, however Berlin dog owners could see more vigorous waste-removal enforcement in their neighborhoods much sooner.

But knowing Berlin with its indomitable, inventive (and sometimes anarchistic) spirit, this new legislation won’t be the end of dog freedom, nor, alas, the end of poo.

Article and photos submitted to and published via Berlin Logs.

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