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Mitch Smith and Will Grunewald/MEDILL

The ultimate canine whodunit. Some apartment managers, tired of irresponsible residents not picking up after their dogs, are tracking down offenders with the clues left behind. Canine DNA testing can now identify dogs and connect uncollected dog doo to the offending pooch and the negligent owner.  At Montrose Dog Beach, Chicago dog owners react to the idea.

CSI: The ultimate canine whodunit

by Mitch Smith
Dec 11, 2012


Will Grunewald/MEDILL

A dog plays along Lake Michigan. The Montrose Dog Beach has several signs reminding visitors to pick up their pets' waste.

The question of which pooch’s poop is on the apartment complex lawn — can now be solved using forensic technology that’s more commonly associated with grisly crime scenes.

But a verbal dogfight is brewing about whether DNA testing for dog doo is appropriate.

“I think it’s a waste of time,” said Kate York, whose pitbull mix and cocker spaniel had just spent part of a chilly afternoon playing near Lake Michigan.

“I’m interested in it,” said Steve Lopez, who added that it would have to be cost-effective and accurate to make sense.

Lopez recently brought Elote, a member of the hairless Mexican breed called xoloitzcuintli, to Chicago’s Montrose Dog Beach. Owners who always neglect to pick up their dog give other pet-owners a bad name, he said. But he sympathized with owners who occasionally forget to pick up waste.

“I understand that you can’t catch it 100 percent of the time,” he said.

DNA analysis, the same technology used in paternity tests and criminal courts, is now cheap and reliable enough to determine whether the border collie down the hall or the beagle in Unit 312 did the pooping. And that lets authorities figure out which owner to confront when dog poop isn’t picked up.

But proponents of canine DNA testing, who say everyone is happier without unscooped dog doo, are encountering the same kind of resistance as those who support a comprehensive human DNA bank.

To be effective, such programs require that authorities collect DNA samples, either human or canine, before any wrongdoing occurs. That way, they can locate the perpetrator if misdeeds happen later on. But that process, of pre-emptively scooping up highly sensitive data, raises questions of privacy and potential civil-liberty abuses.

While the debate over those philosophical questions goes on, Tennessee-based BioPet Vet Labs will examine canine excrement mailed in by apartment managers, for about $60 a test. The veterinary-diagnostics company, which started DNA testing dog poop in 2008, claims to be the only business in America identifying dogs based off their doo. The idea for the enterprise came from the most literal form of shoe-leather field research.

“One day, one of our scientists was out walking her pet around her apartment complex, stepped in some dog waste and started to think about what can we do,” said Eric Mayer, BioPet’s director of business development.

But before the testing can take place, property managers have to get a DNA swab of dogs living in their apartments, perhaps as part of the lease agreement. BioPet Vet Labs, which operates its waste-identification business under the name PooPrints, then adds each animal’s DNA into an internal database.

If that DNA ever matches a sample of un-shoveled poop, the property manager can identify and fine Fido’s owner.

At the ilume apartment complex in Dallas, property manager Jeremy Calhoun said problems have largely abated since PooPrints testing started earlier this year.

The apartment only tests dog waste found indoors, in places like the mail room. After the first offense, tenants receive a warning. A second offense would lead to a $250 fine and a third violation would result in the dog’s eviction. Calhoun said there has yet to be a repeat offender.

“We’re very pet friendly,” Calhoun said, “so we wanted to implement something to show we’re trying keep the community as clean as possible.”

Most Chicago dog owners who skirt apartment complex rules — and a city ordinance that levies fines of up to $500 if waste is left on public grounds — don’t need to panic yet about a PooPrints crackdown. The technology is only being used at a few properties in the area, Mayer said.

Cass, a Chicago dog owner who declined to give her last name, visited the beach last weekend with her terrier named Tigger. Picking up after dogs is a “social obligation,” she said, but peer intervention rather than DNA testing is a more effective remedy for the problem.

“I would say probably the majority of dog owners are responsible about it and conscientious because they’re shared spaces and we all take responsibility,” she said. “It’s really a small percentage of dog owners who are negligent of that. If we were to see someone blatantly not pick up after a dog, we most likely would confront them.”

But Mayer, the PooPrints executive, sees DNA testing as the natural application of technology to a dilemma that has vexed apartment complexes for decades. It may be an old problem, he said, “but it’s something that we now have the technology” to address.