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.

But Petaluma is a big city, with lots of open space, and enforcing the law falls mainly to two animal control officers. They work for the Petaluma Animal Services Foundation, which since last summer has contracted with the city to run the animal shelter and provide animal control. There used to be three animal control officers, but a position was cut during the recession. Officer Jason Pietsch said he and his colleague Mark Scott patrol as much as they can, focusing on areas that they know to be problematic, such as residential streets near the eastern, rural edge of the city. Despite being down one officer, Pietsch said, they make sure there is one animal control officer either on duty or on call 24 hours a day.

"It's harder now with only two of us, having to help out with other shelter needs as well, but we're patrolling as much as we can," Pietsch said.

For each violation of the leash law, the city charges a $100 fee. Pietsch said he and Scott give citations when necessary but try to issue verbal warnings and educate people about the laws first.

"We try to give people the benefit of the doubt; we feel it's more valuable to educate the public," he said. "These laws are designed to protect public safety as well as the animals, not to be unnecessarily strict. The bottom line is we want a safe city in which the animals as well as the people are properly protected."

Pietsch encourages people who witness violations to call or email, as they can add areas to their patrols if they get a high number of calls. They can also seek out "habitual" offenders if given a description of the person and their pet.

Scott added that the city provides ample places where dogs are allowed off leash. There are 13 parks, or "run areas" where dogs can run freely during certain hours.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com.)