The Dirty Dogs

The French and their Dogs

The French are generally believed to hate everything, even themselves. So why do they love their dogs so much? Though not enough, admittedly, to clean up after them.

I once saw a woman fly in Fréjus, a little town the south of France. I walked out of the darkness of the lobby of the Auberge Des Adrets and saw her in the blazing sunlight flying above the pavement on the other side of the road. Not exactly flying, more floating. She was absolutely horizontal, looking up at the sky, and hanging about two and a half feet off the ground. She was middle-aged, she wore a headscarf and a beige kind of housecoat. Her shopping bags, one held in each hand, hung down either side of her. I saw all this in a split second. It was noon.

Then she came down with a muffled thud, a whole body impact that knocked the breath out of her. People ran over while she lay on the stones waggling her arms and legs like an upturned beetle. There was also a horrible smell. She wasn’t hurt, she was younger up close. She got up, very embarrassed and then very angry. She brushed off her helpers and walked away. Looking after her, I saw a bright orange streak running down the back of her coat. It matched an orange skid mark on the ground where she had fallen. Thirty yards away, she stopped, emptied her pockets of small things into one of the bags, took off the coat and threw it in a bundle onto the road, then walked on. Just another simple dog turd-related incident in France.

Figures aren’t available for the whole of France but in Paris there are a six hundred and fifty glissades – ‘slip-ups’ – on dog mess every year that require hospitalisation. Not surprising since France’s pet dogs drop 16 tonnes of rich, steaming shit on the street each day, that’s an annual 5840 tonnes, a load equivalent to two-thirds of the Eiffel Tower or three thousand Citroen Xsara Picassos.

It is a strange fact that the French have more pets per head than any other nation, including 7.6 million dogs; strange, because when it comes to animals, the French have a tendency to shoot, poison, trap, crush, stuff and then eat almost any living thing smaller than themselves. After all, this is the country in which box-nets are laid down across the Aquitaine countryside to trap skylarks and in which, every May, Languedoc hunters celebrate spring by blasting turtledoves out of the sky.

But dogs are different. More than half of all French households have a pet with about a quarter owning a dog. The most popular breed is, naturally, the poodle (9.3%, according to French pet food manufacturers, FACCO) but all the smaller, yappier are favoured (with rat-like Yorkshire Terriers coming in at 5.6%, and Spaniels at 4.6%). A bizarre sight to be experienced in almost every French city is the local, crop-haired gangster sinking brandy in some seedy back street bar at ten in the morning, cradling a coiffeured toy poodle, sometimes in doll’s clothes, under his armpit. 

The French love their doggies deeply, perhaps even more than they do other humans. Certainly it seems easier for a dog to get a seat in a five-star restaurant. No one turns a hair at the sight of a dog, sometimes with a napkin tweely tucked into its collar, sitting at table, on its own chair, at even the most exclusive eateries. Some even offer special canine menus. They get in everywhere including parks, shops, cinemas and even, as one British visitor complained when his wife went into premature labour, hospital emergency units.

They’re everywhere you go and, if they’re not, then their crap is. Paris spends €9-14m a year clearing up its dog dirt. In 1998, the city hygiene department calculated that the cost to the taxpayer worked out at some €5.20 a kilo, or roughly 50c a turd. This is nothing compared to the €3 billion spent every year on French dog food – and its end products carpet the pavements. 

The trouble is, French dog owners just won’t clean up after little Toutou. A variety of expensive initiatives have been tried to solve the poo problem, none of which have worked. One included a series of “doggy loos’, each one costing €7000 but these proved unsuccessful since the dogs refused to go ‘on order’ and preferred to find their own tree or footpath, much like their owners (the French penchant for public urination, as noted most recently in Sarah Turnbull’s ‘Almost French’ (2004), is a psychosis deserving of its own textbook). Another scheme involved recruiting fifteen "canine counsellors" to reason with often argumentative Parisian dog owners and guide them politely in the direction of the gutter. The counsellors found that the owners preferred to set their dogs on them. That’s an occupational hazard; French dogs bite 500,000 people annually most of them children between one and fourteen but also including 1,900 postmen.

The next most gloriously stupid solution was a fleet of seventy ‘motocrottes’, bright green mopeds with an attachment for turd capture even while mobile, introduced when Jacques Chirac was mayor at an annual cost of €4.2 m. The mosquito whine of these scooper-scooters was a regular and annoying feature of Paris’ soundscape until scientific analysis showed that picking up dog mess at high speed usually resulted in catching only 20% of the object while the rest emerged as a fine brown mist over anyone and anything within a ten-metre radius.

Nothing seems to work. Only very recently have fines been introduced for dog owners who refuse to clean up after their pets. These are set only at €400 for repeat offences, unlike the €8000 first offence tariff imposed over the border in spotless Switzerland. Anyway, as one defiantly lazy dog-owner interviewed by the Guardian newspaper made clear: “…We won’t pay them anyway. People will get up at 2am to avoid the cops if we have to”, which would rather seem to obviate his laziness in the first place. The authorities are in a losing battle; there are only two ‘dog police’ per arrondisement (district) but one dog for every three Parisians. 

It was the French philosopher Voltaire who said that a dog is a creature who will love you more than you love yourself. But, even for a dog, the French must be a stretch.


Dog In A Bag: If you travel by bus or train in a French city, you will often see cute little dogs poking their heads out of their owner’s handbag or shoulder back. This is not a fashion statement, it’s because the owner doesn’t have to buy a dog ticket – if the dog is stuffed into a container it classifies as hand luggage. This is not good news for blind travellers like Briton Verity Smith who is currently suing French railway operator SNCF for insisting she buy a ticket for her guide dog. “The French only count you as disabled if you are in a wheelchair, and since my dog is sighted, she has to buy a ticket.”

Execrable Art: France, the home of surrealism, has inevitably found an artist who makes ‘works of art’ out of dog mess: Cho. Whenever the artist, known only as Cho, finds likely material on the pavement where he lives in the capital's 11th district, he draws around the mess, sticks a specially-made flag in it and signs and dates the spot. “I am raising public awareness about the problems of street pollution and making a statement about the war in Iraq”, he says. The point is that the turds have turned Paris streets into minefields for anyone who walks down them, apparently.


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