WILDWOOD - More of Wildwood's beachfront will be going to the dogs this summer.
The city's famous three-year- old dog beach - that last year ranked second in a national poll of favorite canine-friendly U.S. beaches - will be expanded and moved slightly south on the oceanfront when it re-opens sometime in June.
Wildwood - with its famous half-mile wide strand - is one of only a handful along the New Jersey Shore that do not charge a fee to access the beachfront. The dog beach will also remain free.
"Over the course of just couple of years, we saw our dog beach become one of the most popular places on the East Coast to come and enjoy a day at the beach with your dog," said Wildwood City Commissioner Pete Byron of Poplar Avenue site. "We knew we had to expand."
From Labor Day to Memorial Day, the Jersey Shore can be a dog-walker's paradise, but finding actual beaches designated for canines during the summer, where one can sit on the beach or swim in the ocean with their pet - is still rare.
In the world of "best-of" competitions, Wildwood's dog beach ended up second behind Lake Michigan's Montrose Dog Beach in Chicago, but ahead of locales from California to Florida, according to the USAToday poll.
The number of off-leash dog beaches and parks has more than doubled in the U.S. over the past decade - from about less than 300 in 2007 to more 600 now - making it the fastest growing park segment in the country, according to the Trust for Public Land.
Despite the accolades for Wildwood's designation, some boardwalk merchants early on feared the beach might hurt their business.
"I was upset at first because I worried it would impact business in some way. But then we soon realized the dog beach was actually drawing more people to this section of the boardwalk," said Soltan Moy, manager of the Gifts & More, a store that ultimately brought in a line of dog-related gift items - t-shirts, key rings, shot glasses and other items.
Others caught on to the canine craze right away.
"We have a dog-friendly outdoor dining area and we are planning a "Yappy Hour" this summer. It's been great for business," said E.J. Dougherty, who owns a nearby restaurant and bar called Captain Jack's and a Stewart's Root Beer stand. "We embraced the idea of the dog beach immediately. People love their pets and more people want to travel with them when they do on vacation."
So in a fashion typical to Wildwood - a Cape May County town with its own decidedly kitschy vibe celebrated and purveyed to tourists in its 1950's and 1960s Doo-Wop style architecture, music and activities - the Poplar Avenue dog beach featured a two-story tall red fire hydrant to welcome man's best friend.
The fenced-in area at Poplar Avenue and the Boardwalk, encompassed about a city-block and allowed pups under the supervision of their owners to run freely and frolic in the surf. That location was closed as of May 1 to allow city public works crews to begin dismantling the fencing and other infrastructure for the move.
The new dog beach - that will also include the giant hydrant - will be located about a block away on the oceanfront between Maple and Glenview Avenues, and will take up nearly two blocks, Byron said.
Up and down the Jersey Shore - and across the U.S. - animal-friendly attractions like Wildwood's dog beach have become a trend because so many pet owners want to go to the beach with their four-legged friends, according to BringFido.com, a travel directory that lists pet friendly hotels, restaurants, activities and travel destinations.
BringFido and other sites give two paws up to N.J. places like Island Beach State Park near Seaside Park in Ocean County, where for a $10 park admission fee, dogs are permitted on a leash six-foot long or less just about anywhere in the park, except on the lifeguarded swimming beaches or the Spizzle Creek Bird Trail.
In Brigantine, Atlantic County, leashed dogs are allowed on the city's north end beaches year around. In summer, a beach badge is required for the humans who accompany Rover.
Another Atlantic County spot known as the Longport Dog Beach - although it is actually in Egg Harbor Township - welcomes dogs for a run on the sand or a dip in the water for free at the foot of the Ocean Drive Bridge and Route 152.
In Ocean City, Cape May County, dogs are never permitted on the oceanfront beaches during the summer, but they are always welcome to roam off-leash at the Ocean City Dog Park, a free, 42,000 square foot sandy area at 45th and Haven Avenue.