In Ocean Beach, every day’s a dog day

Erin Kelly smiles with Chunks, her popular 10-year-old golden retriever.

It’s been said that 45 percent of people in Ocean Beach are dog owners. Leigh Sterten, co-owner of Dog Beach Dog Wash, jokes that it feels like 95 percent.

“It’s definitely such a strong part of the culture here that it feels like everyone has a dog,” Sterten said.

Jane Donley, a former co-owner of Dog Beach Dog Wash (also known as OB Dog Wash), first shared the dog-ownership statistic with Sterten, who bought the business with wife Andrea Tunia and longtime friend Melissa Stokes in May 2019.

Having been in business since 1993, Dog Beach Dog Wash has garnered a loyal customer base willing to do just about anything to take care of their furry friends. Some owners have been going to the dog wash for 27 years, according to Sterten.

“For most dog owners, it’s not so much that they’re a pet but they’re your child,” she said. “They’re a part of your family. So it’s just a very important relationship.”

Meet Chunks, the friendly neighborhood golden retriever

Local resident Erin Kelly knows all about important relationships with dogs. In an interview with the Point Loma-OB Monthly, she shared what makes Chunks, her 10-year-old golden retriever, so important to her and others in the community.

Kelly and Chunks (named after a character in the film “The Goonies”) volunteer together at an assisted-living home in OB to bring encouragement and friendship to those in need.

The idea came when Kelly had just moved to OB in 2012 after leaving Cleveland.

“We were kind of lost; it was when we were new to the area,” she said. “And [Chunks] went up to this guy in a wheelchair who couldn’t move his hands, and he just did his quintessential golden retriever move — put his head under [the man’s] hands. The guy kind of smiled ... and that’s when I realized, ‘That’s probably a good thing for Chunks and I to do together.’”

Eight years later, Kelly still takes Chunks to the homes of senior citizens who could use some cheer. “He brings happiness to people,” Kelly said.

Last year, Chunks went above and beyond by alerting Kelly to an electrical fire that started while she was sleeping one night.

“He was by my side whining — he doesn’t really bark, he’s got this silly little woof — but my condo was on fire and he was there by my side,” she recalled. “He ended up being a black golden retriever for a while. That was pretty special for me.”

In normal times (before the coronavirus pandemic), Chunks has a busy schedule. He accompanies Kelly to her beach volleyball games and her swims and to happy hour at OB Noodle House Bar 1502. He goes swimming at resident Georgia Jones’ house, where he gets spoiled with a “Chunksicle” (frozen dog food). He attends Pilates and yoga classes with local Gwen Stoltz (his “ocean grandma”).

In fact, Chunks makes so many human friends, it’s not uncommon for people Kelly doesn’t even know to stop and greet him while he and Kelly walk through OB together, she said.

Dog Beach: a canine community

If OB’s large population of dogs and dog owners, plus the large number of dog-friendly restaurants, isn’t enough to demonstrate OB’s dog-positive atmosphere, the fact that Dog Beach was one of the nation’s first official leash-free dog parks should be.

Dog Beach has been a community icon and a common stomping ground for dog owners from all over San Diego since it was established in 1972.

Joanna Sutton and her dog Kona were at Dog Beach on April 29, two days after San Diego reopened beaches for limited use after a roughly month-long shutdown because of the pandemic.

Joanna Sutton spends an afternoon with her dog Kona at Dog Beach in Ocean Beach.
(Savanah Duffy)

Sutton, who hails from Dallas but has been living in OB for about two years, said: “Dallas is pretty dog-friendly, but nothing compared to OB. Which is actually really nice. I feel like I have the freedom to take Kona pretty much anywhere I want.”

A walk around Dog Beach revealed that many of the dog owners were visiting from other San Diego communities such as Pacific Beach and City Heights.

“We know Dog Beach is not just about people in OB and the surrounding area,” Sterten said. “There are literally people from across the country in that group who have been here, have heard about the place and just want to be part of that community.”

In an effort to keep the popular area spotless, former Dog Beach Dog Wash owners Donley and Mindy Pellissier started Friends of Dog Beach, a volunteer cleanup group dedicated to preserving and enhancing the quality of Dog Beach. Sterten, Tunia and Stokes have continued the tradition, which takes place from 9 to 11 a.m. the second Saturday of each month.

“[Donley and Pellissier] were really trying to give back to the community; that’s always been a big part of how they tried to operate. … So certainly we wanted to hang onto that,” Sterten said.

In addition, Dog Beach Dog Wash partnered last year with Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that trains dogs to be service animals.

Sterten and Tunia own two rescue dogs: Kona, a pit bull, and Tennessee, a husky mix. Both dogs were supposed to be fostered and eventually adopted, but Sterten said they were “foster fails … because they came into our house and never left.”

Tennessee (left) and Kona are rescue dogs belonging to Leigh Sterten and Andrea Tunia, co-owners of Dog Beach Dog Wash in Ocean Beach.
Andrea Tunia and Leigh Sterten own Dog Beach Dog Wash with longtime friend Melissa Stokes (not pictured).

Get along, little doggy

Though there’s a lot of love for dogs in OB, nothing is 100 percent.

Point Loma native Scott Mac Laggan said he’s enjoyed taking photos of his dog and others’ dogs at Dog Beach and Sunset Cliffs Natural Park for the past 11 years but noted that sometimes conflicts arise.

“There’s always ... controversy about who doesn’t pick up their [dog’s] poop or who doesn’t control their dog or use a leash,” Mac Laggan said. “But I think all in all, most people are pretty favorable and cooperative.”

Mac Laggan’s amateur photography features dogs from all over the Peninsula, including his own dog Marley, a rescued Australian shepherd and Labrador mix. (Marley is named for late reggae singer Bob Marley, not the dog from the book and movie “Marley & Me.”)

Dog owner Sutton said she’s particularly careful to be courteous during public outings with Kona.

“I don’t want my dog to cause any mayhem for anyone else, so I’m hyper aware of what I’m doing with her and if she’s on a leash,” Sutton said. “And just being really aware of the situation around me so I don’t upset anyone.”

Likewise, Sterten said she encourages her clients to keep their dogs on a leash, even if they don’t feel they need one, and to always clean up after their canine pals.

“Certainly there are things we can do that will make it a lot smoother for people who maybe don’t care for us or our dogs,” she said. “I have not encountered any strong anti-dog vibes anywhere, personally.”

Parting words

With recreation and entertainment severely restricted because of the coronavirus, more people than ever are out walking their dogs, Sterten said.

She encourages dog owners to maintain as much of their dog’s routine as possible and even enhance it. “Dogs thrive on routine,” she said.

“Just make sure that they’re doing OK with all of this as well,” she added. “They certainly pick up on our emotions and our feelings so much.”

So if you see Chunks, Tennessee, Marley or either of the Konas playing at Dog Beach or elsewhere, you might stop and give them a pat on the head — encouragement that this, too, shall pass.


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