Frustrations rise after 9 year old girl attacked by unleashed dog in Chicago: ‘She was traumatized’

CHICAGO — Nine-year-old Natalie Sieracki spent her sister’s softball game cartwheeling on the grass in Horner Park Saturday evening. She didn’t notice the large, unleashed dog nearby until it attacked her.

When she broke away from the animal, she raced toward her parents in the bleachers, screaming and crying. Her back was covered in bite marks. Blood gushed from her leg.

“She was traumatized,” her mom, Marci Sieracki, recalled Tuesday. “She was writhing in pain. It was just awful.”

The attack has left some residents with mounting frustrations toward unleashed dogs in public. Just a few hundred feet from the attack is a gated, 25,000-square-foot designated dog park.

“There’s no reason this should have happened,” Sieracki said. “A kid should be able to go play on the grass and do cartwheels and not have to worry about being attacked by dogs.”

Residents across the city have fought for dog park access in recent years, with virtually no green space otherwise accessible to unleashed animals, and today, the Chicago Park District maintains more than 30 dog parks for unleashed pets.

The Horner Park Dog Park, which was first enclosed in 2018, was made possible by a $250,000 fundraising campaign. It features landscaping, turf, a water feature and separate area designated for small breeds.

Outside of “dog-friendly areas,” animals are required by law to be restrained. Dog owners who violate leash laws are subject to a $300 fine, according to the city’s municipal code. If the violation results in “severe injury” to another person, the fine could run up to $10,000.

Although dog bites happen, they rarely make headlines in Chicago. A man was fatally mauled by dogs on the far South Side in 2022. In 2012, a jogger was critically injured by two pit bulls in Rainbow Beach Park.

At Horner Park on Saturday, the dog owner stayed at the scene and was issued a citation, according to Chicago police. It’s unclear how often leash laws are enforced.

“The Park District does not have authority to issue citations, and as such, relies on the authorities that do have this capacity to assist with compliance of off-leash laws,” a Park District spokesperson said in a statement.

Natalie stayed at Lurie Children’s Hospital for five hours as doctors treated her wounds. She has doctor’s appointments scheduled throughout the week.

For the first two nights after the attack, she could only fall asleep beside her parents.

“She said, ‘Every time I close my eyes, I just picture the dog attacking,’” Sieracki said. “We just keep telling her how brave she’s been.”

Weeks prior to the attack, Lincoln Square resident Melody Cross had been emailing local officials her concerns about unleashed dogs. She said she was met with indifference.

Cross said that the number of unleashed dogs in parks has seemingly grown since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The audacity and the brazenness of it since that period has increased,” Cross said. “They’re just letting their dogs run free.”

Cross knows the Sieracki family through her daughters’ softball team and Girl Scout troop. When she heard about the attack on Natalie, she was furious. She couldn’t believe someone let a dog roam unleashed near a children’s ballgame.

“I’m just so angry that people believe that they can break the law like this, and that their dog is ‘just friendly,’” Cross said. “It infuriates me, and it’s scary.”

Other residents also described dozens of unleashed dogs in Horner Park, particularly in the early morning and late evening.

At Horner Park late Wednesday morning, only two dogs were inside the designated dog park. Several owners had taken their dogs off leash in the grassy field to play fetch. The park’s winding path was dotted with joggers and pedestrians as the sun beat down.

Adan Sandoval threw a tennis ball across the grass for his husky, Ziggy. He almost always unleashes Ziggy at the park, but no one has ever approached him with concerns.

“I think, generally, people know their dogs,” Sandoval said as Ziggy bounded past him. “I’m not too concerned.”

Across the field, Meher Ali Owens tossed a ball for her terrier. She goes to Horner Park every morning with her pup — the designated dog park is packed during peak morning times, she said.

“This is such a wide open space,” Owens said, gesturing to the field. “And the police don’t enforce it, so it doesn’t feel like breaking the rules.”

Adjacent from Horner Park sits Found Chicago Boarding & Training Center. Owner Fabian Romo-Vargas sees the crowd of unleashed dogs every morning from the building’s second-floor window. He’s never heard of an owner being issued a ticket.

His advice? “Just don’t do it,” he said. “You need to truly invest in the dog and make sure that the dog has conditioned behaviors.”

Keeping a dog off leash can also pose a risk if they run off or are approached by another animal, he said. And, leashes aren’t a substitute for training. Even in dog parks, animals should be able to heed to their owner’s commands, according to Romo-Vargas.

“If you have a dog in Chicago, you have to train it, just because it’s a busy city environment,” Romo-Vargas said. “If your dog is not trained, don’t take it off leash, anywhere.”

One woman, who only gave her first name, Hannah, watched her toddler drink from a water fountain as she clutched her labrador’s leash. She never unleashes her lab in parks, she said.

“Animals are unpredictable, and for the safety of her, for the safety of others, I prefer to keep her leashed up,” Hannah said. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t do it.”

Meanwhile, Natalie’s wounds are still open as they heal. The dog’s vaccinations were up-to-date, which helped protect her from infection. She went back to her first full day of school Tuesday.

But Sieracki is still frustrated. To her, the attack was entirely preventable.

“Follow the law. Put your dog on a leash,” Sieracki said. “There are kids and adults that are afraid of dogs, and there’s a risk of horrible things like this happening.”