From a huge bark park to dog-friendly restaurants and luxury boutiques, Laguna rolls out the grass carpet for its furry residents and visitors.
By Sharon Stello
With nearly as many dogs as children living in the city, it’s no wonder that .Laguna Beach is such a pet-friendly place.
While the U.S. census counted about 2,900 residents age 14 and under in 2010, nearly 2,800 dog licenses were issued just two years later in Laguna. And that’s not considering all of the dogs that visitors bring to the city. Hardly a minute goes by without someone walking their furry friend downtown or strutting their mutt along the Main Beach boardwalk. And, in the canyon, an expansive, grassy bark park attracts dogs and their owners from near and far.
Many local restaurants invite diners to bring their canine companions to eat with them on the patio, high-end boutiques cater to pampered pups and several shops set out water bowls by their front doors, welcoming passerby pooches. It’s not unusual for people to take their dogs right into some shops without so much as a raised eyebrow in response. In Laguna, people even bring their pups to the bank.
“We get a lot, actually,” says David Liti, assistant manager at Wells Fargo. “… There’s constantly dogs coming in.” Not only does the bank allow customers to bring along their pooches while making a deposit or withdrawal, workers hand out biscuits to the furry visitors. “We know that in Laguna Beach there are a lot of dog lovers. …We want to make them feel like they’re at home,” David says, adding that people are often stressed or in a hurry when they stop at the bank. “Sometimes, when they have their companion with them, it helps calm them down.”
Running errands while out and about with the dog makes perfect sense to Cindy Waldman, who moved to Laguna four years ago. “The city lends itself to outdoor living and you’re always looking for an opportunity to take your dog outdoors,” she says. “It’s a fairly walkable little city. If you’re going to run down to the post office, why not take the dog?”
A WALK IN THE PARK
In addition to strolling to the store with their dogs, Laguna residents and visitors have plenty of places to recreate with their tail-waggers. Leashed dogs are allowed on city beaches any time of day from Sept. 11 though June 14. During the summer, from June 15 through Sept. 10, paws are permitted on the sand before 9 a.m. and after 6 p.m.
In the canyon, an off-leash bark park allows dogs to run free on more than 2 acres of lush grass dotted with shady trees—a novelty compared to the area’s mostly dirt and wood chip-covered parks. “You’d be surprised how far people come [for the grass],” says Cindy, president of Friends of Laguna Beach Dog Park, a nonprofit liaison between the city and park users. Established in 1992, Laguna’s dog park was reportedly the first to open in Orange County and one of the few in Southern California at the time. This city-run fenced park—with a separate area for small dogs to frolic—is open from dawn to dusk every day except Wednesdays, when it’s closed for maintenance, and when it rains or the ground remains soggy after a storm. Amenities include benches, a picnic table and doggy-level drinking fountains.
Wendy Bell of Aliso Viejo makes the drive to the park nearly every day to exercise her Lab mixes, Frank and Charlye. “It’s the nicest park I think that I’ve been to,” she says. “The grass is nice [and] it’s well maintained. But visiting the park isn’t just about the cavorting canines. “It’s not only dog social hour, it’s people social hour,” she says. “… It’s the best of both worlds.”
In addition to the off-leash park, many enjoy hiking with their dogs on local trails. Cindy and her 75-pound mutt named Oliver frequent the paths at Alta Laguna Park. “It’s convenient; it’s the closest to my house and it’s really beautiful,” Cindy says. “There’s no better view of Catalina and the green space behind. It’s gorgeous. You’re on top of the world up there.”
Accessible from Alta Laguna Park, West Ridge Trail is perhaps the area’s most dog-friendly trail, according to Laguna Canyon Foundation Executive Director Hallie Jones. “You see people with dogs up there all the time,” Hallie says. “It’s wide enough where you’re not going to have issues with ticks and foxtails. It’s great in terms of exercise. It’s long enough … and it’s beautiful.”
West Ridge is among a handful of trails where dogs are permitted in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, although they must be on a 6-foot leash at all times. Also in this park, Hallie recommends the Aswut Trail, from the south end of Alta Laguna Boulevard to Arch Beach Heights.
Hallie says another great hike with dogs is along the paved Bluff Trail at Crystal Cove State Park because of the breathtaking scenery. That’s the only Crystal Cove trail where dogs are allowed, and they must be leashed. Hallie reminds dog owners to watch out for snakes and to bring enough water for themselves and their dogs when hiking, especially in the summer heat.
It’s important to note that dogs are prohibited in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park to protect the fragile environment—home to animals including ground nesting birds—and for the dogs’ safety. “It’s habitat and we have incredible animals and birds there,” Hallie says.
While preserving habitat is important, park administrators also understand the need for dog owners to have a place to exercise and enjoy nature with their animals, too. That’s why certain trails in Aliso and Wood Canyons were set aside for this purpose, concentrating the impact. “I really believe Laguna is such a special place to live and one of … [the best things] is the ability to bring our dogs into every part of our life,” Hallie says.
Among the many places that welcome dogs in Laguna, dozens of restaurants allow canine companions in the outdoor seating areas.
At Lumberyard, manager Travis Frank says the number of diners bringing dogs to the patio has increased significantly in the past three years, and the restaurant is happy to accommodate them. “We don’t mind at all,” Travis says. He understands customers who enjoy having their furry friends at their side. “I love bringing my dog out when I go places,” says Travis of his corgi, Ein. “A lot of people think of their dogs as part of the family.”
In fact, Travis says diners fairly regularly order hamburger patties for their dogs to eat. The same is true at GG’s Bistro, where pet owners sometimes request beef patties or a chicken breast for their dogs to munch on. To-go cups of water also are offered for these furry family members. Francesca Gundogar, one of the bistro’s owners, says diners bring dogs of all sizes to accompany them for a meal on the patio. She recalls one time when a Great Dane, one of the largest breeds, was seated right next to what seemed like the smallest dog in the world. While this must have been a comical sight, she says the canine customers are generally well mannered.
Madison Square & Garden Cafe is also known for being dog friendly. With such a large outdoor seating area, it’s the perfect place to bring your pooch, not to mention a beautiful setting for the human visitors, too. “On a weekend, there could be 40 dogs on a Saturday,” says owner Jon Madison, who’s always ready with biscuits for his furry visitors. “I love dogs. I wanted to own a farm with 1,000 dogs.” Instead, he has one, a 90-pound rescued border collie/Belgian shepherd mix named Cole. In addition to making a difference in this dog’s life, Jon also hosts fundraisers at his restaurant, often benefiting animal rescue groups.
And, in nearby Laguna Niguel, The Ritz-Carlton hosts a monthly Yappy Hour, which raises money for the Wounded Veterans Initiative of Canine Companions for Independence. At these cocktail parties, dogs enjoy handmade dog biscuits and bacon- or cheese-flavored water while owners can order burgers, beer and wine.
For pups that don’t nosh at area restaurants, they can find a gourmet meal at Naked Dog Bistro & Boutique, which offers fresh-made organic and gluten-free food. The downtown shop, which opened in March, is run by the mother-and-daughter team of Charlotte Bloom and Lindsay Poe. They offer Uncanny wet food in three flavors: Herby Turkey, Bark-b-que Beef and Paw-Lickin’ Chicken, although not every variety is available every day. The bakery case also tempts with tantalizing treats such as Pupcakes and Puppies in Blankets, which look like mini croissants stuffed with ham and cheese.
Local canines seem to know this place is meant for them. Lindsay says she often sees dogs pulling their owners around the corner to reach the shop quicker. One Australian shepherd will bark if they take too long ringing up the order or talking with the owner—delaying snack time. A dog named Casper has been known to stand up, with his front paws on the bakery case, to get a closer look at the Pupcake assortment. And you can be sure there’s slobber involved because the drool-worthy treats look good enough for even a person to eat.
In fact, all of the homemade dog food is prepared with human-grade ingredients. “People can eat our food and treats if they want, but there’s no salt or sugar added, so it might not taste very good,” Charlotte says.
The shop also sells grain-and-potato-free Great Life kibble and canned food. The owners’ focus on gluten-free food stems from one of their dogs, Kona, who is gluten intolerant. When thinking about opening a business, the duo decided to combine their love of dogs with Lindsay’s passion for baking and health. Creating natural food for dogs seemed a perfect fit. “It seemed like the town was calling for it,” Lindsay says, adding that locals often tell them, “We really needed something like this.”
In addition to food, Naked Dog stocks luxury toys, designer leashes, collars and harnesses. There’s even a selection of small-dog leashes made of Swarovsky crystals strung on stainless steel wire. “Our doggy owners like their bling,” Charlotte says.
Other favorites include Dog Diggin Designs’ plush chew toys—Chewy Vuiton purses, Skinny Dog margarita bottles and more. “The Furrari bed is always very popular,” Lindsay says. “They’ll ask to ‘test drive it.’ ” The store also offers pet-themed cards, jewelry and art by Dean Russo of New York, who creates colorful portraits of different dog breeds. “[The shop] is for people who have dogs, for people who know people who have dogs and people who have ever seen a dog,” Charlotte says.
Another Laguna pet boutique, Anything Canine, offers a wide variety of doggy fashions, toys and accessories as well as grooming services at the “spa.” The shop hosts trunk shows and carries all manner of chic canine couture by designers like Linda Higgins, Susan Lanci and Jake Dynnis as well as stylish collars, leashes, dog beds, bowls and carriers. Upstairs, in the Elite Services Lounge, the concierge provides a personalized shopping experience for pet parents.
With so many canine-friendly amenities in Laguna, from posh pet boutiques to restaurants accommodating those of the furry persuasion and an abundance of places for outdoor frolicking, it seems this town is going to the dogs—and we wouldn’t have it any other way.