It’s a sunny Wednesday morning in San Diego’s Clairemont neighborhood and Sierra Dockery is on patrol. She pulls her SUV into a small park where a woman is letting her pit bull run loose on the basketball court.
“There's a couple of signs that I see right now that mandate that dogs have to be on a leash, so we'll go make that contact,” Dockery said. “So she's aware.”
The woman was clearly unhappy to see Dockery and immediately began justifying her actions.
“We come here all the time, and the park staff all wave to her and say hi,” she said about her dog. “No one's asked us to leave before.”
Dockery listened to the woman with a calm and gentle demeanor, but stayed firm. She wrote the woman a ticket, which could end up costing her almost $300.
“Good job, you're doing a great job helping families and friends,” the woman yelled sarcastically as Dockery left.
Just another day at the office for Dockery, who looks a lot like a police officer in her tight bun, navy blue uniform and utility belt. But her employer isn’t a police department, it’s the San Diego Humane Society.
Unintended consequences of pandemic pets
She’s part of a new “park patrol” enforcement program the Humane Society started in 2021 to address a pandemic-era problem. While the nonprofit, which runs animal control for many local cities, has long ticketed people for off-leash dogs, the number of scofflaw dog owners mushroomed after the COVID-19 lock downs were lifted in late 2020.
“Once parks reopened, I feel like people kind of flooded back to the parks and beaches and people had that love of the outdoors once again,” Dockery said.
Between March and December 2020, the Humane Society gave out on average just 38 dog citations a month, according to data provided to KPBS. Then, in February 2021, the number almost tripled, and by the summer of 2021 enforcement officers were giving out on average 205 citations a month.
The Humane Society runs animal control for the city of San Diego and 13 other cities, but so far only San Diego has requested these all-day park patrols.
Part of the problem is the pandemic pet phenomenon that emerged in 2020. People stuck at home with less to do began rescuing animals in record numbers. As a result, there are now more dog owners, and leash laws are new to them, said Bill Ganley, the chief of humane law enforcement for the Humane Society.
“We thought (the increase in adoptions) was wonderful,” Ganley said. “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 another trouble spot, Dockery said. 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.
“Some specific joint use fields have become, let's say, unofficial dog parks,” Dockery said. “The children, during school hours and after school hours, use those fields. And with increased dogs off leash, there's going to be increased stool that's not picked up. There's going to be increased holes being dug that children might fall in. And then, of course, with off leash dogs, there's always that risk of someone being attacked.”
A scary attack
That’s exactly what happened to Alba Hernando, who was 3 years old in the summer of 2020 and was running in the grass at Trolley Barn Park in University Heights. The playground was still closed, but the park was filled with kids and families, said Alba’s mom Belén.
“All of a sudden this dog jumped on her,” she said. “We ended up in the hospital, she was traumatized.”
Alba had to get stitches in her arm, and now struggles with a deep fear of dogs. Hernando said the dog’s owner wasn’t charged with anything.
"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,” she said of Trolley Barn Park. “My daughter was traumatized with all that happened here. And then just going to any other park, we found that it happens the same.”
That leaves Hernando either searching for parks far from their home where the playground is fenced in, or else approaching dog owners and asking them to leash their pets—she said some refuse. She’s called the Humane Society to report off-leash dogs as well.
For Dockery, most late afternoons and evenings are spent responding to such calls and complaints.
“We'll start getting complaints of 10 dogs off leash, 15 dogs off leash at different parks,” she said. “And so we'll try to get there.”
Some parts of the city are ticketed far more often than others. More than 31% of the citations given out from March 2020 to January 2022 were in either Pacific Beach or Ocean Beach, according to the Humane Society data.
The small field at Crown Point Junior Music Academy in Pacific Beach saw 97 citations alone, while Kate Sessions field, Pacific Beach Elementary School and Robb Athletic Field all saw more than 50. Parks in University Heights, City Heights and San Ysidro were also the sites of more than 50 citations.
Meanwhile, San Diego police, lifeguards and park rangers have written 220 citations for either off-leash dogs or dogs being at beaches during prohibited hours since the start of 2020.
Dockery said she hardly ever gives out written warnings, opting for citations instead. She hopes that paying a fine will convince people to follow the rules. But, she said, some people just don’t care about the fine. In fact, 51 people have received more than three citations each between March 2020 and January 2022, according to the Humane Society data.
Some dog owners KPBS interviewed admit to playing a game of cat and mouse with the Humane Society patrols.
On a recent Wednesday evening, a group of dogs ran freely at a field in Allied Gardens that was also being used for kids’ soccer and baseball games. Marty Marcus let his dog Ellie off leash, and she barked and ran in circles as he talked to other dog owners.
“We've been waiting for half an hour for our playmates to show up,” he said to excuse Ellie’s barking. “For the most part, the people who come down here do control their dogs. 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.”
Marcus said he does worry about getting a citation, “but the dog still needs exercise. And there are very few dog parks in the area.”
He’s seen a Humane Society truck before, but when that happened, “we put the dogs on leashes and walk the other way.”
Dockery said she hopes for some people, just seeing her big Humane Society SUV at a park is enough to encourage them to keep their dogs on leash, and to prompt other park goers to call and report off-leash dogs.
“The more we have our presence known at a particular park, the more that people see our car at a park, I feel like it leads to people ending up calling more because they recognize that we do service that park, we do come and respond to complaints,” she said.
Two hours into her shift one morning last week, Dockery had only seen one dog — the pit bull in the basketball court—off leash. She drove through the parking lot at Robb Field in Ocean Beach and stopped to greet a dog and the young couple at the other end of the dog’s leash.
“Just make sure your dog remains leashed, because I just see the chuck-it toy in your bag, so I just wanted to make sure,” Dockery said.
As she looped around the parking lot to leave, she saw the couple back in their car with their dog.
“And now they're taking off,” she said. “They may have been wanting to go off leash here and then decided they're going to actually take off instead, go somewhere else.”