Off-Season Dog Days at the Southern New Jersey Shore
It was early October and I had just gotten tubed on a terrific wave on my body board and was careening recklessly toward shore when something in the wave’s foamy liquid froth turned solid, the same creamy color as the wave but with black flecks. Before I could make heads or tails of what was happening, that solid form smushed its face into mine and licked me profusely. It wasn’t a seal and it certainly wasn’t a shark but it was soft and silky.
After recovering from the strange liquid-to-solid encounter, I let out a joyous laugh: My impact came in the form of a laptop-sized cream-colored pug with delicate Audrey Hepburn markings on his jowls and eyes.
“Sorry about that,” said a man standing nearby, with two other pugs tethered to one of those length-adjusting retractable leashes. “He loves to do that. The beach and the ocean drive him nuts.” Apparently, he had managed to slip off his leash making a licit pleasure illicit.
This is precisely why I love this off-season time of year—fall to winter to early spring—at the Jersey Shore. In Ocean City, New Jersey, the entire summer has passed with great days on the beach and promenades on the Boardwalk, both places where dogs have been banned. They are never allowed, any time of year, on the Boardwalk, but thankfully, once we get past September 30, dogs can come back to all the beaches and stay there and romp and play and shiver with delight until the end of May.
The beaches are still light and sun filled, warm and inviting but there are fewer people and fewer rules. There is more room for wave riding and there are more dogs. I often take my walks on the beach just for the hoped-for encounter with the dogs and their special vein of joy.
In summer, such canine beach happiness is possible on one beach. Called Dog Beach by locals, it is a beach past the island’s north end, on the bay side end of the Longport Bridge, and is heaven-sent for people and dogs alike who can’t imagine being at the beach without each other. As people lounge, dogs off their leashes dive into the water, run along the beach, or loll beside their human companion’s beach chair on their own beach towel. Nearby are the vast marshes—the ocean’s nursery—where turtles, water birds, fish and crab hatch and nourish their young. Black skimmers release a sultry caw-caw as they fly overhead, lowering the longer lower point of their red and black beak into the surface of the salty water, skimming and scooping up dinner. They don’t mind the dogs and the dogs don’t mind them. People who come here have trained their dogs well and it is truly a peaceable kingdom. The birds’ nesting areas are fenced off and protected.
And in the off-season, this splendor is open at all the beaches on Ocean City. The rules are simple:
- Keep your dog on a leash
- Pick up after him or her and place any trash in the trash and recycling cans at the beach entrances (and if you see any other trash, pick that up too and place it in the cans!)
- Don’t disturb the feeding water birds, especially the threatened Piping Plovers: Their nests tend to be in the dunes and they feed at the water’s edge, which means passersby travel on the beach between their nesting grounds and their feeding. Not disturbing their feeding—not chasing them—and staying out of their nesting grounds goes a long way to protecting endangered creatures and habitat.
- Enjoy this amazing natural force for human and dog alike where earth meets water
Beyond the beach, there is also a dog park at the south end of Ocean City, at 45th Street and Haven Avenue. It’s an enclosed and safe place to let dogs off the leash and let them run and play with other dogs. Annual fees run at $30 for Cape May County residents and $40 for non-county residents and include a gate card that magnetically opens the locked gates. All dogs have to be current in their rabies shots, with a certificate from a veterinarian, and also possess a dog license issued by any municipality, usually the one where the dog resides most of the year. As a shorter-term visitor, if you have these two key items in place, you can pay $10 for a one-week pass to the park.
Inside the dog park, there are three areas: one for small dogs (under 35 pounds), one for large dogs (over 35 pounds—35 pound dogs can go on either side), and a dog run open to all sizes. The surface is beach sand and there is a small pool.
There is also a plethora of off-season events in Ocean City for dogs and dog lovers:
- The Saturday after tax day in April kicks off the Doodah Parade where some 600-plus Bassett hounds and their human companions parade from 6th Street to the Music Pier on the Boardwalk. They can be seen gathering on the Tabernacle grounds (between 5th and 6th Streets and Asbury and Wesley Avenues).
- Barks on the Boards, a fundraiser in late May sponsored by and benefiting the Ocean City Humane Society allows fanfare, prizes, and parading on the Boardwalk, one of two times of year dogs are allowed on the planks.
- Easter weekend is celebrated with the Best Bonnets canine fashion show on Saturday morning where the best-dressed dogs compete for awards.
- Early to mid-December brings Santa Paws to town, at the Ocean City Humane Society (on Shelter Road), where dogs get to sit on, or near, Santa’s lap and have their photo taken. Proceeds benefit the shelter.
- And the event of events, splashed across town from August to October, is the Dog of the Year contest, which supports the dog park. Several dogs compete for this award and residents and visitors alike can cast their vote by placing any amount of money in the display box for the dog of their choice (displays are around town but the two most prominent are in front of a wonderful dog accessories store, Animal House, at 714 Asbury Avenue, and in front of the Music Pier on the Boardwalk, between 8th and 9th Streets.
The winning dog is crowned at Ocean City’s Port-of-Call Hotel at the end of October. The winner and runners up become a part of a local doggie calendar for the next year.
Author: Beebe Bahrami (www.BeebesFeast.com) is a widely published writer and cultural anthropologist who specializes in travel, food and wine, spirituality, outdoors adventures, and cross-cultural writing, particularly on France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.
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