Petaluma is a welcoming place for dog lovers, from its numerous parks packed with people walking their pets to the many coffee shops and boutiques that set out cool bowls of water for patrons' canine companions.
But for some, Petaluma's dog-friendly atmosphere is marred by owners who let their dogs run off-leash, in violation of city laws.
Petaluma's animal control officers say they receive a few calls each week about owners violating the city's leash law, though they receive an equal number about loose dogs. They say they have received a higher number of reports of leash law violations recently, most likely because of warmer weather and longer days drawing people and their pets outside.
Resident Craig Lewis has been cautious about walking his dogs, both boxers, around town ever since a loose dog charged him, his wife and their two pets outside the Starbucks at Putnam Plaza about two years ago.
"We were out for a walk on a Sunday morning, coming down the stairs from Kentucky Street, and thought we'd swing by Starbucks to get a coffee," Lewis said. "All of a sudden, a big black dog charged out of the crowd, right at us." Lewis said he stepped between his wife and the dogs, but couldn't stop the dogs from charging each other. He was eventually able to pull them apart.
The owner quickly ran over and was apologetic, Lewis recalled, saying that her dog had never done anything like that before.
"It's not the only time we've run across people with dogs off leash," he said, adding that he now sticks mainly to a secluded area near his west-side home when he walks his dogs.
Several residents interviewed for the article recounted similar experiences, where either their pet or a child was charged by an off-leash dog whose owner said it was friendly or had never been aggressive before.
In recent years, there have been a few serious dog attacks resulting in a pet or child being injured, though most of those were by dogs that broke loose from homes or back yards rather than ones being walked off-leash.
In 2007, resident Kiernan Burns was arrested after his two rottweilers attacked first an Irish terrier at a dog park and then a small boy who was out on a run with his father.
Sheila Bernstein, 77, walks her dog with caution now after her cockapoo was attacked by two larger dogs who broke out of a home last September. The attack sent her dog to the animal hospital and left Bernstein skittish about other off-leash canines, which she says she sees often in her neighborhood not far from the Sonoma-Marin fairgrounds. Now, she carries pepper spray and a cane for defense.
"I understand wanting to let your dog run. I wish I could have my dog off leash; I want her to have fun," she said. "But there are rules, and they're not always being enforced."
Petaluma municipal code says dogs must be on a six-foot leash at all times unless they are on private land — either that of their owner or someone who has given permission for the dog to be there — or in an area of the city that has been specifically designated for off-leash dogs.