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A dog runs off leash at Trolley Barn Park in University Heights, Feb. 10, 2022.
Claire Trageser
A dog runs off leash at Trolley Barn Park in University Heights, Feb. 10, 2022.

A new patrol is in town, and they're coming for owners of San Diego’s off-leash dogs

Speaker 1: (00:00)

Lots of people adopted dogs during the pandemic, and they may have gotten used to letting those dogs run off the leash at parks and school fields. But now a new program is aiming to put those dogs back on a leash with costly citations for dog owners, K PBS's, Claire trier reports,

Speaker 2: (00:18)

Sierra Dockery spots him from the parking lot, a loose pit bull running around a fenced in basketball court. She parks her SUV and hops out, especially

Speaker 3: (00:28)

The basketball courts. There's a couple signs that I see right now that mandate and dogs have to be on a leash. So we'll go make that contact.

Speaker 2: (00:37)

The dog's owner is not happy to see Dockery.

Speaker 4: (00:41)

Yeah.

Speaker 1: (00:42)

Do you mind just putting

Speaker 3: (00:43)

Mom in a leash really fast? I'm gonna enter the basketball court area.

Speaker 2: (00:46)

Dockery listens to the woman with a calm and gentle demeanor, but stays firm. She writes a ticket which could end up costing her almost $300.

Speaker 4: (00:56)

Good job. Good job. You're doing a great job. Helping families and friends.

Speaker 2: (01:02)

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. She's part of a new park patrol enforcement program. The humane society started in 2021 to address a pandemic era problem. The number of scoff law, dog owners ballooned during COVID.

Speaker 3: (01:29)

And then once they reopened, I feel like people kind of flooded back to the parks and beaches. Um, and people had that love outdoors. Once again,

Speaker 2: (01:38)

The humane society is now giving out about 200 citations a month. That's a fivefold increase from early in the pandemic about a third, went to parks and Pacific beach and ocean beach. And Dockery says they pay special attention to school fields.

Speaker 3: (01:55)

Some specific joint uses have become, let's say like unofficial dog

Speaker 2: (02:00)

Parks, that creates problems with dogs, digging hole or leaving poop, the kids

Speaker 3: (02:05)

Step in. And then of course, with off leash dogs, there's always that risk of someone being attacked, a dog being attacked, someone being bit.

Speaker 5: (02:12)

And all of a sudden, you know, this dog, you know, jammed on hair.

Speaker 2: (02:16)

That's exactly what happened. Tolen Hernandez three year old daughter Alba at trolley barn park in university Heights.

Speaker 5: (02:23)

When in the hospital, uh, she was traumatized.

Speaker 2: (02:28)

Alba 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

Speaker 5: (02:38)

Really change, you know, our whole family dynamic right, and way. Um, we spend our free time because we really, again, we couldn't come here, you know, because again, dogs were on and then just going to any other part, we found that, um, it

Speaker 2: (02:58)

Happens the same on a recent Wednesday evening. Several dogs run freely at a field in allied gardens. That's also being used for kids soccer and baseball games. Marty Marcus lets his dog Ellie off leash and she barks and runs in circles as he talks

Speaker 6: (03:14)

For the most part, people come down here at do control their dogs. Uh, yeah, mine is barking a lot. She wants to run and play and yeah, she did has bumped into you a few times. But outside of that, most of the dogs down here are reasonably well behaved.

Speaker 2: (03:28)

Marcus says he does worry about getting a citation.

Speaker 6: (03:32)

Dogs still needs exercise. And there are very few dog parks in the area.

Speaker 3: (03:37)

This dog's digging a hole

Speaker 2: (03:40)

Back on her patrol, Dockery rolls through a busy park and spots. Two people watching their dogs run off leash.

Speaker 3: (03:47)

Um, they're looking at it and not doing anything.

Speaker 2: (03:50)

She drives up to the young couple hops out and writes them each a citation.

Speaker 3: (03:56)

Do you know of a few dog parks in the area? Yeah. Okay. Cuzy there's like one literally down the street. It's about three minutes from here.

Speaker 2: (04:02)

The couple cheapish accepts their $300 tickets and promises. They won't break the rules again. Claire Trieger KPBS news.

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.

Sierra Dockery, a park patrol officer with the San Diego Humane Society, writes a citation to a woman who had her dog loose in a basketball court, Feb. 2, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Sierra Dockery, a park patrol officer with the San Diego Humane Society, writes a citation to a woman who had her dog loose in a basketball court, Feb. 2, 2022.

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.

Sierra Dockery sits in her San Diego Humane Society SUV writing a citation for an off leash dog, Feb. 2, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Sierra Dockery sits in her San Diego Humane Society SUV writing a citation for an off leash dog, Feb. 2, 2022.

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.

RELATED: The Most Common Places Dog Owners Are Ticketed In San Diego

The places dog owners have received citations for off leash dogs from March 2021 to January 2022.

“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.

A sign at an Allied Gardens park shows dogs are not allowed to be off leash, Feb. 9, 2022.
Claire Trageser
A sign at an Allied Gardens park shows dogs are not allowed to be off leash, Feb. 9, 2022.

"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.

RELATED: San Diego Beaches, Parks And Restaurants Are Open, But Playgrounds Remain Closed

“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.

Zero tolerance

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.

Dogs play off leash at Trolley Barn Park in University Heights, Feb. 10, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Dogs play off leash at Trolley Barn Park in University Heights, Feb. 10, 2022.

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.”

Sierra Dockery writes a citation for an off leash dog at Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach, Feb. 2, 2022.
Claire Trageser
Sierra Dockery writes a citation for an off leash dog at Kate Sessions Park in Pacific Beach, Feb. 2, 2022.

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.”

A new patrol is in town, and they're coming for owners of San Diego’s off-leash dogs

As a member of the investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.
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