Bella, Jeff’s five-year-old Labrador mix, crouches five feet from her owner at a park in San Carlos. She stares at the rubber ball inserted in a sort of handheld catapult called a “Chuckit!”
Jeff rears back and flings the ball 40 yards, past two brown dachshunds near a jacaranda tree, 50 feet from a man playing Frisbee with a yellow Lab.
Jeff lives across the street, and he’s been bringing Bella here twice a day for five years, despite the signs indicating off-leash dogs are prohibited.
On a typical weekday evening, Jeff says, 15 to 20 owners bring their dogs to the park.
“There’s been more, lately; I think animal control officers are ticketing dog owners at another park down the road in Allied Gardens,” says Jeff. “Every few months it seems like [animal control] starts patrolling here, and then after a while they go do the same thing someplace else.”
Three months ago, Jeff says an animal control officer drove up the hill and onto the field. “She was giving people warnings, and I think a few people were ticketed. She asked for my ID, but I was able to talk my way out of it,” he says, smiling.
In the City of San Diego, there are 15 off-leash dog parks, all but 4 of which are west of Interstate 805. As the city’s population grows, so does the number of dogs. According to the San Diego County Department of Animal Services, the City of San Diego is home to approximately 338,000 dogs.
“Our good friends live up the street. We met them at the park when they got their puppy,” says Jeff. “We’ve known them for four years now and meet up for walks, dinners, and barbecues. Our dog and their dog are best friends.”
Last year, animal control officers issued more than 430 citations for off-leash dogs. In San Diego County, the citation for first-time offenders is $240, and the fines increase with the number of incidents: $430 for a second offense, $810 for a third.
“If we receive numerous complaints of dogs running loose at a park, we will do everything possible to be there at the specified time in an attempt to observe the violations and take the appropriate action,” writes Lieutenant Dan DeSousa of the county’s Animal Services Department in an email. “If the officers do not have any calls pending, they patrol the problem areas within their assigned areas, be it a park or street.”
Citywide, DeSousa says the parks that receive the most complaints are Kate Sessions in Pacific Beach, Liberty Station in Point Loma, Villa La Jolla in UTC, Pantoja Park downtown, and the outfield at downtown’s Petco Park.
On a sunny Thursday evening at one of those parks, 20 to 30 dogs play off-leash. An older golden retriever walks back to its owner with a dirt-brown tennis ball in its mouth. A Rhodesian ridgeback puppy, carrying a blue rubber ball, nearly runs into the old retriever.
Toby waits under a tree for his two-and-a-half-year-old black Lab, Molly, to retrieve the tennis ball he bounced down the hill.
“I’ve met three of my closest friends — one of them is now my landlord — from bringing Molly here,” says Toby.
“There’s a whole group that comes here. Sometimes, after we come here, we all go get a beer together. I play basketball with a few of them on the weekends. Then there are those other people that I see every day but don’t know the people’s names, only their dogs’ names.”
A few minutes later, Toby’s friend arrives, holding a Chuckit! in each hand. Two black Labs and one yellow Lab jump at his waist.
“What’s going on, brother?” Toby asks.
The two friends talk about their jobs, his teenage son’s baseball game, and an upcoming trip to Lake Tahoe.
Later, Toby says he is always on the lookout for the white pickup trucks that animal control officers drive. A few people at the park have recently been cited.
“There are two older ladies that come by here and take pictures of the dogs and their owners before reporting it. Usually, animal control shows up a few days after that.”
Toby says some people are trying to get off-leash hours designated at the park from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. on weekdays, but nothing has happened.
Much of that is due to the expensive and time-consuming process. According to the City’s website, the process of establishing an official dog park costs a minimum of $5000 and could take up to several years.
“The…process can be lengthy and expensive…and requires a strong, long-term commitment. It is the intent of this process to confirm that the community, elected officials, and San Diegans as a whole are well aware of and support the proposed change in park use.”
Of the eight districts that make up San Diego, District 7, which includes Allied Gardens, Del Cerro, El Cerrito, Grantville, San Carlos, Rolando, Tierrasanta, and part of City Heights, is the only district without a city-designated off-leash dog park.
“During the campaign, while walking precincts, I received several requests for dog parks,” writes District 7 councilmember Marti Emerald in a May 30 email. She admits to occasionally letting her chocolate Lab and two standard poodles loose while she hikes through the canyons near her home.
“There is a serious pent-up demand for areas to let dogs run and play,” says Emerald. “As soon as the current budget deliberations are over, my staff will check with the city’s Real Estate Assets Department for city-owned land that may be appropriate and available for a park. Then we will estimate the cost of building the park. Once we know the price, we can sit down with the community and figure out how to pay for it; possibly a combination of government and private money.”
But, even for those dog owners who live close to city-sanctioned dog parks, some prefer the unofficial parks. I spoke to Maggie at a neighborhood park two miles away from the dog park at Balboa Park.