Dog Poop and Problem Solving

Posted by jlubans on November 02, 2015

Caption: Volunteer with trailhead sign for Tails on Trails.

While trekking in the forest near Corvallis, OR, I came across a series of bright orange signs, on sticks. (They reminded me of the 1950s-era Burma Shave roadside campaigns*, less the rhymes.) Among several repeating messages, one proclaimed “We Love Dogs”. Others inquired: “Do you know where your dog is?” and explained an owner’s responsibility, in respect for other trail users – some of whom fear dogs - to control her dog when off-leash. But the primary message was to raise awareness about the spreading problem of dog poop on the walking trails and how that kind of waste can be harmful to the forest’s ecology and enjoyment. Corvallis trails are normally free of litter – love of Nature is a core value for many in Corvallis – but dog waste is another matter. On popular walking trails near developed areas you can spot an abundance of poop on each sides of the trail. The “Tails on Trails” campaign drew a “line in the sand”, so to speak. Volunteers spray-painted the dog poop neon orange. So, for the first mile or so of the trail, from the parking lot and trailhead, ran two intermittent rows of brightly painted dog poop; visually unavoidable even for someone convinced that dog poop is a “natural” fertilizer that benefits the forest.
Trailhead signs explained the campaign and asked for volunteers for the clean up effort on Oct 10.
Caption: Cleaning up.

On that day, twenty-five volunteers "harvested" 231 lbs of dog waste.
OK, by now you may be wondering what does dog poop, especially the neon orange variety, have to do with the workplace, with problem solving? Well, I’ve been involved in change efforts like this – no, not picking up poop, but similar ones in trying to get clients, customers, users to change behaviors deemed undesirable by the organization. More than a few of those change initiatives failed. Why then did the Tails on Trails program appear to turn out so well – lots of positive feedback and a rise in public awareness?
In search of answers, I interviewed Ryan N.K. Brown, Recreation and Engagement Program Manager of the Research Forests, College of Forestry at Oregon State University (OSU).
She organized the campaign with several others, including staff, paid student help and a host of volunteers. From her I gained some insights into how a campaign like this can succeed or - when certain elements are absent - can fail, like some of my past efforts.
The dog poop issue goes back several years, all the way to a survey conducted in 2009 and published in 2011.**
The report found that of 11,000 regular visitors, 51% were accompanied by dogs, sometimes by more than one dog. These visitors are highly educated and environmentally minded, which is in keeping with the mind set in Corvallis and the OSU region.
This survey was followed with focus groups*** in 2013 and 2014 of Runners, Bikers, Hunters, Equestrians, and Hikers. Among a long list of findings and recommendations, dog waste was among the “Very Prevalent Topics”, euphemistically termed as “refuse leaving behavior motivations.”
In short, while people loved dogs, dog droppings offended many. Unsightly and polluting, the dog poop issue was further aggravated on hot summer days by an offending stench.
A task force of 9 women – the Group of Nine - all “dog people”, handpicked by Ms. Brown, went to work on the problem. They wanted a “least offensive strategy”, to figure out a way to influence and change minds and practices without alienating the forest’s multiple user groups. The Nine came up with a public information campaign (the term “education” was considered but then dismissed as potentially off-putting) and decided to post signs (“snippets”) along four of the most heavily used trails. One of the Nine suggested the phrase “Tails on Trails”, a visually explicit double entendre.
Shortly after posting the signs and spray-painting the poop, most comments were positive but some complaints did come in: the snippets on signs were anti dog, the campaign was negative, it was unfriendly to people who respected the trails and forests. Indeed, someone absconded with all the signs at one of the locations.
That’s when Ms. Brown came up with the “We Love Dogs” message and posted those, serially, along each of the four trails.
I saw that sign several times and it registered with me that those words would help dog lovers overcome the notion that the campaign was targeting bad dogs and bad owners. Instead, the walkers were more likely to read and consider the other messages re pollution. The complaints diminished and many commented, “It’s about time!” that something was done.

So, what are my problem solving takeaways? What are my transfers to the workplace?
A real problem. This was a real problem for the community, not just for the forest administration. The data gathering in the survey and the focus groups confirmed there was a common, shared problem to be fixed.
Not a solo effort. The Group of Nine, drawn from the user community, including two veterinarians, helped shape and develop the message of “Tails on Trails”. It was not just what the forest managers – the “experts” thought was needed. Indeed one of the most successful aspects of this campaign was posting knowledgeable volunteers at trail junctures to answer questions about the campaign and to dissuade – with facts – the myth that dog poop is a “natural” fertilizer rather than a contaminant.
Flexibility. Ms. Brown’s posting of the “We Love Dogs” signs, after the first complaints came in, helped get over any initial hiccups for what turned out to be a highly positive campaign. The ability to adjust to meet current needs is critical for any pilot change effort.
Participation, Social Skills and Gender. Research, as I have previously discussed, shows that problem-solving groups excel when all participants engage, all have good social skills and that there is a majority of women on the team. Ms. Brown told me that, along with her leadership, there were two or more independent thinking and proactive “leaders” in the Group of Nine, and that most everyone took part in idea generation and discussion. The one or two quiet members would give her feedback after meetings and, importantly, took on a large part of the active work this campaign demanded.
When I think back about those failed change efforts referred to above, I can see that one or more of these “take aways” was missing from our process. How about you and your approach in trying to problem solve and bring about change?
Happy trails!

*Caption: Burma Shave road sign from pre-Interstate days.

** “Public Support, Demand, and Potential Revenue for Recreation at the McDonald-Dunn Forest”, Final Report by Mark D. Needham, Ph.D. and
Randall S. Rosenberger, Ph.D.
Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University

*** “Collaborative Community Recommendations for Oregon State University College Forests Recreation Planning.”
By Elspeth Gustavson, College Forests Graduate Research Assistant
Ryan Brown, College Forests Recreation Manager
Christine Olsen, College of Forestry Research Associate and Instructor
August 27, 2014.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

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