The Call of the Wild
NERVOUSNESS THE NIGHT BEFORE THE FIRST DAY OF SUMMER CAMP IS NATURAL. NO, I’m not talking about the children, but the parents.
"Did I pack a warm enough sweater for little Ben?"
"Will Dolly’s counselor be responsible?"
"How difficult will it be for Ben to make friends? He’s so much smaller than the others!"
How different would it be if you could go along to summer camp, too? And what if your little camper is covered in fur, wags a tail when she’s happy, and has canine teeth long enough to puncture a watermelon?
Camp ain’t just for kids anymore. More and more human dog parents are opting to send their pets to camp-and then going right along with them. They’re experiencing the same rush of pride and anxiety parents have enjoyed for decades as they witness their loved one’s first exposure to the great outdoors and a mob of exuberant, unleashed playmates.
Dog camp is a great way to de-stress, meet like-minded people, bond with your fourlegged best friend, and experiment with new canine sports. And who knows? You may even be able to help a charity along the way.
"If you love dogs…it’s just really great to be with other people who feel the same way as you, " says Alysa Slay, the co-director and co-founder of Camp Dogwood. Camp Dogwood is held twice a year, for four days and three nights, in the small community of Ingleside, Illinois, driving distance from Chicago. Along with her business partner and long-time friend, Dave Eisendrath, the accredited child psychologist has been running Dogwood successfully since 2001. Since then, they’ve more than doubled the number of participants.
Some dog camps are aimed at star canine athletes, but Dogwood is geared towards family pets and "strengthening your relationship with your dog." The camp offers beginner dogs and their handlers an introduction to popular canine activities. Each day at camp is broken into sections, much like a school day’s periods. In each section, anywhere from five to seven activities are scheduled. Options may include agility, flyball, herding, tracking, lure coursing, obedience, freestyle dancing, and water retrieval. There are also more humancentric possibilities, such as seminars on canine nutrition and canine photography, and even volleyball and scrapbooking.
While pets with pronounced aggression problems wouldn’t be able to attend camp, Camp Dogwood recognizes that different dogs have different personalities, and not all canines are comfortable roughhousing with strangers. The camp has an "orange bandana" program: dogs that need more personal space, whether because of old age, temperament, or infirm health, sport the distinctive neckwear to warn other campers to keep their distance.
Camp Dogwood also makes a community commitment each session. They hold a silent auction and the proceeds are donated to a worthy charity.
Slay explains that, as the years have progressed, they’ve been doing "more and more for the humans." Making s’mores around a campfire brings back memories from childhood for many people, she says, and during the first night’s orientation, an effort is made to break into small groups so that campers can get to know each other.
Susan Knapp has been to every Dogwood session since the camp’s inception, save one. She was sick of the discrimination and funny looks she suffered living in a big city with dogs.
"I just wanted to go to a place that was about me and my dogs," she says. Her favourite camp activity is herding. Seeing her city dogs’ instincts kick in was an eye-opening experience. She felt like she was "stepping into" her dogs’ world.
Dog camps and dog adventure vacations are a growth industry. When Kathryn Howell and her husband Eren took their dog, Jesse, on a canoe trip, it occurred to them that other dog owners might enjoy a dog camping experience as well. After testing the idea on friends, they founded Dog Paddling Adventures (DPA), based in the Toronto area. That was six years ago. Between camping, day hikes, dog-related seminars, and other activities, DPA is now serving in excess of 800 clients each year in all four seasons.
DPA provides adventure camping for dog families, where likeminded people can enjoy being outside with their pets. Their longest trips involve canoeing into Ontario’s massive provincial park, Algonquin. Dogs are off-leash in the wilderness for six days. When asked what separates DPA from the competition, Howell answers simply: "There isn’t really competition."
Maybe not in Ontario. But other outfitters in North America are barking up the same tree. Colorado Canines Adventure Trips takes small groups of people on rafting and hiking trips with their dogs. And if the sky’s the limit in destination and in price, why not get in touch with Mountain Dogs, also in Colorado? This outfit will take two people and their dog on an overnight hiking excursion, traveling from Aspen to Crested Butte. Trekkers are accompanied by an experienced guide as well as a veterinary technician, just in case Fido should need medical attention en route. The hike is broken up with a catered light lunch. Overnight accommodations are in a well-appointed Western-style B&B. After a nice breakfast in the morning participants are flown back to Aspen in a private turbo prop airplane. At $6,000, however, this kind of personalized service doesn’t come cheap.
For pampering at a lower price point, Blue Sky Dogs in New York City offers day and weekend excursions and provides custom travel planning. Past day trips have included drives to wineries, hikes, and river cruises, while for weekend jaunts, Blue Sky will boo an entire dog-friendly inn or B&B for their clients. They’re even looking at arranging a murder mystery weekend. Colonel Mustard in the kennel with the choke chain, perhaps?
Border Collie owner Wendy Donoghue is less interested in sleuthing than in giving her high-octane, intelligent dogs the chance to escape to the country once a year.
She’s so committed to holidaying with her pets, she has attended three different dog camps. She went to the first one, Camp Gone to the Dogs, for five years. This Vermont camp is one of the oldest, having been in operation for 17 years. Director Jeanne Richter says the breadth of activity options, including leash making and dog pawtraits-paintings made by your pooch-plus the "allstar" staff, are what make her camp special. It doesn’t hurt, she adds, that "Vermont is a beautiful state" with "gorgeous scenery."
Donoghue also went to a camp in Pennsylvania for four years. And most recently, for a week each July, she’s been attending Canine Country Camp in upstate New York.
"…[Canine Country Camp] is just like Nirvana-for me and the dogs," she says.
When they pull up to Glen Highland Farm, where the camp takes place, the dogs know where they are immediately. "It’s the kind of place that you drive in, you take the collar and the leash off, and they never see a collar or leash for six days."
Glen Highland Farm and the camp are labours of love for Lillie Goodrich and her husband, John Andersen. The former big-city businesspeople sold off their home in Connecticut to pursue their passion: rescuing Border Collies. Canine Country, which runs for two, one-week sessions each July, is a fundraiser for their mission.
People from all over come to the "funny little farm town" of Morris, says Goodrich, to stay at the 175-acre Glen Highland Farm and "have a blast." The camp only hosts 30 to 35 people and about 45 dogs in each session. Attendees can camp or park their RVs on site, or they can make arrangements with neighbouring B&Bs or motels.
High-intensity activities are held in the morning and later afternoon, while lectures run during the heat of the midday. Some people pack their week full, while others prefer t unwind. They even had a honeymooning couple once. "We didn’t see a lot of them," says Goodrich.
The camp’s off-leash policy is simple: no limits. With all the dogs around, pups aren’t likely to stray too far. It’s "a big party at the farm," says Goodrich, "and the dogs know where the action is."
A whole week on a large, country property with no leashes or collars. "It’s a dog paradise," says Goodrich. Sounds like a good description of any holiday where dogs get to enjoy their three favourite things: other dogs, the outdoors, and the humans they love.■
Eric Sparling has written for The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Nuvo, ModernDog and numerous other publications.