Concord man offers solution to dog-poo problem: City-wide doggie DNA testing

  • LEFT: Wendy Alcott walks her puppy Ruby in White Park Monday afternoon. Alcott is concerned that people don’t clean up after their dogs. “I would hope all pet owners would do the right thing but it seems like there could be other measures than (DNA) testing,” she said.

  • ABOVE: A sign at a home in Penacook asks dog owners to find another yard. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/20/2016 10:11:55 PM

A Penacook man believes he has a way to hold irresponsible dog owners accountable for their pooches’ errant poops: a citywide doggie DNA database.

In Jon Kelly’s view, it’s just another way technology has solved a societal problem. With dogs’ biological signatures on file – taken with a simple cheek swab at their licensing – the city could test carelessly abandoned waste and fine violators, the Concord High School English teacher said.

The concept is catching on at private apartment complexes, and Kelly sent a letter to the city council proposing how it might work at a municipal level. But according to the deputy city manager’s response, “it is clear that the city does not have the authority to require DNA testing for dogs” under state law.

Current state law, that is.

Kelly and the groundskeeper of a Nashua rental community that uses fecal DNA testing say they’re willing to petition the Legislature for a change.

“Almost every state in the country has an unenforceable law in place,” said Deb Palmer, the property manager of Twin Ponds at Nashua, which became an early adopter of the PooPrints technology in 2011. “We knew there’d be plenty of walls to climb over in this one, but that’s okay.”


The city ordinance says dog owners have to pick up their pet waste from public property, and they’re prohibited from allowing their pets to relieve themselves on private property.

In practice, though, the ordinance doesn’t have any teeth. Police Lt. Tim O’Malley said even among strictly animal-related complaints, defecation violations are few and far between.

In the past year, no one has been cited for violating the ordinance, he said.

From where Kelly’s standing, however, it’s a real problem, both as a nuisance and a public health issue. He’s tried a couple unsuccessful measures for the sake of his Washington Street lawn: placing a friendly sign and spreading “doggie keep-away powder.”

But he doesn’t think his lawn is soiled any more often than others in the city, he said.

“I’m not a dog poop martyr,” he said. “It’s the same all over. . . . I do think there’s a sense of community frustration.”

Wendy Alcott, who was walking her puppy, Ruby, in White Park on Monday, said she understands the annoyance, but is unsure about the fee proposal.

“I would hope all pet owners would do the right thing, but it seems like there could other measures than that,” she said.

On two occasions when Kelly witnessed the act and called police, nothing came of it, he said.

O’Malley acknowledged it’s hard to enforce defecation violations, although the police do take all the city ordinances seriously, he said.

“It’s easy from a distance to say, ‘That’s not a big deal. Hey, lighten up,’ but it is a big deal if you’re living next door to it and it’s all the time,” O’Malley said. “I don’t want to make dog poop this major issue, but if you are the person dealing with this on a chronic basis, it does become a headache.”

An example

At the 400-plus unit apartment complex that Palmer manages, the dog poop problem was becoming more than a headache, she said, especially where the unscooped droppings could make their way to the eponymous twin ponds.

She considered in 2011 installing a surveillance system or offering rewards to residents who have proof that their neighbors were violating the pooper-scooper policy, but she realized, “I’m going to start such a war in the complex.”

When she came across PooPrints, a Tennessee-based company that keeps a database of dogs’ DNA and tests droppings, she laughed hysterically at first. Then she decided it was genius. She figures she was the first apartment complex in the contentinental U.S. to use it.

Here’s how it works: Pet-owning residents of Twin Ponds pay a $200 fee when they first move in, which covers more expenses than the $35 fee for DNA cataloguing alone. If their pet’s feces are found on the grounds, they are hit with a $100 fine the first two offenses, increasing by $100 for each subsequent offense.

Because the testing only costs $50, the fines can mean substantial profit that Palmer said she uses to make her complex more dog-friendly. The all-time leader in violations, Palmer said, has paid nine fines – that’s $3,700 – and chooses to continue living at the complex.

Palmer said that choice is a testament to the success of the program. She said out of 400 plus units, about 350 have dogs, and her tenants are maybe the most responsible dog owners in New Hampshire. Unlike many rental properties, there are no breed or size restrictions at Twin Ponds at Nashua.

“Other properties turn away so many great tenants, responsible dog owners, and they’re sending them to us,” Palmer said, noting that she’s never had to evict anyone for nonpayment of fines.

She believed so strongly in the PooPrints product that she signed on to become the New Hampshire distributor for the company. She sees city-wide programs as a logical extension of the successes she says more than 2,000 private communities have already achieved.

The local plan

Kelly said the DNA swabbing for the database could be done in a few minutes during the dog’s first annually required city licensing. The $35 cost could be tacked onto the existing fee, which is set between $2 and $10 by state law.

There should be a “stiff fine,” he said, for dog owners who refuse to comply.

After the database is established, he said, the police department could collect a sample during a violation and send it away to the lab for testing, a process that Palmer said takes about 10 days. That costs $50, but Kelly recommends that it could be made up through a $300 fine on violators.

The plan hits a snag if the sample came from a dog that’s not in the database. Palmer said at her apartment complex, that happens about 3 percent of the time, but she acknowledged the failure rate would probably be higher if implemented over a much broader area.

All that may be just a daydream. Carlos Baia, the deputy city manager for development, said there’s no authority granted by the state for the city to implement a process such as the one Kelly describes.

“In fact,” he wrote in a report the city council accepted Nov. 14, state law “explicitly protects the privacy of dogs and their owners by preventing municipalities from sharing dog registration ‘records, information or lists’ with third parties unless compelled by court order or on a limited, case-by-case basis when the third party is a government entity or law enforcement agency on ‘official business.’ ”

Kelly, who noted he’s an advocate for human privacy rights, said he was surprised to hear about the protections for dogs, adding that he suspects they were written “for a time before DNA testing.”

City legislators

Two city councilors who also serve as state representatives, Steve Shurtleff and Linda Kenison, said they wouldn’t submit any legislation to allow cities or towns implement a program such as the one Kelly envisions.

Shurtleff, a Democrat, noted that many legislators have taken pledges to oppose fee increases, which could mean they’d have an automatic negative reaction to the proposal.

Kenison, also a Democrat, said, “I probably would not introduce any legislation. I think the whole DNA thing is kind of beyond the pale.”

Palmer said a similar story played out when cities in Texas and Massachusetts tried the same thing.

“Nobody’s been able to get it through because of the laws,” she said.

But she never thought it would be simple.

“We knew we weren’t just gonna walk in and say, ‘Hooray, we’re doing it,’ ” she said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)

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