THINK of a dog warden and you imagine a Draconian figure in authoritarian uniform, with mean eyes, a snarling laugh and a net large enough to swoop on some helpless animal. It's the fate that befell them in Lady and the Tramp.

Such a mythical dog-catcher belongs just to cartoon films, but a popular misconception persists that the dog warden is the avowed enemy of the dog population. Talk to a dog warden and the first thing he or she will tell you, emphatically, is that they are not dog catchers. The stereotype is shattered in other ways too: more than half are women, many do not wear uniform and most are devoted dog owners.

Since the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, every local authority has been required to employ at least one dog warden. There are almost 600 wardens in Britain, about half of whom belong to the National Dog Warden Association. Some are 'in-house', hired directly by authorities; others are provided by contract companies. There is no formal training, but most attend short courses on dog lore.

Wardens do catch dogs - they rescue strays and return them to their owners and enforce the Dangerous Dogs Act - but that's only the beginning of the job. Their brief covers all dog-related problems. That can mean noisy dogs, aggressive dogs, lost dogs - and dirty dogs. An important task is to persuade dog owners to clean up after their dogs - by example, education, and, in the last resort, prosecution.

'Seventy per cent of the complaints I get are about fouling,' says Cathy Seagrave, dog warden in Market Harborough, Leicestershire. 'It's the most usual complaint,' agrees Kate Coles, for the NDWA. 'The one we hear again and again is 'Somebody is allowing their dog to foul outside my gate.' Very often they know who it is, but want us to sort it out.'

What a dog warden can do about fouling depends on where it occurs. If private property is afflicted, he or she must soothe irate neighbours. Public land is subject to a confusing plethora of by-laws.

When a 'poop scoop' law is in force, the warden can approach the recalcitrant dog owner, to clear up the mess, and, in the face of refusal, try to get a name and address as a first step towards prosecution. But unlike the police, dog wardens have no right to demand this information, and no powers of arrest.

'Demanding a name and address is a bluff and it doesn't always work,' says Cathy Seagrave, who recently followed to his home an offender, who had failed to clear up after his dog in a 'poop scoop' park, and had then identified him from the electoral register. The man was ordered to pay a fine of pounds 75 plus pounds 65 costs for contravening the council's by-laws.

Wardens would like to see their authority enhanced. 'We should have the powers that the police have to get a name and address, and when necessary, we should have powers of arrest,' argues Mike Reed, warden in Eastleigh, Hampshire.

In its present state, dog fouling legislation is as much a hindrance as an asset to wardens. 'It's a minefield,' says Sue Bell, Gloucestershire warden and NDWA chairman. Most dog wardens want a national, standardised law on fouling. 'The NWDA would like to see the individual by-laws updated with one law, making it an offence not to clean up after your dog anywhere in the UK, with heavy penalties for non-compliance,' says Kate Coles. 'This would end the confusion of whether to scoop or not to scoop.'

Wardens are usually out on the beat, patrolling known trouble spots and responding to calls from the public. They also promote responsible dog ownership by talking to schools and community groups. 'There is really no end to a dog warden's brief,' says Sue Bell.

A recurrent plea in the Dirty Dogs Campaign postbag has been for more dog wardens. At the moment, the ratio of wardens to population averages 1:100,000. Jeff Grimshaw, contracts manager at Watchdog Services UK Ltd, which supplies wardens, believes Britain needs twice as many.

Sue Bell, who is responsible for a large, rural area, says: 'We should have five wardens here doing my job. I've never done less than 100 miles in a day.'

Authorities may be deterred from employing more wardens by the cost, estimated to be pounds 59,000 per year - to cover salary, van and equipment - although private contractors sometimes charge only half that. Wardens are not well paid. A 'good' salary is pounds 12,000, and privately-contracted wardens can receive as little as pounds 5,500.

Dog wardens perform a key role in ensuring dog welfare and are vital to any solution to Britain's dog fouling problem. They are an under-valued breed.

(Photograph omitted)