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Condos in Braintree, Watertown using DNA to track littering dogs

Justine, a 6-year-old shih tzu, lives at Devon Wood in Braintree, where dogs’ DNA is stored in a database.

Colm O’Molloy for The Boston Globe

Justine, a 6-year-old shih tzu, lives at Devon Wood in Braintree, where dogs’ DNA is stored in a database.

A little snooping is paying off for Watertown and Braintree condominium complexes, where authorities recently began using DNA to track dog droppings to the animals — and fining their owners.

The forensic strategy is the latest high-tech approach to what property managers call one of their main headaches: dealing with dog doo. And the managers of both Devon Wood condominiums in Braintree Highlands and Repton Place near the Charles River in Watertown say the CSI-like tactic works. The property manager at Abbot Mill, an apartment complex in Westford that started employing the method last year, also says it’s effective.

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Before Repton Place — which has about 25 dogs in its 179 condos — instituted DNA testing on June 1, canine waste was a major problem, according to site manager Matthew Harris of Mediate Management.

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“People stepped in it, they walked in it; it was disgusting,” he said. “Now, there’s no pet waste at all since we introduced the pet DNA. It’s a vast, vast improvement.”

Barbara Kansky reports similar success at Devon Wood, the 398-unit, pet-friendly complex she manages.

Before the DNA program started on July 1, waste from the 53 dogs living there was all over the 350-acre grounds, she said. Since that date, only three piles of dog droppings had been recovered as of last week, she said. One was traced to the pet owner, who was fined, and the results of tests on the other two samples were not yet known.

“Our residents are very happy,” Kansky said. “The difference is just remarkable.”

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The governing boards of both condominium developments voted to require all their dog owners to submit their dogs to DNA testing — a quick swab inside the animal’s cheek — and pay the $59.95 tab. The results are kept on file and then checked against DNA found in waste left on the grounds. If there’s a match, the dog’s owner pays for the $50 lab test and gets a $100 fine. The governing boards have the right to remove any problem dogs.

Both developments already had rules requiring residents to pick up after their pets, and penalties for those who failed to do so. The problem was proving whose dog left behind which pile. That’s why DNA linking makes a difference, said Eric Mayer, spokesman for the company PooPrints.

“If you know you’re going to get caught, people pick it up,” Mayer said.

Testing dog waste for DNA — and marketing the idea to condos, apartments, gated communities, and municipalities — was the brainstorm of BioPet Vet Lab in Knoxville, Tenn., the parent company of PooPrints.

“One of our scientists was walking her dog at her apartment complex and stepped in a pile of poop,” said Mayer. “She was irritated and she said, ‘I want to figure out whose dog did this.’ ”

She devised an easy way to read the DNA from a smidgeon of fecal matter. Her associates then came up with a scheme to create a database of dogs living in specific locations. The results could then be cross-checked with the DNA found in samples that were mailed to the lab.

Fast-forward about a year to late 2010 and PooPrints had contracts with an apartment complex in Hawaii and one in Nashua to use DNA testing to control their dog waste problems. The company now operates in 38 states, as well as Canada, Israel, and Singapore, Mayer said.

So far, the DNA testing has been limited to places with a known number of dogs, Mayer said. But he said small towns and even the city of Dallas have expressed interest in a DNA pilot program to curb their dog waste problem.

Abbot Mill, a 131-unit apartment complex in Westford, began using DNA matches to control dog waste when it opened about a year ago in a historic woolen mill, according to property manager Joan Hand. The samples go to PooPrints through its Nashua franchise, Dog DNA Today, and “it’s very effective,” she said.

PooPrints has a patent pending on its procedure, Mayer said, and is the only company using the technique, although a California state university lab also offers the service. Non-match samples, which are paid for by the apartment or condominium associations, remain in the data system and sometimes have been used retroactively to find people who fail to register their dogs, Mayer said.

“Not to gross you out, but the average dog puts down 274 pounds of waste every year,” Mayer said. “With close to 80 million dogs in the US, when you do the math it’s about 21 billion pounds of waste being put down on the ground. And up to 40 percent is staying there and not being scooped up.”

Surveys show dog waste rates high on people’s annoyance scale; a 2010 Consumer Reports study ranked it sixth on a list of pet peeves, behind hidden fees, robot phone calls, tailgating, drivers on cellphones, and incomprehensible bills, but ahead of unreliable Internet service, spam, traffic jams, noisy neighbors, and inaccurate weather forecasts.

The issue also can lead to bad relations between neighbors. In an extreme case in 2012, a Philadelphia man went to prison for shooting a neighbor who had confronted him about not cleaning up after his German shepherd and chihuahua.

Dog waste also is a health hazard, loaded with fecal coliform, parasites, and other organisms that get washed into ground water, Mayer said.

“If you don’t pick it up today, you’ll drink it tomorrow. Some studies show that 20 to 30 percent of bacterial coliform in contaminated water supplies comes from dogs,” he added. “If we can eliminate 20 percent of bacteria, we think that’s a pretty good impact.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency has cited dog waste as a pollutant, and cities across the country have required people to pick up after their dogs since the first pooper-scooper law took effect in New York City in 1978.

Kansky confessed that she “laughed myself silly at first and I really had to get past ‘this is ridiculous’ ” when she first considered asking her condominium board to tackle its dog waste problem with DNA testing. But her landscape staff and residents were complaining and she worried that as the real estate market picked up, the dog litter would turn off prospective buyers.

She considered hiring one of the several companies in the area that charge to clean up messes, but instead contacted PetPrints USA, the Massachusetts franchise of PooPrints. Owner Patrick Kenneally “came in and did a very professional presentation on what is, granted, a very silly subject.”

Kenneally, who grew up in Carver, had been in the financial services industry and started his franchise earlier this year. “The beauty of it is that it works,” he said. “Even the folks who do pick up think it’s great. They [no longer] find themselves defending themselves [against false accusations], or picking up waste that isn’t theirs.”

Kansky, who managed Repton Place before working at Devon Wood, said she’s so pleased with the DNA program that she plans to spread the word through the industry’s Community Associations Institute in Wellesley.

“We’ve always identified pets, pools, and parking as the biggest problems in communities,” said association executive director Claudette Carini. “DNA testing is just one other way communities are reaching out to find cutting-edge solutions to age-old problems.”

Harris said he wasn’t sure why it worked, but said the stigma of being identified as a dog litterer and the hit of a steep fine were undoubtedly factors.

“The fine can be a pretty good deterrent for most people,” said PooPrints’ Mayer. “We’re finding that communities are getting so clean that they are not handing out fines and not sending in samples. We think that’s great. We’re scientists in a lab. We don’t want to analyze smelly poop,” he said.

“We’re not trying to catch people and be Big Brother,” he added. “We’re just trying to help people be more responsible. As long as people are picking up after their dogs, we’re happy.”

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.

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