It started casually about five years ago, when a few greyhound lovers called some of their friends and proposed an outing with their pets at Dewey Beach, Del. From that impromptu gathering of about 50 owners and 65 greyhounds, the annual event has grown into a bit of a mecca for greyhounds and the people who love them.

The gathering, called Greyhounds Reach the Beach, is nothing to sniff at. Earlier this month, about 1,000 people from across the United States, England, Wales, Canada and Spain brought 1,200 greyhounds to the beach.

Dog owners say they like the gathering, scheduled for a long weekend at the end of the season, because Dewey Beach is dog-friendly--probably because the owners pick up whatever their dogs leave behind.

Each day begins with a group dog walk along the beach. Because greyhounds tend to be very social, the walks can turn into a tangle of people, dogs and leashes.

The greyhound owners not only get a chance to compare notes and talk about their pets, they also can attend organized seminars throughout the weekend. Topics this year included "Reiki Massage for Your Greyhound." It was a hands-on healing seminar for dogs, in which the therapist placed her hands on a dog and told the owner what the dog was feeling.

Around a big bonfire on Saturday, participants held a memorial service for departed greyhound friends. On Sunday morning, a Unitarian priest conducted a blessing of the hounds on the beach.

What next? The greyhound owners are shooting for 2,000 greyhounds when they meet in Dewey in 2000.

CAPTION: Ralph Brooker, of Alexandria, above, runs with his greyhounds on the beach. Brooker, a first-timer at the gathering, exercised while his wife and a friend did some outlet shopping. At right, the Rev. Mary Teibout leads the annual blessing of the hounds. Below, Cougar, in glasses, and Comet, both owned by Marianne Skiba, of Massachusetts, wait for their blessing.

CAPTION: Donna Palumbo, of Fairfax, above, coaxes a greyhound to take a cracker from her mouth. The dog is not interested. Below, Allison Pomerantz, 5, of Severn, urges her dog, Micha, to get into the water, but Micha doesn't seem to want to get wet.

CAPTION: At left, greyhounds walk onto the beach for the blessing of the hounds. Above, Zac Svenja, of Fairfax County, sleeps on the beach with his dogs, Orbit and Ellipse. Svenja says he likes greyhounds because they are bred for health and gentleness, not looks.