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Adopted a dog during the pandemic? Put a leash on it or pay, if you live in San Diego

A dog runs at a park in San Diego, Calif.
Claire Trageser/KPBS
A dog runs at a park in San Diego, Calif.

On a seasonably cool evening, several dogs run off leash on a field filled with kids playing soccer and baseball in the Allied Gardens neighborhood of San Diego. One of the dogs is Ellie, who's owned by Marty Marcus, a local resident who's been bringing his adorable pet to frolic in this area for years. Ellie barks and runs in circles as Marcus talks.

"For the most part, the people who come down here do control their dogs," Marcus says. "Yeah, mine is barking a lot. She wants to run and play. And yes, she has bumped into you a few times. But outside of that, most of the dogs down here are reasonably well behaved."

But dogs are not allowed off leash at this field, and Marcus knew he was breaking the rules.

"The dog still needs exercise, and there are very few dog parks in the area," Marcus says. He says he tried for two years to get a dog park built nearby but failed.

Another dog owner at the park, Regan Rath, says she lets her dog off leash because she can't wait for a dog park to be built.

"Nothing's been done to try to establish a dog park in the area and we put a good two years' worth of work into trying to go the proper channels to get a legit dog park and we just hit every road block possible," she says. "We take our chances and we stay away when (ticketing) happens, but then the dog needs to run a week later so we come back."

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal, about 23 million American households adopted a pet during the pandemic. The Humane Society says it doesn't have exact numbers on how many people adopted dogs but lots of people did. And many of those persons got used to letting their dogs run free at nearly empty parks and school fields. Officials in San Diego, Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles say they're having more issues with off leash dogs, in part because of COVID-19. Now, these cities are aiming to put those dogs back on the leash.

Key among them is San Diego. The city contracts with the San Diego Humane Society for its animal control services, and the Humane Society says it now has four "park patrol" officers who are giving out about 200 dog-related citations a month. That's almost triple the number in the early stages of the pandemic.

Dogs run in the off-leash area on Fiesta Island in San Diego, Calif.
/ Claire Trageser/KPBS
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Claire Trageser/KPBS
Dogs run in the off-leash area on Fiesta Island in San Diego, Calif.

"The pandemic opened up an opportunity for many families to adopt a dog when they weren't able to before," says Lindsay Hamrick, the director for shelter outreach & engagement for the Humane Society of the United States. "If a city or a county doesn't have a lot of options for an adopter, they sort of make the best decision that they can to be able to give their dog that outlet."

But dogs don't actually need to run off leash, Hamrick says.

"Dogs get just as much out of having a leashed walk where they're able to sniff wherever they want to," she says. "So consider walking them in a new direction in your neighborhood and stopping when they stop so that they have time to sniff."

There are now more dog owners, and leash laws are new to them, says Bill Ganley, the chief of humane law enforcement for the San Diego Humane Society.

"We thought (the increase in adoptions) was wonderful," Ganley says. "I still think it's wonderful, but if they're new owners, they may not know the rules, and they may just think, 'Oh, they see other people doing it.' "

School fields are a big trouble spot, Ganley says, because while schools were closed due to COVID-19, people got used to bringing their dogs to run free. This has led parents and school officials to complain that dogs and their owners have taken over places that were once the domain of school children.

Sierra Dockery, a San Diego park patrol officer.
/ Claire Trageser/KPBS
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Claire Trageser/KPBS
Sierra Dockery, a San Diego park patrol officer.

One reason San Diego is upping enforcement is that off leash dogs pose a risk, something Belén Hernando knows all too well. Her daughter, Alba, was attacked by a dog at a park last summer.

"All of a sudden this dog jumped on her," Hernando says. "We ended up in the hospital, she was traumatized."

Alba, who was 3 at the time, had to get stitches, and now struggles with a deep fear of dogs. People insist their dog is friendly and well behaved, but Alba doesn't know that.

"It really changed our whole family dynamic and the way we spend our free time, because we couldn't come here because dogs were unleashed," Hernando says. "And then just going to any other park, we found that it happens the same."

One of San Diego's new park patrol officers is Sierra Dockery. On a recent morning, she was driving through a busy park and spotted two people watching their dogs run off leash.

"This dog is digging a hole actively," she says. "They're looking at it and not doing anything, but I'll be making contact."

She drove up to the young couple, hopped out and wrote them each a citation.

A San Diego park patrol officer writes up a ticket for an off leash dog.
/ Claire Trageser/KPBS
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Claire Trageser/KPBS
A San Diego park patrol officer writes up a ticket for an off leash dog.

"Do you know of any dog parks in the area?" she asked the couple. "Because there's like one literally down the street. It's about three minutes from here."

The couple sheepishly accepted their $300 tickets and promised they won't break the rules again.

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