How to deal with irresponsible pet parents

Unfortunately, some people don’t pick up after their pooches or give them enough attention or care. Here’s how to deal with irresponsible pet parents.

At the end of our dog walk, Truman and I rounded the corner and spotted someone lingering outside our house. It was a blustery evening and it took me a moment to spot a  small white dog squatting in my front yard. When he was finished his business, his owner gave him a gentle tug and proceeded to walk away. Once it registered, I stormed up the sidewalk to the pet owner. “Excuse me! Would you mind picking up your dog’s poop?”

The woman stiffened, but didn’t move to clean up after her dog. “Oh, this is your house?” she asked nonchalantly.

With zero restraint, I lit into her. “It doesn’t matter whose lawn it is,” I hissed. “It’s rude to let your dog do her business on someone else’s property and not clean it up!”

If she was surprised by my confrontation, it didn’t show. With minimal argument, she pulled a plastic bag out of her pocket and stomped over to pick up the waste. She muttered something and walked away, tiny dog in tow. Still seeing red, I called after her, “Keep your dog off my lawn!” Truman growled the entire time.

Try to cool it

In hindsight, it was a silly over-reaction on my part – and definitely counter-productive. While it’s easy, and understandable, to react emotionally toward irresponsible pet parents – especially if their actions are likely to cause the animal discomfort or harm – it’s only likely to trigger defensiveness in the guilty party, notes Sherri Romig, owner of Tails of Success, a dog-training facility in Rochester, New York. “I think it’s important when you’re dealing with this to find a non-confrontational, compassionate way to bring it up,” she advises.

No one likes to see a dog being neglected, allowed to run or defecate all over the neighborhood, left outside in all weathers, or otherwise not being cared for properly. It’s upsetting, and when you’re upset it’s easy to assume the dog’s family just doesn’t care or can’t be bothered with the animal. As a savvy and educated animal lover, you naturally can’t think of any good excuse for such irresponsibility. And it’s true, unfortunately, that some pet owners really don’t care about their animals.

But there are other reasons why people behave irresponsibly with their dogs, and often these arise from ignorance, not a desire to be negligent. For example, some people simply might not know how to deal with certain behavioral problems in their dogs and are too embarrassed to seek help. Or they’ve tried to correct the issues themselves, with no success, and simply gave up because they think the dog is untrainable. They just may not realize that, with the proper approach and knowledge, no dog is untrainable or hopeless. Other people take a more traditional view of animal “ownership”. “There are people who view them as property,” says Sherri. “They don’t understand that dogs have individual needs and that behavioral problems can arise from those needs not being met.” A little education can open their eyes, she adds.

Diplomacy is important

When approaching someone who is apparently treating his or her dog with irresponsibility or neglect, therefore, diplomacy is the name of the game even though it’s not always easy to keep a calm head – especially when that neglect is causing distress to the animal. “Few things infuriate me as much as irresponsible pet owners,” says Amy Ferguson Wolf, an animal lover who fosters dogs with her husband.

There are several things you can do to help an animal that is being neglected or poorly cared for. Over the last few years, for example, Amy has struggled to be diplomatic with the family living next door to her in their LA suburb. This family has consistently neglected several animals, but instead of calling in law enforcement, or giving the family a tongue lashing, Amy has stepped up to care for the neglected animals.

Once, the couple was awakened at the crack of dawn when their own dogs began barking at something outside. “There was this disheveled, dirty, scrappy little designer dog, with matted hair and goop in her eyes,” says Amy. With the aid of some dog treats, she got the little Shih tzu to come to her and took her to the vet. It turned out she was totally ravaged by fleas and infections.

Amy took the dog back home and was bathing her outside when the neglectful neighbor wandered by. “She said, ‘Oh, my God! Is that Princess?’” Rather than handing the dog over, Amy talked her into allowing someone else to adopt her, arguing that it was clear the family had their hands full.

It’s important to keep your cool, for the animal’s sake, adds Amy. “Follow your heart and do the right thing, but try not to be hostile or combative. Try to explain to people why being responsible is better for all involved. I hate to say this, but if your neighbors are lazy, do the homework for them.” Sometimes, you may find that people are willing to take action but don’t know where to turn.

Extreme cases

Of course, some people won’t heed your advice, no matter how gently you approach them. Earlier this year, a pit bull in Elizabeth Boskey’s neighborhood in Montebello, New York, strangled to death. He’d been left outside all day, tied up by his collar. Elizabeth had given the family a chest harness and warned them of the risks of leaving their dog tied up, but they hadn’t used it.

After years of working as a sexual health educator, Elizabeth knows that some people are “aggressively ignorant” and will resist information that will force them to take action. In situations where nothing you say or do is helping, and people become nasty and abusive, it’s time to call your local Humane Society or a law enforcement official. Yes, you’ll probably make an enemy, but at the end of the day, the dog’s well being is more important than being on speaking terms with your neighbor.

For the most part, however, education is the best strategy. Try talking to irresponsible pet parents in a calm, nonthreatening way about what they can do to better care for their animals. You might even guide them to some books or magazines they could read, or a local training or obedience class. “A lot of people just don’t know any better,” Amy says. “If you give them the tools they need to make changes, they’re more likely to make them.”


Caitlin Crawshaw wrote this story under the strict supervision of two bossy cats and a hyperactive pup. A freelance writer since 2002, she spends her days in her home office in Edmonton, Alberta, penning articles about animals, science/technology, business and education (