Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, is executive director of McPaws Regional Animal Shelter in McCall, Idaho.
Q&A with Ted Kerasote, author of Merle’s Door
January 31 2013
In 1991, while rafting Utah’s San Juan River, award-winning writer Ted Kerasote came upon the dog he would later immortalize in Merle’s Door. According to Kerasote, Merle, an adolescent stray who had been surviving on his own in the high desert, told him, You need a dog, and I’m it. It didn’t take Kerasote long to agree with him. Heartbroken after Merle died in 2004, Kerasote vowed to do all he could to ensure that his next dog— Pukka—would enjoy a long and healthy life from the very beginning. His quest began before Pukka was born— researching genetics and how to choose healthy parents, finding a breeder willing to rethink standard early vaccinations—and continued after Pukka came home, delving into quality-of-life concerns for all dogs, such as food, birth control and routine health care. Pukka’s Promise is the culmination of Kerasote’s extensive research. Bark contributing editor Rebecca Wallick recently spoke with Kerasote about some of his experiences and observations.
Bark: On your quest for longer-lived dogs, what were some of the more encouraging things you learned?
B: What did you find that disturbed you?
B: If someone wants a dog of a particular breed, what should they think about?
B: Of all aspects of canine care and companionship, are there things you feel are happening too slowly?
B: You spent a lot of time at shelters, investigating what makes some successful in becoming no-kill, while others can’t seem to reach that goal. What do you think makes the difference?
B: In Pukka’s Promise, you take on some big players in the dog world—breeders, veterinarians, dog-food and toy manufacturers. Are you concerned about their reactions?
B: What is the big take-away you want readers to get from Pukka’s Promise?
For the full interview, see The Bark, Issue 73, Feb–Apr 2013.
News: Guest Posts
January 7 2013
Recent news reports about house fires with dogs trapped inside are a keen reminder how valuable a pet oxygen mask can be to firefighting crews. Check if your local fire department has these tools, and if not, consider donating one to them. They're not expensive.
In Lima, Ohio, a house fire broke out the morning of January 3, 2013. An adult occupant escaped from an upstairs room, but the family dog Cola hid in the basement. Nearly fifteen minutes after firefighters started attacking the fire in the freezing cold, they discover the dog-apparently lifeless-and bring her upstairs and out onto the snow. Luckily, the Lima Fire Department had been the recipient of a gift: pet oxygen masks, made to fit the long snouts of dogs and other pets. Firefighters worked on Cola for nearly five minutes, giving her oxygen, until she started breathing again. Her emotional owner, anxiously watching nearby, cried tears of relief and gratitude.
The house fire was caught on video; toward the end, near the 16:00 minute mark, you can see the firefighters bringing Cola out of the house and laying her on the snow to start resuscitation efforts. Unfortunately the video does not extend to her successful recovery.
Nearby Delphos Animal Hospital had donated the pet oxygen masks to the Lima Fire Department just a week earlier. According to news reports, they plan to donate two more, soon.
Also on January 3rd, firefighters responding to a house fire in Forth Worth discovered two dogs inside. One was alright, but the other was unresponsive. Using an oxygen mask, the firefighters were able to revive the dog.
The fire department's spokesperson noted that firefighters attempt animal rescues several times a year, and that some of their trucks are outfitted with animal oxygen masks. Otherwise, they use those made for humans.
Wouldn't it be nice if all fire trucks and other first responders were equipped with animal oxygen masks?
News: Guest Posts
December 2 2012
Final exams at college are always stressful. You’re studying far into the wee hours, cramming facts and formulas into your tired brain, worrying about grades, neglecting your nutrition, sleep and exercise needs, and counting the days until your last exam is done and you can go home. Add to all of that stress the fact that you’re away from the comforts of home, including your beloved family pet.
Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has come up with a creative solution for some of its students: Puppy Room. As the Dalhousie Student Union Facebook page poster says, “Yup, it’s a room full of puppies.”
Or more accurately, the students will hang out with some certified therapy dogs, coordinated by the local chapter of Therapeutic Paws of Canada. That program places therapy dogs with people suffering from high blood pressure, depression and loneliness.
Now they can add final exam-related stress to that list.
As soon as the Student Union posted about the idea on Facebook, it went viral. The therapy dogs will be on campus for several hours on three separate days during exam week. All of the dogs are at least a year old, so while they might not technically be puppies, I doubt any of the students will care.
My thought? Other universities and colleges should jump on this wagon. They could use therapy dogs, or better yet connect with local shelters which might actually have some real puppies that could use the socializing and play time with the students. The puppies gain people skills; the students do better (we hope) on their exams. A big win-win.
News: Guest Posts
October 23 2012
Daylight is quickly disappearing as we head into the long months of winter. When you live in the northern part of the country, the days eventually become so short that exercising our dogs in the dark is impossible to avoid. Add rain to the darkness, and something as simple as a stroll with our dogs becomes downright dangerous along city and rural streets, drivers barely able to see the road let alone you and your dog on the shoulder.
Lights—for your dog and you—make you more visible. There are several lights that attach to collars and harnesses on the market. Some flash, some strobe. There are entire collars that light up as well.
If you have a northern breed dog, or any dog with a very thick and long coat, you know that lights don’t work well for you. They get lost in all that fur. And drivers are often confused by small lights (if they notice them at all), not sure if they’re coming from a bicycle, a walker, or something else.
My solution? A reflective vest for my dogs, much like vests worn by joggers. I discovered VizVest Dog Safety Vest a few years ago, and love them. I’ve never found a better vest for dogs, and I’ve tried a few. VizVests are easy to put on your dog. Their broad overlapping Velcro closures across the back make them easily adjustable. They actually fit and are comfortable for your dog to wear—walking, or running. The vest covers the entire torso, so that, from the side, your dog literally lights up like a holiday tree in a car’s headlights or another walker’s flashlight. The vest also covers the chest, so that there’s a better chance of light reflecting on the vest from the head-on position.
Added bonus: the bright yellow color works well in daylight, for situations where you want your dog to be visible to you or others from a distance (like when I take my Alaskan Malamutes into Idaho forests, where I don’t want them mistaken for wolves).
The vest comes in small, medium and large. Each has lots of adjustment designed into it. The large size is perfect for my Malamutes. The medium size fits my 45 lb Aussie.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog-specific GPS takes the worry out of exploring
October 22 2012
Early one morning as I was running trails with my Aussie Finn MacCool and my friend Suzanne, the three of us rounded a bend and were greeted by a woman who said the words I always dread hearing: “Have you seen a dog?” We were in the heart of Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park outside of Seattle, a 3,100-acre protected area with 36 miles of trails winding throughout its thickly wooded and hilly landscape. The dog could be anywhere.
As we gathered details from the woman — the dog’s name (Boone) and description, if he was tagged with current contact info, where he was last seen, where her car was parked — Finn sat patiently beside me. Around his neck was a bright neon-orange collar with an antenna extending from it. It made him look kind of like an enormous bug.
Finn was sporting a Garmin DC 40 dog-tracking collar, which uses GPS to transmit information to my Garmin Astro 320. This snappy bit of technology lets me know where Finn is, whether he’s moving or stationary and, if moving, which direction and how fast — all via an on-screen display. While I didn’t pile guilt on top of the poor woman’s distress, I thought to myself, If Boone had been wearing one of these, she’d know exactly where he was.
Initially, the Astro seemed like just a really cool, high-tech toy, similar to the gadgets many of my running friends wear on their wrists to track their own mileage. Faced with the lost-Boone scenario, though, I realized its broader and more critical value for those of us who take our unleashed dogs out into the big world: being able to find them quickly if they become separated from us. Whether you’ve had your dog for years and she normally stays close, or you’ve recently added a new dog to your household and aren’t sure how he’ll react off leash, this “toy” can prevent hours, even days, of misery.
GPS-enabled dog-tracking devices aren’t new; there are several types on the market, all designed to do one straightforward thing: help you find your lost dog. But with most of those products, you pay a monthly fee (roughly $15, depending on the product) to access the GPS signal, and the only information you’re given is where your dog is at that specific moment.
The Garmin Astro 320, on the other hand, will track both you and your dog (up to 10 dogs, actually), recording tons of fun data along the way. It logs distance, speed, stopping time, elevation change and map coordinates — as well as a number of other optional variables that you can program in — all while creating a track, or map, of your movements. You can toggle back and forth between your own information and your dog’s while the two of you are out walking, hiking, horseback riding or cycling (you, not the dog), or running. Then, after saving the tracks, you can upload them to your home computer and view them either in one of Garmin’s programs or in another, such as Google Earth (which is free). The Astro 320 retails for $599, but you never pay a monthly fee for GPS signal access. In three years of use, the unit will pay for itself over the other GPS tracking options.
The Astro is also more reliable and accurate than smartphone GPS apps, which rely on a combination of cell towers and satellites. Garmin Astro’s 12 parallel channel receivers quickly lock onto satellites, and they maintain those locks even in dense foliage or urban settings with tall buildings. Also, smartphone GPS apps have an accuracy of about 50 feet, while the Astro’s is generally accurate to within three feet. I tested this out while running with a friend; he used his smartphone app and I used the Astro. My distance data closely matched the Green Trails topographic map of our route; my friend’s data was off (short) by about 20 percent. (Besides, the smartphone app can’t track your dog.)
Back to the question I really wanted answered: How far does Finn actually travel? I was surprised to learn that he typically runs only 10 to 20 percent more than I do, which was much less than I expected. Apparently, training him to stay close has been successful. But I was even more surprised by the difference in our respective elevation gains. I’ve always joked that Finn is part gazelle, and it turns out I might be right. According to his GPS data, on a run during which I cover 6.7 miles with 1,399 feet of elevation gain, Finn covers 9.0 miles with 5,651 feet of elevation.
The brain of the device — the GPS receiver — is housed in a small black box from which a long, thin VHF antenna extends and transmits signals to the Astro hand receiver. The antenna curves with the collar so that it’s positioned above the dog’s neck. Finn, a small Aussie, weighs about 45 pounds, but the collar and its antenna don’t bother him or slow him down as he crashes through thick undergrowth in enthusiastic pursuit of ever-elusive squirrels and chipmunks. He associates the collar with fun!
The Astro 320 is designed for use with hunting dogs, and it took me a little while to get used to the terminology. For example, when I start a run, I select “New Hunt” and mark the starting point as “Truck” (although I could change that if I wanted to take the time). The factory default settings include various alarms to let you know if, for example, your dog has stopped moving; the first time I used the Astro with Finn, the only settings change I made was to customize it with his name. Another bit of hunting terminology came up after a run with friends, as we returned to our cars. My well-trained friends always offer treats to the dogs in the group. Hearing a chirping alarm on my Astro, I looked at the screen. It said, “Finn MacCool has treed his quarry!” Indeed: His quarry was Tracy, who was holding out a treat!
“When the GPS has said ‘Pukka has treed quarry,’ I’ve been able to bike over to where he is and spy on him: lying on a friend’s deck waiting for them to come out and play fetch; over at Buck’s house, taking a snooze; or at the Kelly Café, hoping for a handout from the tourists.” (Ted’s new book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, is due out February 2013.)
While my passion is trail running, there are many uses for GPS with dogs — driving to and touring new places, geocaching, even kayaking, for example. Cecil Moore, who works for Garmin and cheerfully answered all my questions, said he once put the Astro GPS collar on his small dog Jack at the start of a 5K race and handed the receiver to his wife. Because his family knew exactly when Cecil and Jack were nearing the finish line, they were able to jump in and run the last several yards together. He also uses it on family vacations to the Lake of the Ozarks State Park, a large area where dogs are typically allowed off leash in campgrounds and on trails.
Finn wore the Astro during a recent session of my Maian Meadows Dog Camp, which offers a weekend’s worth of off-leash fun: hiking, swimming, lots of games, stick-chasing and playing. Campers were intrigued by the Astro, and impressed that the collar was waterproof (although the GPS antenna on the collar will lose satellite reception if it’s totally submerged). The final tally at the end of the weekend: I covered 10.9 miles; Finn covered … 54.3! Each morning, we did a hike of about 3.8 miles to a nearby lake. Romping with the other dogs and fetching sticks in the lake meant that Finn covered nearly four times my distance. No wonder he’s tired. Finn’s “route” on Google Earth from that weekend of dog camp looks like a child’s wobbly drawing of a lollypop (swimming and playing in camp) on a stick (the morning out-and-back hikes). Garmin, headquartered in Kansas, is known for its personal product support. Friends who use Garmin’s running and mountain-biking products rave about its customer service. I found that also true with the Astro, which has lots of bells and whistles. Availing yourself of their customer service will help you get the most out of it (plus, they love dogs at Garmin).
And Boone? Within half an hour, a hiker found him and called the phone number on his tag, and the woman’s husband drove to the park to pick him up. They were very lucky. With the Astro, I can relax while running through the forest with Finn, knowing that if one day he disappears after a deer, I can at least track him until we’re reunited, eliminating guesswork, worry and dependence on Boone’s sort of luck.
For more info on the Astro 320, go to sites.garmin.com/astro
News: Guest Posts
Just what are they smelling?
September 25 2012
Here’s what I want: a device on the end of a long stick that detects scents on the ground, displaying on a smart phone-like screen in my hand what the scent is, breaking it down like a dog’s brain does. In other words, I want to know what my dogs’ noses know, without using my own nose to figure it out.
This idea came to me recently after observing a common set of behaviors while walking my dogs. We’ve all been there: we’re walking along and want to keep moving, but our dogs come to a screeching halt to smell something on the ground, the grass, a tree, a fence, a hydrant. You tug on their leash and encourage them to come along, but they dig all four paws in, refusing to lift their noses away until they’ve fully investigated the scent, learning all information each particle imparts.
Here’s what happened on that walk. First, I take Maia and Meadow, my two Malamutes on what I call The Old Ladies Stroll through my neighborhood. After passing a man near a bank— “Whoa! Awesome dogs!” he says after being startled by us—both dogs pull me toward a shrub in the bank’s parking lot landscaping. Earlier on this walk, I marveled how these two dogs will put their noses side by side to smell something interesting. Normally, they rarely invade each other’s personal space (it’s a Malamute thing), but when there’s a scent to detect, those rules go out the door and they’ll literally go nose-to-nose to get to the richest source of a scent.
This bank shrub held more than normal appeal. The girls pull quite forcefully to get to it. First they sniff high, noses on the small leaves. Then they simultaneously work down to the trunk, angling their heads under the lowest branches and spending a good 30 seconds inhaling deeply and repeatedly. Finally they sniff the dirt about four inches from the trunk, where a couple of old cigarette butts litter the space.
I observe this much detail because I’m aware that the man in front of the bank is watching us closely. I want the girls to keep moving, but this particular scent source is just too compelling.
After thoroughly inhaling all important scents on or near the shrub, the girls—as one—lift their heads and take a few steps along the sidewalk. Then Maia steps back onto the dirt and pees.
This sort of behavior fascinates me. I always wonder what the scents they’re attracted to are telling them about the world. Surely there’s information I might also be interested in, if only I could discover and interpret it as they do.
An hour later, I’m walking my Aussie Finn along the same route. We pass the bank (the man is gone), and Finn pulls me over to the same shrub, almost as forcefully as the girls did. He gives it an identical work over—first high up, closely scrutinizing the leaves, then moving down to the trunk, really inhaling deeply, finally coming to the spot on the dirt where the cigarette butts are. Finn doesn’t live by his nose to the same extent that the girls always have, so I realize that this particular shrub has some very interesting scent stories to tell. I’m really feeling left out.
Finn finishes collecting data and steps away from the shrub. A couple of strides down the sidewalk, he stops, briefly sniffs the adjacent dirt, and pees—right where Maia had.
I don’t want to actually smell everything my dogs find olfactorily fascinating. I have no interest in the scent of canine hind ends. Sometimes I’m aghast at the scents my dogs find so appealing that they smear them on their cheek or shoulder like a slimy version of dog perfume: dead and decomposing animals or fish are perennial favorites. (Why, oh why do they like having those particular scents – that are so awful to our sensibilities—on their coat? Depending on locale of application, the freshly applied perfume can make for an excruciatingly long and odiferous car ride home!) In other instances, the girls follow their noses to deer or elk bones strewn in the forest by scavengers, the bones clean enough to be odorless to me but sufficiently smelly to them to be prized treasure hunt discoveries they delight in showing off.
And I will be forever grateful that Maia can detect the scent of bears in the woods wafting through the air, warning me with her body language to change direction so that we see them only from afar.
No, what I would really love to know is what my dogs are detecting and discerning when they stop to smell an interesting scent on the ground in our neighborhood, something I can’t see or smell but tells a local story. Imagine how much richer our own experience of life would be if we could obtain the same information our dogs do on our walks—the gender, health and mood of neighborhood dogs and people and how recently they came this way; whether a cat, raccoon, coyote or other critter has recently been through; how long that road kill squirrel has been dead—simply by hovering a small electronic smelling device over a spot on the ground and reading an interpretation of the information on a screen in our hand. Of course, unless my fantasy scent sensible device works like a metal detector, pinging as it gets near certain odors, we’ll still need our canine companions to lead the way, showing us with their own noses where the good stuff lays.
What interesting smells—good, neutral, or horrible—have your dogs led you toward recently?
Wellness: Healthy Living
September 3 2012
A year ago, one of patty Glynn’s three dogs, a five-year-old Chinese Crested named Merry, became ill and very nearly died. It turned out that she had inflammatory bowel disease and required transfusions, among other care. Blood work, emergency vet-hospital treatment and after-care expenses brought the total close to $5,000; luckily for Merry, Glynn and her husband, Stew Tolnay, were able to handle the bills.
However, that experience convinced Glynn that it was time to buy pet insurance for all three of their dogs. When she checked into it, she discovered that approximately 10 companies now offer pet insurance in the United States.
By asking friends and doing her own research, she eventually decided which was best for her situation. Of course, Merry’s earlier condition was considered preexisting and excluded from coverage. Still, the insurance allows Glynn and Tolnay to rest easier, knowing that if their pets develop a serious medical problem in the future, some of the costs will be covered.
By the Numbers
But what about the unexpected, like Merry’s illness, or the puppy who swallows a sock? Plus, specialty veterinary care is now available — ophthalmologists, oncologists, neurologists — which means that the costs of care are steadily increasing. Even the average cost of a typical corrective surgical procedure, for dogs in this case, are enough to give one pause: gastric torsion (bloat), $1,955; foreign-body ingestion (small intestine), $1,629; pin in broken limb, $1,000; cataract (senior dog), $1,244.
You’d think that, faced with these numbers, everyone who has pets would also have pet insurance. Yet less than 1 percent do. Should you buy pet insurance to cover your pet, and your bank account? Unfortunately, like many things in life, there’s no clear yes-or-no answer.
Some are fortunate in that they have the resources, or the willingness, to go into debt for their pet’s care if necessary; they are, in effect, opting for self-insurance. Others, perhaps without extra resources or who just want to sleep better at night, like Glynn, prefer paying a monthly insurance premium of anywhere between $20 and $60 (depending on the age of the animal and the coverage) in the hope that it will cover expensive vet bills down the road.
Like all insurance, pet insurance is, at its most basic, a gamble. We pay the premiums hoping we’ll never need to use the coverage. If we do, our gamble has, unfortunately, paid off.
Before You Buy
Before you sign on the dotted line and write that first check, do your due diligence.
Read the policy very, very carefully.
Understand co-pays, deductibles and caps.
Know the policy’s exclusions.
Following are some of the terms included in policy exclusions that you should understand thoroughly before you purchase.
(Note that some conditions fall into two categories. For example, cleft palate can be congenital or developmental. Deafness can be considered a hereditary congenital condition.)
According to Karp, in all policies, unless an additional rider is purchased, “congenital conditions are deemed preexisting and not covered. Some policies bar hereditary and developmental conditions as well, unless additional coverage is purchased.” Karp notes that a policy he recently reviewed was one of the few to define a “chronic condition” to mean “not curable.”
“Thus, even if the condition went into remission for a year, if the initial onset preceded the effective date of the policy, it will be deemed an incurable and preexisting condition,” he says.
Make sure your current vet qualifies under the terms of the plan you choose.
“Another concern,” says Karp, “is that [few] policies cover experimental, investigative or non-generally accepted procedures, as determined by the veterinary medical community.” That is the sort of language lawyers love. Does it mean the AVMA? The HSVMA? Or some other more vague, local medical community?
Have a headache yet? Believe me, this is just the tip of the insurance-lingo iceberg. It’s complicated, confusing and a little terrifying, because the financial investment you make when you purchase insurance is significant and you want to be sure it pays what you hope and need it to pay. Each company’s policy includes numerous terms, conditions and exclusions, as well as dispute- resolution provisions. You need to understand them all.
Rolling the Dice
Here’s an illustration that makes this issue very real.
In 2002, Dana Mongillo, dog trainer and owner of Fuzzy Buddy’s Dog Daycare in Seattle, Wash., purchased pet insurance with a cancer rider for Mango, her healthy young Boxer. It initially cost her $20 a month. Over the next few years, Mango remained healthy and no claims were made on the policy. Then, the premium increased to about $50 a month. “Paying $600 a year for nothing is a little indulgent,” says Mongillo, “and I remained on the verge of canceling the policy for months. But then a vet visit for a slight limp ended up with the worst diagnosis possible: Mango had cancer.” The diagnosis came in 2008. Mango received treatment and care for two years before he finally succumbed in 2010, at age eleven. “While I helped Mango through the final weeks of his life, the insurance was suddenly very wonderful,” says Mongillo. “Every time I got a quote for treatment options, I knew the final amount I would pay would be less. That made it easier for me to consent to treatments that might help Mango, or at least help us find out the extent of the problem. In the last six weeks, he had a whirlwind of vet appointments, two sets of X-rays, an MRI and weekly acupuncture. Insurance removed the huge burden of the financial, leaving me able to focus on what was best for Mango and not what was best for my wallet.”
Here’s the tally for Mango’s insurance and vet expenses: Total premiums paid (2/2002–3/2010): $3,098. Total vet bills paid (3/2008–4/2010): $4,802. Total amount not covered (3/2008– 4/2010): $2,705.
For Mongillo, it was worth every penny, and she would do it again. She recognizes that in her case the insurance gamble paid off and Mango received the level of care she wanted him to have. Had he not developed cancer, she would have paid for insurance that she never used, but insists she would have been happy to “lose” that particular bet.
The second is CareCredit. This is a line of credit specifically for use at participating veterinary clinics. Stacy Steele, DVM, of Ocean Shores, Wash. (profiled in “World Vets” in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue) recommends this to her clients, almost none of whom have pet insurance. Like a credit card, this line of credit can be used for routine care and/or extraordinary care. There are no up-front costs and you select the monthly payment option you can handle. Depending on the amount put on the card, you can take from six to 60 months to pay off the balance (check the annual percentage rate before you sign up).
The bottom line: choose the option that will allow you to sleep well, knowing that if your beloved companion requires expensive diagnostics, treatment and care, you have the resources available to pay for them. If you choose pet insurance, read every word of the policy very carefully and understand what the terms mean before you purchase. Then, go have fun with your pup!
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Or, What I Learned by Starting My Own Dog Camp
August 24 2012
“What do you mean, I’m cooking dinner?!” It was the day before the start of weekend two of my 2004 Maian Meadows Dog Camp, and I had just learned that I would be cooking dinner for the ten guests scheduled to arrive the following afternoon. I hate to cook. The thought of cooking for a large number of people sets my heart racing. Marie, my friend, legal-world co-worker and camp chef extraordinaire, assured me that the recipe I would use was easy, and proceeded to dictate it to me over the phone. I stopped at the store to shop for the ingredients on the drive to camp. That Friday-night meal was easy, and a success, prepared with the help of friends in the kitchen and served to camp guests who have always proven easy to please.
Welcome to Dog Camp 101, where the first lesson is: Be prepared for anything … and have a Plan B!
Some days I tell myself I’m insane to even consider running a dog camp, what with the time required to attend to the myriad details, the possible financial loss, and the worry that the guests and their dogs won’t have the absolute best time of their lives (if you’re going to worry, worry big). But those days are balanced by the uplifting ones, when I respond to emails and phone calls about camp and get to “talk dogs” with people who are as enamored of their canine companions as I am of mine. My reward is seeing the smiles on the faces of the dogs and their guardians at camp. It’s certainly not the money. Let me share with you some of what I’ve learned along the way.
Why Start a Dog Camp?
As it turns out, my motivations were similar to those of other camp operators with whom I spoke for this article. Honey Loring of Camp Gone to the Dogs, the originator of the dog camp phenomenon, started her camp after attending an obedience seminar that she felt was way too serious and fun-deprived. She wanted to create a happy place for dogs, and has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Because the camp, which opened in 1990, was so unique, she received an extraordinary amount of publicity, from coverage on the CBS Sunday Morning show to articles in the Wall Street Journal, dog magazines and even Cosmo, for heaven’s sake. Those of us following in her footsteps can only dream of such free advertising.
Chicago resident Alysa Slay went to camps as a child and worked as a camp counselor herself for many years. Frustrated at the lack of places for her dog to legally roam and play off-leash, Alysa recalls the defining moment—a dream—when she knew she wanted to create a place where people could play outdoors with their dogs. She and her close friend Dave Eisendrath started Camp Dogwood in 2001.
Annie Brody is a yoga instructor who spent most of her life in New York City. After observing her own dog’s clear reluctance to return to the city after a weekend in the country, she resolved to find a way to let city dogs experience their natural environment, even if for only three days at a time. Camp Unleashed in the Berkshires was born and had its first successful session in 2004.
All of us operating dog camps love our dogs and dogs in general. We created our camps to help people reconnect with their dogs in a natural setting and deepen the bonds they share with their canine companions while having fun.
Learning by Observation
What’s in a Name?
Location, Location, Location
That may be easier said than done, however. Finding a resort that would allow my guests to stay with dogs off-leash throughout the grounds took perseverance—I swear I heard laughter in the background during some initial phone inquiries. But then I discovered that organizations such as Camp Fire, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and various church groups, who frequently sponsor camps (for two-legged campers) themselves, often seek rental income during those times when their camps are not in use. Eventually—again, through a web search—I found a Camp Fire facility in the woods on a lake roughly two hours from Seattle. They didn’t laugh at my idea, and in fact, bent over backward to ensure it worked so that I could rent their camp years into the future, thus providing them with a tidy and reliable bit of extra income.
This particular camp is rustic, sure, but that’s a large part of its charm, and allows us all to stop worrying about the dogs damaging things. It has a large building with kitchen, and an open-air dining hall where the dogs are allowed, which is one of the features guests love—they don’t have to leave their dogs in their cabins at mealtime.
I negotiated the terms of my rental agreement, which included lifting a restriction on alcohol; allowing at least the dogs to swim without a lifeguard; and, most importantly, a last-minute cancellation clause that got me off the hook if I didn’t get enough guests to cover the minimum per diem. Developing a good working relationship with the Camp Fire organization has been the backbone of my camp’s success. (If you’re not comfortable undertaking these negotiations yourself, seek the help of an attorney.)
Liability and Insurance
For example, any activity involving dogs risks litigation inspired by bites, fights or injuries. I found an insurance policy offered to dog trainers that costs $350 per year and covers all of my training activities during that interval, including those at camp. Expensive for a couple of weekends, perhaps, but reassuring to have and required by the facility I rent. Reading the insurance policy was another gut check—was I willing to risk being sued? I decided the risk was small, and with the protections I had in place, not something that would keep me awake at night.
Some of my initial attempts at marketing were clumsy. I mailed roughly 100 fliers that first year, but later found that all of my guests learned about camp through postings at local off-leash parks or by talking to me when I encountered them and their dogs in local parks. The next year, I skipped the fliers and mailings and saved myself significant money and effort. Instead, I designed postcards with an eye-catching photo of dogs romping on the camp beach, and handed them out at parks and expos. If you aren’t already web-savvy and able to create cards and fliers yourself, learn (or be willing to hire someone to do it for you).
One key marketing factor was providing my phone number; people felt better about signing up after talking directly to me. Another was networking with other dog-oriented businesses in my area, suggesting we exchange web links. Most were happy to do so, as it’s a very supportive community. These exchanges allowed my web site to eventually show up on a Google or Yahoo search for “dog camp,” which brought new potential campers. Try to use such free and creative avenues to market your own camp.
“The Food Here Is Awesome!”
Luck smiled on me early in this regard. Sitting in court one morning, I chatted with Marie, an attorney I’ve worked with for years. Impulsively, I told her about my dog camp idea and mentioned that my most difficult task would be providing the food. She quite breezily said, “I like to cook for groups; maybe I could do it.” I gave her a look of shock and surprise (remember—I hate to cook), but she insisted that it would be fun for her to do the cooking because she loved trying out new recipes on large groups. Marie refused to accept payment, or even a public thank-you for her efforts; she’s quirky that way, and I accepted her terms. Who wouldn’t?
Marie and her husband Tom did an awesome job—the food was delicious and plentiful. A special touch was a fresh peach cobbler-and-ice cream dessert served to guests as they sat around the evening campfire. To reduce dishwashing to a minimum, we used paper plates and plastic utensils. If my good relationship with the managers of the camp facility is the backbone of my operation, Marie and Tom and the food they create are its heart and soul.
Other camp operators use food services provided by the facility they rent, and hiring a caterer is another option. But we all agree that the success of a camp can hinge on the quality of the food, so don’t cut corners on this part of the operation.
Friends as Volunteer Staff: The Good, the Bad, and the Puzzling
I could not have produced my dog camp without the help of several friends: Marie and Tom in the kitchen, Robin as agility and obedience trainer (who also lets me borrow her agility equipment), Sandra as dishwasher and kitchen helper, Miki and Mark as general do-anything assistants. These amazing people gave their time and energy simply to help me realize a dream. They insisted that they had great fun in the process, but seeing how hard they worked left me in awe of their generosity. I have been blessed by their friendship and support, and can never thank them enough. Other camp operators have been similarly blessed. Cultivate your friends.
However, I have some advice on this subject: Before accepting a friend’s offer to help, ask yourself whether—given a worst-case scenario—you can stand to lose that person’s friendship. If the answer is yes, proceed carefully, and discuss what you expect and what you’re willing and able to provide in return (such as free room and board during camp). If the answer is no, find someone else for the job, hire help or (more likely) do it yourself. The reality is that this new aspect of your relationship could ultimately stress the bonds of friendship to the breaking point.
Welcoming Guests to Camp—First Impressions
My goodie bags also contain a list of camp rules, a schedule of meals and events, and fliers for the various dog-related businesses I agreed to promote in exchange for links to my camp from their web sites.
A Pleasant Exhaustion
Every camp operator I talked with agreed that the people and dogs you meet and befriend at camp make all of the effort worthwhile. “I have a whole new group of friends,” said Alysa, who uses vacation time from her job as a psychologist to run her camps. I’m self-employed and can work around my own camp’s schedule. Honey is lucky enough to make a living from her camps and other dog-related businesses, but every other camp operator I know gives this advice: Don’t give up your day job! For most of us, this is, in reality, a hobby business. In many ways, that frees us to do it because we’re passionate about the camp and about dogs, not because we have to pay the bills.
Annie, who considers herself an activist for human causes, initially struggled with the feeling that operating a dog camp might seem frivolous. She came to realize, however, that camp is a sort of “alternative universe,” where for a few days, people can recharge their spirits and experience the unconditional love of dogs by being in the moment with them. If camp can provide that, it’s worthwhile. But to disabuse anyone of the notion that being a camp director is somehow glamorous, keep in mind that one of our last duties before closing down the facility is scooping poop.
After being “on” for the entire camp session, which of course follows weeks of anxiety leading up to it, I’m totally exhausted for days afterward, as are my two dogs. One of my campers told me that her Jack Russell slept all the way home, the first time in his life he’d slept in the car. To me, that was the highest praise—as I’ve always said, a tired dog is a happy dog. By the end of camp, I, too, am tired and happy. Even when I lost money my first year, I told myself I had just thrown a great party for a group of my newest friends. Indeed, when all those campers returned the next year (with the exception of one who moved to South Dakota), it was a wonderful reunion with people I now consider to be dear friends. And now, after camp, I reward myself and my dogs with my favorite vacation, time at the Flying U dude ranch. It truly doesn’t get any better!
Dog's Life: Travel
Dog days at Canada’s Flying U
August 23 2012
Meadow made a beeline for the bed; the cabin was cool and dark, and she was ready for a nap. This was our third day of exploring trails at the Flying U Ranch, Canada’s oldest guest ranch, and Meadow and Maia, my two- and four-year-old Malamutes, were both happily tired after trotting alongside me and Louis, my trusty steed. In the space of three days, we had covered about 50 miles.
The Flying U is my favorite place on the planet. A dog lover who hates the thought of vacationing without my girls, I was ecstatic to learn about a dude ranch that not only lets you ride unguided on its 43,000 acres, but welcomes dogs as well.
The ranch is located in the Cariboo area of British Columbia, a drive of six hours from Seattle or five hours from Vancouver. Guests and their dogs stay in rustic cabins with comfy hand-hewn log beds, wood-burning stoves and electricity. Everyone shares a central shower/toilet house and sauna. The ranch includes a general store, saloon, a small movie theater and Saturday-night dances to live music. Guests are assigned horses suited to their riding ability for the duration of their stay, and may ride on their own or with other guests daily between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Meals are included, served at 8 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. in the common dining hall, and guests may request a sack lunch to maximize their time on the trail.
For dog lovers, a special attraction is the ability to vacation with their dogs in a part of British Columbia known for its extraordinary beauty. The Flying U sits at 3,500' elevation, and is covered in aspen and pine trees, with several large, open meadows and small lakes. You can ride winding trails through the woods, or gallop through the fields. Part of the charm is exploring, wondering if you’re lost, and then realizing that if you just give your horse his head, you’ll be back at the ranch by the 4 o’clock curfew. The horses, accustomed to having dogs around, are incredibly gentle. When Meadow stopped in the middle of the trail, Louis gently nudged her butt with his nose, and Maia and Louis frequently touched noses to get better acquainted. Meadow and Maia learned to move to the side of the trail when the horses started trotting or galloping, and delighted in running alongside. And yes, like most dogs, they consider horse dung a special amenity.
To date, I’ve been to the ranch six times, and have always met wonderful people there. This year I visited both in April and in late September, when the aspen were changing color. In September I rode with a group that included two dogs— Lula Belle, a Poodle, and Tillie, a mini Aussie. Lula Belle’s human, Lisa Garbrick, said she’s been bringing Lula to the ranch for five years. Lula enjoys rolling in the equine and bovine by-products, and Lisa lets her have her fun. When Lula’s done, Lisa simply throws her in nearby Green Lake to wash her off. Lisa mentioned that, to avoid exposing Lula to snickers from the ranch hands, she doesn’t give Lula a typical Poodle cut before coming to the ranch. Lula gains their respect, however, by running alongside the horses all day, day after day, and still having the energy to swim and play in the evenings. (Dogs that aren’t in such good shape are welcome to stay in their cabin while their human is out riding.)
The Fremlins have always welcomed dogs to the ranch. In fact, their philosophy is, “if the dog can vouch for you, you can stay.” The only—very mild—complaint I’ve ever heard voiced was about dogs on the beds; in the interest of good manners, guests should provide a cover if their dogs are so inclined (as mine are . . . eventually). The first night, my girls sleep outside, listening to the coyotes howling and keeping a keen eye on the nearby horses. By the second night, they ask to come in around midnight to sleep on the bed—they’ve put in a few miles by this point, and a soft sleeping area feels good. By the third and fourth nights, there’s virtually no room for me in the bed from the time it gets dark! We all sleep soundly at the ranch, lulled by the sounds of the wilderness. And did I mention how beautiful the night sky is in that big, open country?
News: Guest Posts
June 28 2012
Whenever you mix dogs, people and the freedom to play in nature, you get something special.
In 2002 I created Maian Meadows Dog Camp in Washington State, an environment for safe, off-leash play for dogs and people who rarely get to experience it. I feel like an alchemist, stirring just the right ingredients to create a weekend full of fresh air, forest and lake, dog-centered activities, comfort food and—most importantly—the shared unconditional love of several happy dogs all together in one place. The end product is often magical.
Over the years, I’ve befriended lots of wonderful people and dogs. All have back stories, some quite extraordinary.
Two years ago, a mother and her early-twenties daughter attended. Observing them, I realized the daughter had some cognitive challenges. I couldn’t put my finger of just what sort. She was bubbly and outgoing, but her social skills were a tad off. She mixed well with the other campers and her little Chihuahua was delightful.
Saturday evening, the mother took me aside. “I don’t know if you noticed, but my daughter has Aspergers,” she said. “This is the first activity we’ve found that has kept her interested and engaged for an entire weekend. Thank you.”
While I get many heartfelt thanks for hosting camp, that one remains the most special.
The magic happened again at last weekend’s session of dog camp.
Anita arrives with her dog Toby, a certified therapy dog. His skills came in handy. After attending camp in 2010, Anita had to skip June 2011 because she was undergoing chemo for cancer. In September 2011 she and Toby spent a few hours in camp, Anita bald and beautiful, but clearly exhausted. Toby stayed close by. This year, Anita—sporting new hair—and Toby spent the entire weekend in camp, hiking both mornings and participating in all the activities. Anita’s cancer is in remission, and at 66, she’s going strong. So is Toby, by her side.
New campers Adrian and Hana bring their two year old Golden Retriever Jasper. Adrian, an Irishman and statistician of about 50, has spent his entire life afraid of dogs. With Hana’s encouragement, they add Jasper to their family. Adrian no longer fears any dogs, and delights in being around all the dogs at camp.
Dogs heal all sorts of hurts
Stick with me for one more back story. It’s a good one.
Two weeks before camp, I receive an email asking if there is still space for one person and one dog. It’s signed “Tracie and Daisy.” I reply that there is. The registration form arrives, with a very unusual first name; Tracie is a nickname. I worry that my assumption that this camper is female—and can share a cabin with another female—is wrong. I Google the full name. All hits refer to the Dean’s List at a nearby college. Intriguing, but I still don’t know if the camper is male or female, or how old. I decide to proceed as if she is female. If a male shows up, well, there is an extra cabin.
Friday afternoon I welcome campers and their dogs as they trickle in from all over—Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and even Alberta. Just before dinner, a camper arrives with a dog meeting Daisy’s description: black lab/hound mix. Daisy bounds from the car and gleefully romps with the other dogs. Tracie gets out and introduces herself. She is a very petite young woman of twenty. She has chin length brown hair, wire-rim glasses and a huge welcoming smile showing charmingly crooked teeth. She’s wearing a daisy print blouse. Daisy’s collar has daisies on it. Already I like Tracie. She’s going to fit right in at dog camp.
And she does. I’ve never seen someone so young possess such confidence and outgoing friendliness among so many strangers, most of whom are much older. Daisy is just like Tracie, young (two years old), full of energy and enthusiasm. Throughout the weekend, Tracie frequently has to coax Daisy out of the lake. Daisy loves to swim. And Tracie loves Daisy. Their bond is strong and touching to observe. I determine to learn Tracie’s back story.
Later, during a meal, I overhear tidbits as Tracie shares her story with other campers at her table. I hear words familiar to me in my work as an attorney advocating children’s best interests in the legal system: foster care; Child Protective Services; aging out of the system. The next day, as Tracie throws the ball into the lake for Daisy to retrieve, I ask her to share her story with me. She does, without any sense of embarrassment or shame—another sign of her amazing maturity.
Tracie’s birth mother has mental health issues. She often chose, and married, violent men. Tracie suffered abuse at the hands of one step-father who broke her shoulder. Her mother kicked him out (because CPS required it), but Tracie discovered that the next man her mother brought home was a registered sex offender. Tracie, only 13, took action, standing up for herself and her younger siblings by telling a counselor. This time her mother chose the sex offender. Tracie was removed from the home and placed into foster care. This separated her from her siblings, whom she’d raised; they were placed elsewhere. Over the next several years, Tracie bounced from foster care to her mother’s and back to foster care, a sad and all too common experience for older kids in the system.
As Tracie neared age 18, the foster family she was with had a pregnant black lab. Pup number four (of fourteen!) had a big head and became stuck; Tracie helped bring that pup into the world. The foster family gave Tracie the puppy to commemorate becoming an adult—aging out of the system—and starting a new life. Tracie finally had a family of her own: Daisy.
Tracie chose the name Daisy because the symbolism associated with the flower is purity, innocence, loyal love, beauty, patience and simplicity.
While still in high school, Tracie accumulated two years of college credit. The week before dog camp, at age 20, she graduated with a four year college degree. She’s now enrolled in graduate school. She wants to become a social worker. She wants to help kids in the foster care system. She wants to get Daisy certified as a therapy dog so that they can work with kids as a team. And as soon as she’s 21, Tracie wants to become a foster parent herself. If she does, then she and Daisy will help heal children scarred by a system that often doesn’t care very much about them. I’m confident that Tracie, with Daisy by her side, will accomplish all her goals.
I had no idea, over a decade ago, that creating and directing a dog camp would provide a space for people to heal what hurts them, or gather strength to meet their next challenge. But I should have. Anything involving playful, free-roaming dogs just has to promote joy and healing.
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