Dog parks remain popular — COVID or not


Genia Ahranian doesn’t know what she would do without her daily trips to the dog park.

“I retired years ago,” Ahranian says, sitting contently with her red poodle named Dousha on her lap under a canopy of trees in the San Fernando Valley. The name, she says, means “sweet face” in Russian slang. 

“The moment you cross the gates, you enter another world. I call this place paradise.”

Genia Ahranian and her red poodle Dousha sitting together at the Sepulveda Basin Off-Leash Dog Park in Encino. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb.

Ahranian is part of a small yet faithful group of regulars at the Sepulveda Basin Off-Leash Dog Park, a collection of three, fenced-off play areas for dogs of all sizes and temperaments. It’s situated along the northwestern edge of Encino. The park is part of the larger Sepulveda Basin Recreational Area, which is home to a wildlife reserve, a man-made lake, and three golf courses, among other outdoor activities.

Ahranian says she sits, without fail, in the small dog section of the park each day with several other friends that she met there.

“It depends on what time we come, but there are always people sitting here,” Ahranian says. “We talk about our dogs, about our days. It’s become a kind of family.”

This dog park, and the few others like it across Los Angeles, have become a nexus for residents of all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds who are hungry for community and companionship during the pandemic. Other locations that allow for these interactions between strangers have been closed at one time or another. But this park has remained open for the vast majority of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

It has been a lifeline for dogs and owners alike, says Rhonda Lukins.

Natalia Ospina (left), her fiancé Dennis, and her daughter Scarlett hang out at the Sepulveda Basin Off-Leash Dog Park in Encino as their two dogs roam free. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb.

“I come for my dog and I come for myself,” Lukins, who has been a regular at the Sepulveda Basin Off-Leash Dog Park for more than a decade. “My head gets cleared here. I vent [about] my day's activities. So I'm killing two birds with one stone. And yeah, sometimes I get lucky and my dog does a poop.”

Lukins says the park is continually crowded, especially in the evening when the sun begins to set and it gets cooler.

The increasing interest is being spurred by an increase in pet adoptions, including dogs. Madeline Bernstein, who is the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Los Angeles (spcaLA), says people who feel isolated because of the coronavirus have found human connection through their animals. 

Two poodle mixes, including reporter Benjamin Gottlieb’s dog Finneas (top, brown and white), play during the early evening hours at the Sepulveda Basin Off-Leash Dog Park in Encino. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb.

“The dog is also not only just a new friend, but it is a friend that can get you to meet other friends in a socially distant, socially responsible, with-your-mask-on environment,” Bernstein says, adding that her facilities have remained historically empty during the pandemic. 

Berstein says there is always a concern about “failed foster” parents, essentially people who adopt a dog but return him/her after their lives change. But she says return rates, which usually hover around 10%, are much lower.

“People are keeping their pets,” Bernstein says. “It is very encouraging. We are hoping that it lasts.”

The small dog section of the park features obstacle courses for the animals, including a ramp (pictured right). Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb.



Benjamin Gottlieb