As a lifelong South Bay resident and outdoor enthusiast, I treasure our community's public open spaces. One of my favorite spots is Lake Lagunita, a conservation area on the western side of the Stanford University campus. As a Stanford student, I'd go there to watch birds, run and engage in citizen science. I even worked there for a summer with the university's Conservation Program.
The lake changes drastically with the seasons and years, but one thing is consistent: dog-walkers ignoring the leash law. Illegally unleashed canines are a growing problem in our open spaces, and it's time to bring it to heel.
The laws are no joke — Lake Lag's includes a $500 fine. But enforcement is so poor that dog owners are seldom deterred, if they're even aware of the laws at all. As a result, off-leash dogs increasingly threaten delicate ecosystems and can be a nuisance or a danger to those who visit natural spaces for other forms of recreation.
Like many of the Bay Area's wild spaces, the Lake Lag Conservation Area supports an abundance of species, including endangered California tiger salamanders and San Francisco garter snakes. Dogs pose real risks to such wildlife; even if your dog is not a chaser, studies have shown that his mere presence elevates stress in animals nearby. Stressed-out animals don't breed, can fail to raise healthy young if they do, and may be more susceptible to predation from other, sneakier animals if they're distracted by your dog.
Additionally, domestic dogs' diets mean their feces carries E. coli, hookworms and other pathogens that make it more toxic than wild animals' waste. But common sense dictates that you're not going to chase your pooch into a thicket of poison oak, or a boggy patch of meadow, if she does her business while roaming free. So, the germs from Lassie's "present" will end up in our waterways, which is bad news for life in our streams and in the Bay.
Urban and suburban parks present their own set of arguments for strict leash-law observation. Fecal contamination is a human health risk, especially where families and kids go to play. Urine is highly acidic and kills grass, which means taxpayer dollars are spent re-greening park lawns. But more generally, letting dogs run where they please in popular recreation spots is disrespectful to people (and other dogs) who may be frightened by them or who simply want to enjoy the space undisturbed. You don't want your beloved pet scaring a little kid but neither do you want her distracting a service animal or bothering a dog who's kept on-leash because he doesn't play well with others.
I have faith that most dog owners are animal-loving, law-abiding, empathetic people and want to do the right thing. At Lake Lag, most offenders simply aren't aware of the law and leash up without complaint if asked. But while most are easygoing, I've encountered a discouraging number whose reactions ranged from self-righteously argumentative to downright hostile. When I worked for Stanford's Conservation Program, we were actually instructed to never approach dog owners alone because of aggressive responses directed toward employees in the past.
Though threatening reactions are far from universal, they are common enough to discourage people from reminding dog-walkers of the law, and this creates a vicious cycle that is quickly getting out of hand.
When a few people disregard a law, others notice, and unless law enforcement (or social pressure) intervenes, a precedent develops that the law doesn't matter. Letting your dog off the leash has become like jaywalking — sure, it's technically illegal, but it's so normalized that everyone does it anyway. It's no surprise, then, that dog owners are defensive when singled out for letting their pets off-leash. If I were scolded by a passerby for jaywalking, I'd be indignant, too. So aggressive responses increase, no one wants to speak up, and curbing the cycle gets even harder.
Increasing police or ranger patrols could help reverse the trend. But that takes resources from the prevention of more egregious crimes, and frankly, it feels cruel to slap a hefty fine on someone who just wanted Fido to get a little exercise and who probably was unaware of the leash law.
Therefore, I believe that we as a community can fix this without resorting to police presence. If you're a dog owner, your first step is to check and obey leash laws. Dog parks are great legal options for going sans leash if your dog is well-socialized. Second, encourage others to follow your lead in upholding the law — the pressure will be more effective coming from inside the dog-owning community. Third, don't limit your commitment to wild spaces, as many of our city parks and all our public school grounds require leashes.
Leash laws exist for good reasons. They protect the safety of humans and non-humans alike, and we all need to take responsibility to uphold them. If we do, we'll ensure that our outdoor spaces remain clean, friendly places, ripe for exploration and enjoyment by the whole family — dogs included.
Sophia Christel is a recent Stanford grad and a Palo Alto native who works for San Jose's Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Services department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.