To leash or not to leash?

Posted: December 19th, 2014 | Ask the Attorney, Columns, Featured | 9 Comments

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

Josh Bonnici

Josh Bonnici

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

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


  1. Luke Terpstra says:

    That is good to know Joshua. One other question I have is what about people who have the extra long retractable leashes? You mention that a handheld leash should be no longer than eight feet in length (San Diego County Code Sec. 63.0102(b)(2)). So why are these extra long leashes allowed?
    Thank you,

  2. […] Uptown News and Joshua Bonnici for publishing the important information about leash laws etc. [See “To Leash or not to leash” in Vol. 6 Issue 26]. I am so tired of seeing people walking their dogs unleashed, and in dangerous situations like […]

  3. Lucas says:

    I have a 4 years old long hair chihuahua dog. Which weight 3bl. Am I required to leash?

  4. Mike says:

    What is the process to follow if you have a neighbor in your complex who refuses to use leashes on their animals and your pet has been attacked on several occasions, never enough to cause damage however an inconvenience.

  5. Gayle says:

    Does the leash laws pertain to the county of San Diego also? Have a neighbor who continuously takes his dog out for walks without a leash. He allows his dog to defecate on everyone’s yard and does not bother to pick it up.

  6. Rocio says:

    My miniature schnauzer was attacked by two dogs today. She was being walked and on a leash when these dogs came out of a house that has a concrete fence with wrought iron. Well the wrought iron panel was missing and the dogs easily got out and attacked my dog. My dog has her leg dislocated and punctured wounds to her leg and groin. My dog is at the vet and might need surgery. I called animal control. What else can I do?

  7. Richard Siruma says:

    Awile back my mother accidentally hit a dog that ran into the street. Now they are calling her saying she needs to pay for the accident, is there any truth in this?

  8. zondra schmidt says:

    who do you contact to report a unleashed dog?
    My dog loves other dogs and has been attacked many times she is 5 lbs. by un leashed dogs.
    Post in news papers a few times may help these people leash there dogs.

  9. Jen Van Tieghem says:

    Contact the animal services department – From their site “For animal related emergencies and urgent matters, please contact our 24-hour Emergency Dispatch at 619-236-2341”

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