Sara Davis sends the following photo, which she took at her apartment complex in Cincinnati. The sign “left me angry,” she says, and “feels invasive and generally icky.”

It reminded me of another sign — designed to encourage precisely the same behavior but by encouraging empathy — that I snapped in my neighborhood in Washington, DC.

Is one sign more effective than the other? Or do they simply accomplish the same result by different means?

24 Responses to “Emotionally intelligent signage and your dog”

  1. Belize Hub says:

    Hahaha…this is funny!

  2. My first thought was the signs fall into the way our political system works…one uses the scare tactics and the other, let’s work for the good for all. Just sayin. :o)

  3. Jeff says:

    Growing up my neighbors often left their dog’s souvenirs behind in my parents yard. My dad toyed with making a sign that said: “I dont let my kids poop in your yard – dont let your dog poop in mine.”

  4. Nancie says:

    I think both have their audiences. There are definitely people who respond better to guilt than encouragement. Or intimidation vs empathy. If our intention is to move towards a more compassionate world, than the second example is probably better. Which is more effective in the objective to encourage dog owners to be more responsible neighbors? No idea. But as the original poster said, the first sign made her angry. What are the chances that people will react negatively from there?

  5. I put on my empathy hat and pictured walking my invisible dog along the paths of both of these signs and how would I feel? Personally, the first sign would have more of an impact for me simply because of the unstable minds in our world. If someone thinks it’s okay to pull out a gun and express road rage, what would stop someone from storming out of their house with a baseball bat or worse?

  6. Addressing the questions, “Is one sign more effective than the other? Or do they simply accomplish the same result by different means?” I might argue that the ends does not justify the means.

    In the case with the signs, the means of the first sign is some what authoritarian. Bossing people around in this way, sets a tone for the quality of the environment. You may pick up after your dog, but you are doing it out of a sense of ‘must’ which means there is less joy in the environment.

    Whereas, in the second sign, you may pick up after your dog, but out of a sense of community (we all care about the quality of life for kids). This breads a sense of community and care for one another. This environment breads more little actions of care for others and that leads to higher quality of life for all.

    Just like when Gladwell argues in Tipping Point, that the approach of NYC transit authority removing graffiti from the trains asap. It creates an environment in which that sort of behavior is not the norm but respect for others is. And now the crime in the NYC rails is less than it was.

  7. Clearly, our choice of words has an impact. My preference is to live in a world that operates like the one that Jason describes, rather than the one that Kimberley does (although it is sadly valid). This Youtube video is another example of how a few changes in message makes a big difference in result –

    As another example, I’m fascinated by the difference between using the word ‘positivity’ and ‘optimism’. Both seem to be at the same end of the spectrum – the opposite of negative. One, however, has an action imperative. To be optimistic means to look for the good; to seek out the optimal solution. It implies that we will DO something to improve a situation.

    By being more conscious (and emotionally intelligent) about all the words we choose, in all our communications (including signs about picking up after your dog!), we are actively creating the world in which we live 🙂

  8. Jeff Toister says:

    Interesting photo comparison! I immediately noticed that the first sign had a backdrop of a poorly maintained lawn and what appeared to be a lot of junk and debris. The second sign appears to be on a pristine lawn. I’d be much more careful around the second sign because the yard already looks nice and well-maintained. (A tip of the cap to Jason’s “Tipping Point” reference.)

  9. Mark England says:

    The first sign (negative and authoritarian) appears to sit on an un-mown lawn with spotty grass and visible trash in the area. The second (positive and pleasant reminder) sign appears to sit on a neatly mowed lawn with healthy grass and no visible trash.

    Photographer’s choice? Perhaps the signs are simple reflections of the personalities responsible for both the lawn care and the signs in each case? Perhaps people can be asked to keep a nice lawn nice but have to be forced not to allow mess to pile onto mess?

    But I digress . . .

  10. Jim Farren says:

    I’m trying to imagine the mentality of someone who devotes their day to watching dogs poop.

  11. derek says:

    Interesting enough I was just mentioning something to my friend about a similar sign. I saw one it said “please curb your dog.” I thought a sign that said “I wouldn’t let my dog go to the bathroom on your lawn” would work much better.

  12. Charlie says:

    Would the second one stimulate intrinsic motivation?

  13. It seems to me that both seem appropriate for their intended audience and environment. As you can see, the more properly worded sign is in (what seems to be) a well maintained lawn while the other communicates to the apartment complex dwellers that they communicate the same way they care for the environment around the building. Personally, I believe that the Children playing sign probably is “heard” more because of the standard of the environment. If Fido dropped his business around those bricks and weeds in the 1st sign, I would be like, “well, they may put a sign up – but clearly they dont practice the value they are trying to teach. How does the saying go? Attitude reflect leadership….

  14. Jesse H says:

    I believe the second one works better than the first, for multiple reasons; chiefly among them that the first one, depending on the emotional temperament of the person, may play out his anger at being ‘watched’ by making a show of -not- picking up after his pet.

    Inspiring empathy is always better than antagonizing people.

  15. Sheila says:

    I am wondering if the first sign might be a second or even third attempt to get people to do as the sign request? I worked once in an office where people would use dishes from the shared kitchen and leave them in the sink for others to clean up. Polite requests, followed by less polite requests, followed eventually by nasty notes (similar to the first sign) ultimately got some results. But of course, those who were good citizens in the first place became more and more offended as the anonymous “kitchen police” escalated. All this to say that perhaps kinder, gentler requests have been ignored.

  16. Robert C says:

    While I’d like to believe dog owners automatically lead their pets to an appropriate place and pick up after them because it’s the right thing to do, especially if one places oneself in the other person’s shoes (no pun intended), I agree that the sign designed to encourage empathy may be more effective as it is not confrontational.

    I once asked a man who led his large dog directly onto a newly planted tree bed in a beautiful NYC neighborhood to ‘curb his dog’ and looked at me, uttered profanities to me and proceeded to allow his dog to do his business while I watched.

    In reality, if asking someone nicely in person to be responsible with their pet didn’t work I don’t believe that a sign will help.

  17. In my work over many years on economic development and poverty reduction, I have found that shock tactics and peer pressure are sometimes necessary and important tools to trigger change – especially a change in awareness, attitude and behavior. However, a shift to more positive, optimistic and reinforcing messages and approaches is often necessary to sustain the change.

  18. Chris says:

    The effectiveness of the signs may be a function of social class and location. The first sign might work better than the second sign in a tougher part of Cincinnati, especially on a private yard. The second sign would work better than the first in a more upscale public garden…it can be striking how much people infer socio-economic status by just a few details (e.g., quality of the lawns, even the font on the signs).

    Helen – Thanks for the lovely Youtube link.

  19. As many who have commented before me, the first sign is poorer than the second. The second sign invokes a sense of compassion and (honorable action). The first sign is defensive and almost vindictive (can you be vindictive before the fact?)

    Bryon Katie always says: “Defense is the first act of war,” and I think the first sign exemplifies it.

    I think that if we were to do a study, you’d find more people would NOT pick up after their dog when faced with the first sign than the second.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  20. Katherine says:

    I respond MUCH better to the second sign than the first, because the second sign assumes that I am a good and decent person. The first sign assumes that the only thing preventing me from having my dog poop in their yard is their evil eye. It screams, “Test me!” As a teacher, we are often reminded to never make a threat you can’t back up. Are they REALLY ALWAYS watching? Let’s just see about that.

  21. Psychologist Scott Geller once investigated what kind of instructions (on handbills) elicited the most cooperation (throw the handbill away in a specified receptacle). What worked best was this combination (1) Saying “please”; (2) giving specific directions; (3) giving a rationale. So — I would expect the second picture to work better, and it would be better still is it said “please”!

  22. Dan Bauman says:

    The second sign reminded me of the new road crew signage you see along highways now. When road crews were working before you’d always see the standard orange and black “Road Crew please slow down” signs.
    A few years ago I noticed they made a change to more of a child’s handwriting stating “Slow down my daddy/mommy works here”. The change in signage was much more effective for me. Previously I would get annoyed seeing the sign as it meant delays or an inconvenience in my day. The new sign put a face or a family behind the individual working on the road.

  23. Ash Roughani says:

    I realize I’m pretty late to the conversation, but here’s another good one:

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