By Josh Bonicci | Ask the Attorney
“Can I really get in trouble if my dog’s off a leash? My dog is usually pretty well-behaved, but other dog owners sometimes give me dirty looks when I don’t leash him.”
—John the dog walker
Great question, John. As a dog owner myself, I see and experience this far too often in San Diego: people peacefully walking their dogs, obeying the San Diego City leash laws and along comes an unleashed dog frantically approaching with the owner running behind yelling, “Don’t worry (s)he’s friendly!”
That may be true, but what many dog owners don’t think about is 1) just because your unleashed dog is “friendly,” that my leashed dog is going to be as receptive when being rampantly charged at, and 2) that you know how your unleashed dog is going to react in every situation.
So what are the consequences of violating the leash law? What are a dog owner’s rights when an unleashed dog bites a leashed dog or a leashed dog bites an unleashed dog?
To start, a quick disclaimer: While my tone is causal and jokes may be corny, none of my suggestions should be taken as legal advice, nor does it create any attorney-client relationship. However, I will point out some local codes and ordinances for you to weigh your options in order to understand your rights and obligations when it comes to you and man’s best friend.
In San Diego, a dog that is brought into a public or private area where dogs are permitted must be restrained by a handheld leash no longer than eight feet in length (San Diego County Code Sec. 63.0102(b)(2)). Further, even if your dog is leashed, you must have the ability to control your dog at all times. The fine for violating the leash law can range from $250 for first time offenders to $430 and even $810 for second and third time offenders.
An owner who violates the leash law and whose unleashed dog subsequently attacks a leashed dog is likely to face civil liability for the amount of harm done to the dog, and possibly even misdemeanor criminal liability for violating the leash law and public protection from dogs law (SDCC 62.669). Additionally, the owner could be liable even when the presence of the dog off the leash was unintentional.
This imposes what the law calls strict liability on the dog owner for any harm their dog causes to another person including that person’s property, which includes other dogs (Cal. Penal Code § 491).An owner who is obeying the leash law and whose dog subsequently attacks an unleashed dog who was the initial aggressor is less likely to face liability unless the leashed dog had a propensity for violence, or despite having your dog on a leash, you were still unable to control him/her.
All that being said, there are places in San Diego where a dog is allowed (and encouraged to be) off leash. My Jack Russell Terrier and I have visited a handful of the several dog parks provided and maintained by the city, which offer a great venue for your four-legged friend to romp and play to their heart’s content. A complete list of the parks with hours and addresses can be found on the city’s website at sandiego.gov/park-and-recreation/parks/dogs/leashfree.shtml.
While there may be no leash law at these locations, there are other regulations you should be aware of. These include sanitation (picking up after your dog, SDDC Sec. 62.670), the number of dogs you can bring (most parks limit owners to three dogs at a time, with Fiesta Island’s dog park allowing double that), and reporting requirements if your dog bites a person.
If in the unfortunate event your dog does bite someone, you can be held liable for their medical bills and possibly more. Politely exchange contact information with the other person and tell them to get medical attention if the bite is serious. If you have homeowners or renters insurance on your home, your dog may be added to the policy, in which case you will need to report the incident to your insurance carrier. Additional regulations regarding dog bites can be found at SDCC Sec. 62.669.1.
Bottom line: Obey the leash laws or patronize the numerous local dog parks in San Diego where your dogs can run free. All of these potentially tragic encounters can be avoided by keeping your pet on a leash in designated areas. No pet owner wants to see their cherished pet injured, so do your part; your dog and fellow dog owners will thank you.
—Joshua Bonnici is the managing attorney at Bonnici Law Group, APC, a downtown civil litigation firm. He spends his time representing local families and individuals, as well as riding his bike or walking his dog around his Hillcrest, which he calls home. Feel free to reach out with specific questions. 619-259-5199 or sddisabilityattorney.com.