off-leash laws dogs running on a beach in Santa Cruz

Animal Shelter Steps Up Off-Leash Patrols

Officers give out more warnings on beaches and tickets as dog parks thrive

Dogs are common, although not technically allowed at Santa Cruz’s Its Beach, which is part of Lighthouse Field State Beach. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

There’s one dog in the county for every five or six Santa Cruz County residents, according to census numbers and estimates from the local animal shelter. And as the weather warms up, the 29 miles of pristine beaches that line the county’s extensive coastline is an almost irresistible draw for dog owners, and a paradise for dogs.

But even paradise has its limits.

Jon Alvarado, a newly hired officer for Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, patrols the county’s beaches each day, and takes dog-off-leash rules seriously. “We’re beginning to ticket people more on the beach,” he says, while standing on 26th Avenue Beach, watching free-roaming offenders. “Don’t think because it’s a Tuesday that we won’t be enforcing leash laws.”

When Alvarado’s badge comes out, lawbreaking beachgoers know he means business, and their fleeting sense of absolute freedom comes to an abrupt end. “Go to the dog parks, or go to Mitchell’s,” the officer will tell them. Todd Stosuy, field manager for the shelter, is at the beach with him, and they’ve already spoken with a few dog owners today.

For years, officers like Alvarado “looked the other way,” he says, and allowed off-leash puppies to play on shores. But the county, which runs the shelter, started getting complaints four years ago. The penalties for disobeying leash laws are steep, upward of $300 in some cases, and the shelter is actively stepping up enforcement efforts around the county.

Amy Brunette, a veterinary technician at Companion Animal Hospital, wishes that she and her Chihuahua, Peanut, had more options for off-leash recreation. “I love my dog and I wish we had more places for off-leash play. And I wish more beaches had off-leash laws for my dog,” she says. “It’s not right. Now we have to go to dog parks.”

As the shelter adds more officers, it’s becoming harder for people like Brunette to find places to bring their four-leggeds, with officers patrolling the unincorporated areas and county beaches. Stosuy says the shelter is taking over a contract for the city of Capitola, as well, and stepping up patrols for the summer—although his officers do walk the beat year-round. Stosuy says many owners seem to believe these beaches are off-leash, even though they never have been. “The leash laws are for public safety,” he says. “We have to be community-minded.”

An effort to designate off-leash county beaches stalled out a couple of years ago before the parks and recreation commission

Some dog owners find they have more luck at state-run spots like Its Beach, part of Lighthouse Field State Beach, which becomes heaven on Earth for groups of dogs on warm Saturday afternoons. But if a state parks ranger catches a dog owner, they could still be in for a hefty fine.

There’s only one beach in the county where dogs can legally run about freely, unencumbered by leashes. That would be Mitchell’s Cove, a tiny Westside locals’ spot on Almar Avenue that often smells—due to rotting seaweed, though, not canines. This tiny stretch of sand on Westcliff Drive allows off-leash dogs before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. every day. It’s a popular spot for dog park holdouts who can’t imagine taking their dogs anywhere but the beach.

Puppy places, in general, have been gaining momentum around the county. Over the past five years, the number of dog parks has risen by 20 percent nationwide, according to the Trust for Public Land, which has deemed off-leash dog parks one of the hottest and fasting growing segments of municipal parks.

The dog park trend has grown locally as well, with parks now stretching from Scotts Valley to Watsonville—seven of them in the city of Santa Cruz alone. The topic is often a hot-button issue for park lovers, some of them eager to see more spaces for free-range dogs, and others hoping to keep leash laws as they are. The city’s draft parks master plan calls for more completely fenced sites in underutilized areas in locations that provide an even distribution across the city and minimize conflict with other park users and wildlife.

One group that is on board with more dog-off-leash areas is the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter. Stosuy, field manager for the shelter, says it would do more than just give dogs and owners more freedom and room for exercise.

“Having more areas for dogs off leash would curb the number of nuisance complaints,” he says, “and make our jobs easier.”

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