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Crime Unleashed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s a crime wave run rampant across Orange County each and every day: an energetic and leashless canine roaming, sniffing and jumping while his master casually strolls several feet behind.

Allowing dogs to go off-leash has become common practice in many of the county’s parks and along its beaches. But it’s illegal. And dog owners’ indifference to the leash laws has prompted cities to step up enforcement.

“It’s like a free-for-all,” complained Carol Schwimmer, an Irvine resident who says the park behind her home is routinely overrun by dogs off-leash. She and her husband, Steve, are devoted owners of a Rhodesian Ridgeback named Angie, and they are frustrated by the number of uncontrolled pets in the neighborhood.

“It’s annoying, No. 1, to be out there with our dog and have other ones running around. Then the danger factor of getting bitten is much higher and the noise is a problem,” said Schwimmer. Steve Schwimmer also mentioned the unpleasant mess that often is left behind.

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The Schwimmers take great pains to control Angie and wish others would do the same with their pets.

Irvine Animal Control has stepped up its efforts to ensure that more people comply with the law.

“Although a lot of pet owners are excellent, it only takes a few to spoil it,” said Carl Pagano, superintendent for Irvine Animal Control, who said the leash law isn’t just some meddlesome rule.

“The biggest concern we have is the safety of other animals and other people. Dogs can be lured away from the owner for any number of reasons. They get going with their nose and it always gets into something.”

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Most cities don’t track the number of citations, but officials say leash law violations are a serious problem.

Citations in Orange County vary, with some as high at $80. But a pooch’s freedom can also come at a steeper price for pet owners and passers-by.

“The liabilities are just tremendous. People don’t seem to understand that when a dog is off of a leash and off their properties, they can be liable,” said John Gonzales, animal services supervisor for Mission Viejo.

Nearly all dog bites in Mission Viejo result from leashless dogs, Gonzales said.

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He also recalled an extreme case in which a pet owner was prosecuted after his dog ran into the street, causing a driver to lose control of his moped. The man died, and the dog owner was held responsible.

In Mission Viejo, animal services officers have decided to embrace a friendly strategy in their fight against leash-law scofflaws.

Their enforcement officers patrol the city with nylon leashes in hand, ready to distribute them to anyone whose dog is off-leash.

“It’s very effective and a great PR tool,” said Gonzales, adding that most officers there offer warnings, not citations. “We’ll pull over and talk to them and give them a leash. If the police come across the individual again, the officer can again just warn the person. It’s only when we get a continuing situation, if we catch the guy a third or fourth time that we’ll cite him,” said Gonzales. “We try to make it very low key--a double ‘E’ standard: Education and Enforcement.”

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Dog parks are increasingly popular among pet owners who want to liberate their charges. Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa and Laguna Nigel all host the bark parks where dogs can legally go leashless. And that’s where animal control officials recommend pet owners do just that.

The parks are not without their controversies, with some residents complaining about cleanliness, but they do offer a safe alternative to skirting local leash laws.

Some pet owners are hard to convince. They say that even a fenced in play area is too confining, and can’t compare to the great wide open.

“This is like Doggy Disneyland,” said 32-year-old Alex Schlosser, as he and a furry friend played on Huntington Beach’s famed Dog Beach.

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Schlosser has been bringing his chocolate colored pup, Faye, to the beach for three years, letting her romp in the water and chase sea gulls untethered. He called their outings “healthy and necessary,” for himself and his pet, even though they’re not legal.

“It is a consistent problem,” said Steve Davidson, marine safety lieutenant for Huntington City Beach. “Dogs off-leash attack other dogs, owners get bit, we’ve had instances of a jogger being bit. And sometimes it’s just as simple as an off-leash dog deciding to go shake on your towel.”

Schlosser believes, however, that his dog deserves a little freedom.

“It gives her a chance to not feel so restrained,” he said. “Everybody needs that.”

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