Opinion: Off-leash dogs are taking a toll on our Berkeley community

My son was one of 50 people who reported being bitten by a dog in the city in 2021 when a canine took a bite out of his leg at Codornices Park.

On a picture-perfect October evening, my 5-year-old son ran onto the sports field at Codornices Park, intending to play some soccer. As usual, several dogs populated the field, and, as usual, virtually none of them were leashed (a violation of the park’s rules). My son neither looked at the dogs nor was he particularly close to any of them. Yet one herding dog sure noticed him, tearing several dozen yards across the grass and sinking its teeth into my son’s leg. 

My son thus became one of 50 people in Berkeley who reported being bitten by a dog in 2021. (Seven additional reports involved dogs biting other dogs.) These are likely undercounts, as not everyone relays such incidents to Berkeley Animal Care Services. 

Nationwide, roughly 4.5 million Americans suffer dog bites every year, of which hundreds of thousands require medical care. Even worse, dogs killed 568 Americans from 2005 to 2020, according to a dog bite victims’ group that compiles such statistics.

Off-leash dogs are also major harassers of wildlife. Nesting birds, in particular, may abandon their chicks and eggs when overly disturbed, while migratory shorebirds, hordes of which stop in the Bay Area as part of lengthy journeys to and from the Arctic, are forced to use up their fat reserves fleeing dogs rather than feeding. As a birder and conservationist, I feel huge amounts of frustration every time I witness a dog in avian attack mode. 

Even when not chasing other animals, dogs contaminate waterways and even the air with their waste, especially when it’s not picked up. A scientific study published this February analyzed the impact of dog feces and urine on four Belgian nature reserves and found that, in addition to being gross, the poop and pee likely reduced plant biodiversity. An earlier study from Italy similarly uncovered evidence that dog poop could be getting humans sick.

Finally, dogs dig up lawns, flower beds, and sports fields that the city of Berkeley presumably spends a lot of money trying to maintain. My kids’ soccer leagues are constantly pleading with parents not to let their dogs tear up the grass.

Despite all this, Berkeley — and the Bay Area in general — is notoriously lax when it comes to dogs. I’d personally like to see a few more rules; dogs should not, for example, be allowed off-leash on sidewalks or in the East Bay regional parks.

The main problem, however, is that existing rules aren’t enforced. Berkeley’s municipal code clearly states that, outside of two designated dog areas, canines may never be off-leash in city parks. At the Berkeley Marina, dogs are banned from certain spots and must be leashed elsewhere. Yet to say these regulations are flouted would be a gross understatement. Practically every park in Berkeley has a constant stream off-leash dogs, which makes it very difficult to enjoy these green spaces for other purposes. Certain dog owners even take over school playgrounds. Meanwhile, I’ve cleaned dog poop off my kids’ shoes more times than I’d like to count.

For people who don’t know the rules, which aren’t widely publicized, better signage would probably help. Fines, perhaps with a grace period where only warnings are issued, would help even more. It wouldn’t be an easy job — confrontation is a given — but the city should start giving out regular tickets for leash-law and pooper-scooper violations. Behaviors might change pretty quickly.

In writing a piece like this, I will inevitably be accused of hating dogs. But this isn’t true. I fully recognize that dogs provide many people with vital, sometimes even indispensable, companionship, comfort, and joy. I appreciate that most dog owners like animals, and I have the utmost respect for seeing-eye dogs and other working canines. 

What I am against — and I think I speak here for a silent majority of non-dog owners and responsible dog owners — is the way we as a community have ceded complete control to the small subset of pet lovers who think they’re entitled to do whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want.

As for my son, he has a tiny, nearly imperceptible, scar on his leg but is otherwise fine. In many respects, the owner of the dog that attacked him acted in an exemplary fashion. He apologized profusely, shared his dog’s vaccination history, and paid the emergency room bill. Nonetheless, this should never have happened. 

Let’s take the necessary steps to prevent the next child from getting bit. 

Jesse Greenspan is a Berkeley-based freelance journalist who writes about history and the environment.