Philly Water Department seeks neighborhood “spokesdogs”

CoCo, a 13-pound Boston terrier from Roxborough, knows what it takes to be on a mission.

As a therapy dog for the last two years, she’s offered emotional support to adults and kids with special needs, and comfort to seniors in nursing homes.

So, one more responsibility would be a walk in the park.

CoCo is entered in the Philadelphia Water Department’s Best Friend Competition. The Water Department is looking for two pooches to serve as “spokesdog” for a program to urge dog owners to pick up after their four-legged friends. One dog will represent Manayunk and Roxborough; the other will be the face of East Falls.  

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The neighborhoods were chosen because of their close proximity to the Schuylkill River and the high potential for waste to flow from the top of the steeply graded communities to the water. 

CoCo is one of 56 canines entered in the Roxborough/Manayunk contest; more than two dozen dogs are competing for the same title in East Falls.

Public voting began online last week.  Joanne Dahme, spokeswoman for the Water Department, says the campaign is all about educating the public.

“Dog waste has lots of bacteria,” Dahme said. “Whenever it rains, it runs into the nearest storm drain and can get into the local stream.”

Aside from polluting the water with disease-causing bacteria, dog waste can promote excessive aquatic plant growth, which can clog up waterways and reduce the amount of oxygen available to living organisms in the water.

The competition is also part of an inititative to green the city.

“If people don’t pick up pet-waste, many communities don’t want to plant trees or have green lawn sections along sidewalks because residents dont want to have to combat these waste issues,” Dahme said.

CoCo’s owner, Vicki Helgenberg, says it’s a cause worth fighting for.

“I see it all time time, it’s upsetting,” Helgenberg said. “Pet owners let their dogs go right in front of my house and I would say only about 50 percent clean up.”

Sharon Jaffe of East Falls says it’s a major water safety issue.

“Through storm-water drains, everything just goes right to the river,” Jaffe said. “If you’re not picking up after your dog, [the water] will get cleaned, but you still end up drinking it.”

Jaffe, a board member of the East Falls Development Corporation, was one of the first pet owners to enter her dogs into the East Falls competition. She says her two cocker spaniels, Zoe and Contessa, were added just to “get the ball rolling” and generate interest from the neighborhood.

“We don’t ever win and we don’t mind,” Jaffe joked. But 6-year-old Zoe does know how to charm a crowd from her previous experience in dog shows.

Helgenberg’s Boston terrier already has a strong following. CoCo has her own website and personal e-mail account, which was flooded with 114 fan e-mails last week.

The public has until Feb. 28 to decide which 10 dogs will make it to the finals in each neighborhood. The top two dogs will be selected this spring based on “friendly nature, best canine smile, charm and natural spokesdog abilities.”

The winning spokesdogs and their owners will be required to attend three community events in 2011 to distrubute information on “living the eco-friendly dog life.” They will also receive a $200 prize from a local dog shop and their faces will be featured on promotional material for the campaign. 

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