Camps for dogs, and their humans

You can go swimming with your dog or even makes arts and crafts with those cute pawprints.

Associated Press
Published May 16, 2007

Swimming. Crafts. Campfire stories. Must be summer camp!

The picture is completely familiar - except that it's a poodle doing the swimming. And aren't those dachshunds and terriers sitting around the campfire?

That's right, it's camp for canines. But not just for the pups - for their people, too.

"We have people call and say "We're going away for a week, can we drop off our dog?" says Lory Kohlmoos, director of Camp Winnaribbun on Lake Tahoe in California.

The answer is no - no more than you'd go to tennis camp and drop off your racket and leave. These camps are geared toward both relaxation and education, and it takes both dog and dog owner to make it work.

"The person who comes to camp wants to be with their dog on vacation. It's more fun to be away with their dog than without their dog," says Jeanne Richter, director of Camp Gone to the Dogs, which holds sessions in Stowe and Marlboro, Vt. "It's meant for you to have a great bonding experience with your pet."

Sessions for this summer are just filling up. For around $1,000 to $1,425, depending on your accommodations, you and your pooch can have the week of your lives, the camps promise.

The concept may seem a bit eccentric to some people. Camper Vicky Rambow of Mar Vista, Calif., who attends Camp Winnaribbun with Sadie, an 11 1/2-year-old brindle mixed breed, tells of a coworker who "would tease me by saying to people that I went to dog camp — like my hidden secret was being let out."

But, as Kohlmoos says, "So many people want to travel with their dogs. The venues where you can do that comfortably are few. Dogs aren't always welcome."

Dogs aren't just welcome at these kind of camps — they're the stars. There's a wide variety of canine activities, from obedience to Frisbee to sports you've probably never heard of — lure coursing, agility, flyball — and even sheepherding. (For the record, lure coursing involves chasing a mechanically operated lure to simulate a game chase, and flyball is a sort of dog relay race.)

But you don't need to be an expert dog trainer. Classes are geared to all levels of ability.

"We even start at intro, which is lower than beginner. Someone who has no experience can absolutely go to camp and have a wonderful time," Richter says.

And of course, like any summer camp, it's not just about the outdoor sports. There's also the arts and crafts.

"One of our most popular is the doggie arts class - pawprints or nose prints of your dogs," says Kohlmoos. And don't forget "storytelling around the campfire, and we have a writing class where we write things related to dogs."

Accommodations at the camps range from rustic cabins at Camp Winnaribbun to an upscale inn for for the September session at Camp Gone to the Dogs.

But both directors make a point of one big difference from your childhood memories: "We have fabulous food, freshly prepared on site every day," says Richter. Camp Winnaribbun also takes pride in their meals. "We have people who say 'We were planning to eat away from camp' and then they don't because it's so good."

Aside from the activities and the enjoyment of the outdoors, campers and staff alike agree, people come for the camaraderie with fellow dog lovers.

"People network - a lot of them become friends and meet throughout out the year," says Kohlmoos.

"I have made some long-lasting friendships with other people," says camper Rambow. "And Lory, who runs the camp, has taught me a lot of little life lessons in a way only Lory seems to be able to do!"

Dog camps may not be for everyone. But they must be doing something right: both camps report very high rates of return visits. Richter says that for her September camp, where about 110 number of campers attend, the return rate is 85%.

"We have some people who have come from the onset, and this is our 13th year," says Kohlmoos. "The only bad comment we've ever heard about camp is that it's too short."

One of the advantages of camp is that it allows you to try out specialized activities with your dog that you might not have access to at home - herding, therapy dog certification, advanced classes in obedience.

But both camp directors emphasize that it's not like spending a week at school.

While the list of activities may seem intimidating, "Camp is like a fine restuarant with a large menu, you pick and choose," says Kohlmoos. "Some people sit under a tree and read a book. Or they could be doing something every hour."

Camper Rambow, a court reporter, even says it's like her 'spa week' - she went not only for her dog, but "because it was great quality time for myself."

"You can do as much as you want, or as little. You can just sit around and pet your dog," says Richter.

The pups enjoy the lazy moments, too. Rambow's dog Sadie's favorite activity is to "sit in the living room/dining room area on a couch and smell the smells from the kitchen."

"It's very informal and very relaxed. Our goal is really to provide a vacation," Kohlmoos says. "Our concept here is to be in the moment and enjoy to the fullest. Your dogs take you by the paw and brings you back to being a child."

For more information, you can visit http://camp-gone-tothe-dogs.com or http://campw.com/.