LOS ANGELES -- When Craig Haverstick approaches the beach with his dog in tow, Stanley instinctively knows he's in for a treat. His ears perk up and he starts sniffing the salty air.
"Chesapeake Bay retrievers are like plants, they need to be watered every now and then," Haverstick said of the 9-year-old he's been taking to the beach in San Diego weekly for eight years. "We have some great dog beaches. Dogs and people both drool over them."
Dog beaches account for a tiny fraction of the thousands of miles of U.S. shoreline, but they are treasured by pet owners and their pooches.
"Off-leash dog beaches are a canine's dream come true," said Lisa Porter, owner of Pet Hotels of America, a travel website that lists thousands of beaches and parks where dogs are allowed on leash or can run free.
Every beach has its own draw. San Diego offers three off-leash options: Fiesta Island in Mission Bay is great for swimming; Ocean Beach Dog Beach is good for dogs to play together; and Coronado's Dog Beach is described as magical.
Beaches where unleashed dogs are allowed complete freedom are typically fenced, offer drinking water and showers for dogs, bags to pick up dog feces and trash cans.
Dog lovers say the biggest problem is that there aren't enough beaches for their pets and parking is often scarce.
Efforts to create more pooch-friendly beaches, such as one that died in Santa Monica two years ago, have run into resistance from California State Parks.
Critics say letting beaches go to the dogs threatens species such as shore birds, jeopardizes the safety of visitors, ruins the experience for beachgoers and can pollute water and sand with poop and urine.
Fans who frequent the beaches say they provide a great playground for their hounds and can even be therapeutic.
When Carol Kearney first adopted Buddy, an abused 70-pound, 2-year-old Staffordshire terrier mix, he was afraid of noises and terrified of water.
"When he heard traffic, it was like he was trying to get out of his skin," Kearney said.
Letting him run on the beach less than a mile from her 14th floor home in a Coronado high-rise was the only way to calm him down.
Now he digs in the sand, chases his dog pals or swims through the waves to retrieve float toys.
Other top West Coast off-leash dog beaches recommended by Porter include Huntington Dog Beach in Huntington Beach, one of the best known dog surfing beaches in the world; Rosie's Dog Beach in Long Beach; Cannon Beach in Oregon; and Double Bluff Beach on Whidbey Island in Washington.
East Coast recommendations are Duck Beach in Outer Banks, N.C.; Bonita Beach Dog Park in Bonita Springs, Fla.; and Paw Park in South Brohard Beach, Fla.
Some beaches, such as Fisherman's Cove Conservation Area in Manasquan, N.J., require a leash. That law wasn't enforced until after Superstorm Sandy did a lot of damage and the county decided to start ticketing offenders, said Monmouth County Parks Manager Drew d'Apolito.
Similarly, Live Oak Beach in Santa Cruz County was known as a "don't ask, don't tell" beach until recently, said Ingrid Wander, who let Asia, her chocolate Labrador retriever, run free.
Wander got a $160 ticket in January.
She still takes Asia there at low tide. Wander walks, collects shells, takes photos of sea life and watches out for the law as Asia fetches balls in the water.