Dogs are a part of everyday life in Humboldt County. We have so many wonderful places to explore the great outdoors here and many of us take advantage of these recreational opportunities with our furry friends. Nova Garwood, a seventh grader at Jacoby Creek Elementary School, has a black Labrador retriever named Sunny and loves to get outside with her. But on these adventures, she started to notice a large amount of dog poop on the trails she hiked – particularly near the trailheads.
Based on these experiences, she developed and tested a question in early 2023: Is dog scat being left on trails a serious issue? After rigorous data collection and analysis, her Humboldt County Science Fair project made it to the state level.
Documenting the Dog Poop Problem
Garwood went out and hiked our trails to map the location and amount of dog scat left by humans and compared the amount of scat she found on more popular urban trails to the amount she found on rural trails. She hypothesized that urban trails would have more dog scat than rural trails because they get more use. She also suspected that she would find less scat on trails with doggie bag dispensers and trash cans and that it would be more common to find the scat at the beginning of the trails because dogs would most likely have to relieve themselves early on the trails.
She identified 15 trails across the county and visited them with her family. Upon arrival, she meticulously mapped dog poop on the first third of a mile along the trail, collecting data on number of poops and distance from the trailhead. She then correlated this data with whether or not poop bags and trash cans were available at the trailhead.
Science Fair Successes
Garwood was committed to collecting the most accurate data possible. She was so dedicated that she even returned just over two weeks after her initial surveys to record any new scat that had been left on the trails since she had last visited.
After she concluded her research, she found that most of the dog scat was found on urban trails, which is what she suspected. Surprisingly, even when dog bag dispensers were available there was still a lot of poop. In conclusion, she was able to answer her main question and found that Humboldt County does in fact have a dog scat pollution problem.
What can be done?
“It’s really surprising how many people don’t notice how much there really is on trails, and how big of a problem it is,” said Garwood, when speaking on the issue. She talked about how it takes away from the beauty of nature when you’re having to watch you’re every step to make sure you don’t step in dog poop. The goal is to get people out into nature and on these trails but when poop is being left all over the trails it makes visitors less likely to want to come back.
Along with making trails less enjoyable to walk on, dog scat poses threats to the health of hikers, their dogs, and the wildlife of the areas. Scat contains harmful bacteria that can have been known to cause diseases such as E. coli, salmonella, giardia, and more. Parasites such as heartworms, whipworms, and tapeworms are also commonly found in dog feces. These diseases and parasites can be transferred to humans, wildlife, and other dogs that come into contact with the scat.
When left on the ground, the waste seeps into the soil and contaminates nearby water sources, which can lead to potential health hazards for both humans and wildlife. Many think that the scat just decomposes into the ground and becomes dirt but many times it washes into watersheds and contaminates the water. The odor can also throw off a predator’s sense of smell which allows them to hunt their prey. It can also be harmful to humans if they were to come in skin-to-skin contact with it because of diseases that could be spread.
All of Garwood’s hard work paid off when she was awarded at her school’s competition and won $50 for the project related to wetlands category at the county competition as well as being sent to state to be interviewed. “I usually don’t win anything so it felt really good especially with a lot of people telling me that I wasn’t going to win and that my project sucks,” recalled Garwood.
Although not everyone was supportive, Garwood stayed focused on her goal and, with her unwavering determination and the help of her dad Justin and her dog Sunny, she was able to create an amazing project and was awarded for all her hard work. To appease this problem, Garwood proposes several solutions including better signage at trailheads that informs the public of the dangers of leaving so much poop along our trails. She encourages the public to be more diligent in leaving no trace as well. So maybe next time you’re walking on a trail with your dog and picking up after them seems too hard, you’ll think twice before just walking away.