Threatened or bitten by an unleashed dog? Here’s what to do ... and not do

Off-leash dogs in public areas of San Diego are allowed only at designated off-leash locations like Ocean Beach's Dog Beach.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

San Diego Humane Society presents tips at Ocean Beach Town Council meeting as complaints increase, saying more enforcement officers should be on the way soon.


With the dog days of summer ahead, the San Diego Humane Society has some tips on how to anticipate aggressive behavior by unleashed dogs and what to do if bitten.

Donovan Castro-Roxas, an officer with the Humane Society’s Humane Law Enforcement, and Juliette Nash, a community training supervisor, appeared at the March Ocean Beach Town Council meeting to offer a detailed account of the various signs of a stressed and potentially threatening dog and simple ways for people to protect themselves and defuse dangerous situations.

The presentation came on the heels of accumulating accounts and complaints to the Town Council of unleashed dogs running around in the community. The accounts include an appearance by resident Edward Elliott at a meeting last summer requesting action after being bitten in two separate incidents while jogging on the beach.

In response to an Ocean Beach resident’s complaints about leashed and unleashed dogs running around beaches during prohibited hours, a San Diego city representative said officials would be asking the San Diego Humane Society — the city’s contractor for animal-control enforcement — about its practices and possibly “kicking them in the butt” if it’s not issuing enough citations.

“Ocean Beach is a community that is full of our beloved furry friends,” said Town Council President Corey Bruins. “We’ve had some instances and comments and emails and feedback from community members that we need resources on how to keep us safe, keep our pets safe, keep each other safe.”

Though HLE is contracted by the city of San Diego to enforce leash and other animal regulations on the city’s 26 miles of coastline and more than 40,000 acres of park and joint-use space, Castro-Roxas emphasized a need for people to report animal-related incidents so his agency can use its resources effectively.

“If you don’t call, we don’t know,” he said. “When asked why HLE was not regularly enforcing leash laws in Ocean Beach, a search of call records showed only one request for service at that location in a 12-month period.”

Officers can cite owners for a wide range of offenses, such as dogs without licenses or not on leashes measuring 8 feet or less at city parks, except where posted. Castro-Roxas said he prefers educating people first about the rules but finds that many are already aware.

“The moment they see my vehicle, they get scared, leash up their dogs and just walk away,” he said. “So just presence is enough to deter people a lot of the time.”

Currently, HLE has only one officer regularly patrolling parks, but Castro-Roxas said an anticipated influx of trainees should soon augment that number.

Nash, an animal trainer for more than 10 years, provided a long list of dog expressions, sounds and body language that indicate anxiety or a heightened emotional state that can deteriorate into aggressive behavior, depending on the context and a person’s reaction.

“We don’t want you to get bit,” she said. “We don’t want to cause stress for the pet or for you. Be really aware of your body language. Don’t get rigid or stiff or send threatening signals to an animal. Try to move away. ... You want to make yourself as uninteresting as possible so the animal leaves you alone.”

Nash recommended that when outdoors, take note of vehicles, trash cans, shrubs and other things that can be used as a barrier between you and a dog. In addition, opening an umbrella or holding up a jacket can deter a dog, she said.

If a threatening dog approaches, throw or spray water from a drinking bottle or toss treat-shaped objects like pebbles to divert attention, Nash suggested.

“Interrupt them as best you can,” she said. “Do not threaten or try to hurt the dog. It is more likely to escalate the situation than de-escalate it.”

If bitten by a dog, exchange information with the owner and then report the incident to the Humane Society, Castro-Roxas said. Also take pictures of the bite and submit them with your report.

“If we don’t receive [photos] of a bite, we can’t confirm that a bite occurred,” Castro-Roxas said.

If you go to a hospital, the hospital is mandated to report any injuries, he added.

If the owner is uncooperative and tries to flee, take photos of the dog, owner and vehicle, Castro-Roxas said.

When photos aren’t possible, note as many details as possible, such as the location, the size and breed of the dog, any unusual markings and the color of the collar, he said.

Town Council member Tracy Dezenzo said off-leash dogs often are concentrated around the lifeguard station and the pier and requested more HLE presence rather than more signage.

“The type of people that allow their dogs to just roam free down there I don’t think are going to pay much attention to the signage,” she said. “They’re going to have to have repeated warnings or citations just to get the point that that’s not something which is allowed.”

Nash said HLE patrol cars are packed with donated leashes that can provide a simple resolution instead of a difficult confrontation.

“If someone doesn’t have a leash because their leash broke or ... is in poor condition, we can provide a resource that helps make that easier for them,” she said.

Castro-Roxas noted that when lost dogs with microchips or ID collars are given to the Humane Society, owners called to retrieve their pets might be handed something else as well, depending on their record.

“On the first find ... I’ll give it to them as a freebie,” he said. “If it’s the second or third time, though, I might go ahead and cite because if it’s a dog that continually gets out, they could possibly become a public nuisance.”

Vehicle habitation

The Police Department on Saturday, April 1, will again begin enforcing the city’s vehicle habitation ordinance that prohibits people from sleeping in their cars on public roadways and parking lots. Enforcement was suspended in spring 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

In a report to the Town Council read by Bruins, Mayor Todd Gloria’s representative Kohta Zaiser stated that in Ocean Beach, police will be “focusing on hot spot locations that have been identified by the mayor’s office, with heavy emphasis on the pier parking lot, the lifeguard lot, Dog Beach, Robb Field and Dusty Rhodes Park.”

Police Community Relations Officer David Surwilo said the return of enforcement should help free up parking spaces.

Surwilo commented on complaints about a lack of police enforcement at homeless encampments around the community, blaming it on the recent rains.

“When there’s inclement weather, we are not authorized to take any sort of enforcement,” he said. “If there’s even a chance of inclement weather, we are prohibited from any enforcement. So that has kept us from doing some of the enforcement that normally we would see throughout the year.”


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