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Tala Kolb-Petterson’s son was thrown off his bike in Villa La Jolla Park last spring by an off-leash dog running wild. Little Leaguers in Memorial Park often step in poop left by off-leash dogs who illegally frolic on their field.
Experiences like that are prompting residents across the county to call for a crackdown on people who violate leash laws by letting their dogs run free in neighborhood parks and on beaches.
But others say a crackdown would be the wrong move, contending that letting dogs run off leash is a victimless crime and that enforcement shouldn’t be a high priority. They contend leash laws are intended for misbehaved dogs and that well-trained dogs should be able to run free.
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The divisiveness of the issue leaves the San Diego Humane Society, which enforces leash laws for 13 of the county’s 18 cities, in a tough spot regarding how aggressively to write tickets.
Jace Huggins, the nonprofit’s chief of law enforcement, said he doesn’t have nearly enough personnel to aggressively enforce leash laws in the city of San Diego’s 400 parks, plus several hundred more parks in other cities.
But Huggins also doubts the answer is aggressive enforcement of leash laws, which require leashes on all public property except in the designated off-leash areas sprinkled across the county.
Huggins wishes all residents — people who run their dogs off leash and people annoyed or frightened by that — would be more considerate of each other.
“There is no easy answer or perfect resolution besides being good to each other,” he said. “The goal is to make this less about who’s writing tickets and when they’re writing tickets, and make this more about how we respect each other in open spaces. That’s really what it boils down to.”
Many dog owners say they illegally run their pets off leash because they find off-leash dog parks too crowded and small to allow the sprinting and true freewheeling dogs need and love.
Huggins said he understands their perspective, especially if they believe their dog is well-behaved and won’t bother anyone.
“It’s like speeding,” he said. “I know very few adults who haven’t at some point in their life decided to speed and hope they don’t get caught.”
Rancho Bernardo resident Jim Portluck said he’s against aggressive enforcement.
“I’ve seen off-leash dogs running loose here for seven years, and I’ve never seen them bother anybody because owners don’t let them off leash unless they are trained good enough,” Portluck said recently in Rancho Bernardo Community Park. “They’re breaking the law, but to me, they don’t hurt anything.”
There are a lot of people who feel that way, said Huggins — adding that writing off-leash tickets can seem inappropriate to Humane Society enforcement officers because they typically deal with more severe wrongdoing.
“It’s hard for them to go from someone who’s leaving their dog locked in a cage 23 hours a day and barely feeding it, to having to write someone a ticket for just exercising their dog,” he said. “That person is doing everything right, except that they are doing it in the wrong place.”
But Huggins said he also sees the issue from the perspective of people who want a crackdown.
“All community members should be able to feel safe in our green spaces and on our beaches,” he said. “We don’t know who was attacked by a dog when they were 5 and still is affected by that.”
Some people stay away from places they’ve previously considered a second home.
“They want to enjoy the beach or park nearby but they feel like they can’t any more because there are seven off-leash dogs every morning that have created this impromptu dog park where they sometimes go to the bathroom,” Huggins said.
Kolb-Petterson, the woman whose son was attacked in Villa La Jolla Park, said she hasn’t returned to the park for more than six months since the incident.
“I don’t have a problem with dogs, but I never imagined them being off leash and attacking my son,” she said. “He actually flew off his bike, landed on his face and started crying.”
Kolb-Petterson said she agrees with the notion that goodwill among residents could make a big difference.
She said the dog that attacked her son was part of a large group of roughly 20 dogs and owners who were regularly coming to Villa La Jolla Park every afternoon and running off leash.
“When we mentioned the leash laws, they basically told us they can do whatever they want,” Kolb-Petterson said.
There have been similar confrontations over off-leash dogs at Memorial Park in Logan Heights, said Maria Pelayo, president of the San Diego American Little League.
“Even though there is a dog park nearby, they still let them loose on our field,” said Pelayo, estimating the problem began two years ago. “The kids are stepping in poop, and they get scared when a dog is not on a leash.”
When league officials and parents asked one woman with an off-leash dog to leave, she threw dog poop in the parking lot, Pelayo said.
Another hotspot for off-leash activity is the lower field at Allied Gardens Recreation Center park.
When enforcement of off-leash laws is lax in an area, it can create the problem of more and more people becoming steadily more comfortable with the activity. Then, when the Humane Society shows up and starts writing tickets, there can be an ugly scene.
“We try to focus on repeat offenders who flagrantly do not care what the expectation is of them,” said Huggins, who came to the Humane Society in June after 12 years leading animal control efforts for the city of Sacramento.
A common practice for enforcement officers is to check their database to see whether a dog owner has previously been warned about off-leash activity. If they have, they are much more likely to get a ticket. If not, they almost always get only a warning.
The Humane Society wrote 386 off-leash tickets in 2022 and had written just over 250 through October of this year.
The organization has just four enforcement officers assigned to the city of San Diego and several more that monitor the other 12 cities they cover.
Enforcement of leash laws in unincorporated areas is handled by the county, and enforcement in Imperial Beach, Lemon Grove, National City and Chula Vista is handled by Chula Vista. Coronado handles its own enforcement.
Huggins said his team tries to hit 20 to 25 parks a day, but that they don’t usually pick parks at random.
“We have a top-20 list based on feedback from the city,” he said. Parks Department staff and City Council offices relay complaints and tips about hot spots, he said.
Some cities have targeted specific areas for off-leash enforcement in their contracts with the Humane Society. Many coastal cities want enforcement at their beaches, while Poway has targeted specific parks in the city, Huggins said.
The Humane Society also has a reporting hotline — (619) 299-7012 — that people can call about off-leash dogs in the cities where it handles enforcement.
In addition to enforcement, the Humane Society has tried to address the off-leash problem with free leash training sessions and a “love ‘em and leash ‘em” marketing campaign.
Enforcement is almost always between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. and the hours before sunset, because that’s when nearly all off-leash activity takes place, Huggins said.
When enforcement officers show up, people running dogs off leash sometimes try to flee or refuse to give their name. In those instances, Humane Society officers call the police, he said.
Escondido resident Gail Manring said she doesn’t think there should be any enforcement. She said owners should simply be held responsible for any damage or wrongdoing by their dog.
“If I were in charge of the world, all dogs would run free,” Manring said in the legal off-leash area of Montiel Park in San Marcos recently. “But if you don’t have control of your dog, you need to use a leash. I think the owner should be held responsible if their dog attacks other dogs or people.”
Carolyn Chase, leader of the 16,000-member Fiesta Island Dog Owners, said her group sees both sides of the issue.
“Most owners understand what their dog will and won’t do, and you don’t want to waste your time enforcing a victimless crime,” Chase said. “But almost everybody thinks their dog is well-behaved — it’s like parents with their kids.”
She said even the best owners sometimes glance at their smartphone while their dog is roaming off leash, creating the opportunity for the dog to poop unnoticed in bushes or chase a squirrel and vanish.
Chase said a long-term solution for some neighborhoods could be larger off-leash parks like the one on Fiesta Island, which is spacious enough for dogs to sprint and not feel crowded.