activities & sports
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Come out, come out, wherever you are!
In September 2001, Sandi Pearce hid a small box in a park near her home in Dublin, Calif. Since then, more than 38 people, many with dogs, have searched for—and found—the box. It was just one of the 15 similar boxes that Pearce has hidden since she and her Border Collie, Katie, took up geocaching, a relatively new adventure game.
Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunt in which players follow global positioning satellite (GPS) coordinates listed on the geocaching Web site, and search for a cache, a term used to denote something hidden away for later. In geocaching, the “something hidden away” usually consists of a weather-resistant container holding a logbook and a mishmash of plastic toys, coins, key chains and other small items for trade. Pearce, who began caching in 2001 after reading about the activity in the newspaper, filled hers with dog-related items and hid it in an area where she and Katie like to hike.
“It immediately appealed to me,” said Pearce. “It involves being outside, geeky tech toys and a cool Web site. And I can take Katie with me.”
Taking their dogs along while caching is a practice enjoyed by many of the game’s participants. Sharon Lum, who caches with her mixed-breed pound rescue, Zoe, says she enjoys having a hobby she can participate in with her dog. “Before I discovered caching, I biked more,” she said. “Now some of that time is spent hiking for caches with Zoe, and I think she likes that.”
Geocaching uses navigation technology originally developed by the military. A GPS receiver collects signals from multiple satellites above the Earth. Based on the signals, a person’s position on the planet can be triangulated (within a range of 6 to twenty feet) and reported in latitude and longitude coordinates. In 2000, when the Clinton administration made the signals available to civilians, geocaching popped onto the outdoor-activity scene. Now, according to the geocaching website, there are about 122,615 active caches in more than 210 countries.
Caches are hidden both in urban and rural areas. Several require moderate hikes and a few even require climbing, swimming or boating. Each cache is rated for difficulty, based on how hard the cache is to find and on the terrain in which it’s secreted. There is no official dog-friendly rating in the cache descriptions, but many cachers will put notes about dog-appropriateness in the online log. (See sidebar for a glossary of caching terms.)
Lum sometimes uses snowshoes or cross-country skis to go caching. “Zoe loves the snow,” she said. But, she warns, “one thing to remember when cross-country skiing with dogs is not to use metal-edge skis, as dogs, being dogs, can suddenly run or stop in front of you, and you can injure your dog.”
Lum, who has logged more than 1,000 finds, credits Zoe with discovering one cache of her own, near Lake Tahoe. “There was snow around, but only about a foot or so deep in some areas, and none in others. We searched for about a half an hour at the coordinates, [then] decided to go back to the cachemobile, which was about a quarter of a mile away. As we were walking back, Zoe walked right up to the cache, which was nested next to a rock, pointed to it with her nose and then looked at me to say, ‘Okay, Mom, here it is. Can we go home now?’”
Carleen Pruss, of Lincoln, Neb., also caches year-round. She says her black Lab mix, Molly, likes the snow, but snow requires extra preparation. She reminds us that dogs can’t yell “Hey, I’m getting frostbite!” and suggests taking your dog on some short winter excursions to check his cold tolerance before setting out on a full-fledged caching session.
• Know your dog. A dog who pulls on-leash or is easily distracted in urban areas likely won’t cache well in urban parks. For rural hiking, know your dog’s physical fitness level. Know if your dog is willing to cross a stream; if not, can you carry him over it? How will your dog behave if he encounters people or other animals (or cow patties)? It is better to ask these types of questions first and then plan accordingly.
• Know the local laws. Is a leash required? The law likely requires poop-scooping in urban areas, and even if it doesn’t, scooping is the polite thing to do. Bring those supplies with you!
• Bring water for both yourself and your dog.
• Make sure your dog is current on all vaccinations, and use tick and mosquito protection for both of you. Consider a Lyme disease vaccination in areas where Lyme is prevalent. Check for ticks after caching in rural areas, and carry a tick puller.
• If you hide a cache, consider mentioning in the log if it is dog-friendly, and list local leash laws.
• Have fun, and remember to take your camera—you’ll want good pictures of your caching dog!
For more information on geocaching and GPS receivers, visit Geocaching—The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Pep up the pup during dark winter days
So, the weather is really bad again, the days are short, but you still want to pep up yourself and your dog? Turn your living room into a temporary adventure playground! Don’t worry—you don’t have to rearrange your house. Just use things that you already have to set up a course.
Exercises for dexterity and mobility are not only fun but, as little tests of courage, they train your dog’s body awareness and build up his self confidence. They also help you become good at guiding him into all kinds of positions and in showing him the way yourself. Here are a few starter activities.
The Collapsed Tunnel Adventure
Very important: Make sure the blanket is attached to the chair so that it cannot slip off while your dog is walking through it. Such an accident could totally spoil your dog’s fun.
This is how it works:
•Go to the other end of the tunnel, pick up the end of the blanket and catch your dog’s eye. Call him, and reward him when he comes to you.
•Do this a few more times; each time, lower the blanket gradually so that your dog gets used to the feeling of pushing himself through to the exit.
•Keep the degree of difficulty low in the beginning, with the tunnel overhang rather short so that your dog isn’t in the dark too long.
Challenges on the Ground
•Doormats made of different fibers.
Let your dog investigate the unknown surfaces step-by-step on his own. Every little test of courage passed—even if it is only placing one paw on the different surfaces in the beginning—is worth a reward and gives your dog a little bit of self-confidence that carries into his everyday life.
Living Room Obstacles
This is how your dog learns to jump:
•Encourage your dog to jump over the hurdle with the aid of some treats. You can jump with him in the beginning. Or you step over the hurdle first, and then lure your dog over to the other side.
•When your dog understands the game and has tried different obstacles, insert a verbal cue (for instance, the word “jump”) and send your dog over the hurdle with it.
Adapted from Playtime for Your Dog, published by Cadmos Books and distributed by Trafalgar Square Publishing from Independent Publishers Group. Copyright 2008 by Cadmos Equestrian.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Making tracks is another way to enjoy a snowy day
A winter Sunday in Litchfield, Connecticut. The air snaps crisp and cold beneath a milky gray sky, and here and there, the sun slices through the clouds, casting long shadows and bright splinters over the high hills of Mattatuck State Forest, a rugged expanse literally in our backyard. A nor’easter rolling through New England left behind eight inches of fresh powder, the stuff of snowshoers’ dreams, and it is time to begin our annual ritual of snowshoeing with Maggie and Truman, our happy-go-lucky Labs.
On this day, our canine companions bound ahead as we float along on the snowy surface, picking our way up and down one undulating ridge after another. We seldom share this place with anyone—our Gortex shells and the dogs’ reflective vests are usually the sole bursts of Technicolor in a black-and-white world.
Snowshoeing with dogs? You bet. There are few finer ways to spend a winter day with your best four-legged friends than a trek on snowshoes along your favorite trail or a heart-thumping workout through high-octane terrain. Rare is the canine who doesn’t enjoy a romp in the white stuff, and with a little common sense and cold-weather know-how, those new to the activity can keep their dogs safe and healthy, whether they’re exploring an untrammeled wilderness area, the groomed trails at a touring center, even a snow-covered public golf course.
This ancient form of over-the-snow transportation—Native Americans are said to have used snowshoes more than 3,000 years ago—is one of the fastest-growing winter activities for those who live in or visit the country’s snow belt. And for good reason—as a sport, it doesn’t get much simpler. While snowshoeing might conjure up images of plodding along on tennis-racket-like contraptions, 21st-century equipment combines state-of-the-art design with high-tech materials such as lightweight aluminum, composite plastic, even titanium. If you can walk, goes the adage, you can snowshoe.
But does your pooch have snow-hound potential? “You need to consider whether your dog is healthy to start with,” says Dr. Peter Humphrey of Torrington Animal Hospital in Torrington, Conn. “Heart-related or respiratory problems can have an impact on a dog’s stamina.” Most fit and trim dogs will do fine, he says, but remember, they don’t walk on the snow like you do. “Walking through deep snow is physically demanding,” notes Humphrey, who recommends a shorter-than-usual first outing, since “you may end up with an exhausted pet that you have to carry back.”
And while your canine may be furry, exposure to the elements can lead to problems like frostbite or hypothermia. Puppies and elderly dogs are especially susceptible; watch for shivering, slowed breathing or dilated pupils, signs of a dangerous drop in body temperature. And, unless you have, say, an Akita, Husky or Malamute, breeds who are “dressed” for the cold, your dog might also benefit from the added insulation of a doggy coat. We pack plenty of snacks and water, and examine our Labs’ paws frequently for the ice and snow that can clump between pads. Companies like Ruff Wear and Planet Dog offer canine first-aid kits, protective booties, collapsible food and water bowls, and cold-weather apparel you may want to consider adding to your gear.
At the icebound riverbank, we stop and sip hot cocoa, and as the warmth of this winter staple courses its way to our toes, the dogs make quick work of emptying their water bowls. Then it’s time to be on the move again. Above our heads, snow clings tightly to the hemlocks and the bare branches of sugar maples as we follow crumbling stone walls, relics of long-ago grazing pastures, then cut through thickets of mountain laurel, the hushed quiet broken only by the crunch of our snowshoes, the panting of the dogs and the occasional call of an owl.
If you don’t have access to a wintry wilderness, you and your pal can also coexist happily with fellow outdoor enthusiasts. First, check that the trail system you’re planning to visit is dog-friendly, and, if so, find out what the rules are. Some charge a fee; others allow dogs only in certain areas, or require them to be leashed. Other trail users will judge dogs and owners by your actions, so practice good etiquette, such as picking up after your pooch, keeping him under control and—this is critical—staying out of the way.
Nothing will rile a cross-country skier quite like grooved tracks obliterated by snowshoes (I still remember the barely concealed disdain of those whose tracks I tromped through with my brand-new Tubbs) and dog paws. “That’s what people pay to ski in,” says Llona Ney Clausen, manager of the Nordic & Snowshoe Center at Tamarack Resort in Donnelly, Idaho, where four-legged guests are welcome on all 22 kilometers of groomed trails.
If dogs are allowed off-leash, Clausen says, they should respond perfectly to voice commands. “If your dog can [be depended on to respond to your verbal commands], regardless of distractions, you may not have to have him on a leash,” she explains. “The biggest problem will be, of course, when a dog meets another dog.”
In our beloved forest, the afternoon light is fading as we navigate one last ridge; the maples, the river and the rambling stone walls are studies in gray. The dogs have fallen in behind us, their way of saying it’s time to go home. At the trailhead, we shoulder our snowshoes and shuffle toward the house as the moon rises through the trees like a plump yellow balloon. Maggie and Truman are—you guessed it—dog-tired, and in moments, will be snoring and twitching in front of a blaze roaring on our big stone hearth. During the dog days of winter, we’re certain, snowshoeing is part of their four-legged dreams.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Tracking showcases your dog’s most scentsational talent
When long-time tracking enthusiast Penny Kurz discovered that her mailbox had been vandalized, she took action. Harnessing up her tracking dog, Deuce, she set out to find the perpetrator.
“Deuce sniffed around the mailbox and started running what looked like a car trail to me,” says Kurz. “A car trail will hang along the curb or edge of grass along the sidewalk. When he puts his nose down into footprints, it looks different. He took me up a couple blocks, made another corner, up another street, then all of a sudden stopped. He went across the front lawn, poking his nose into the footprints, went to the front door and sat down.
“I was ready to knock on the door, say someone broke my mailbox and my dog tracked to this house,” says Kurz. “Then I looked down at Deuce. Unfortunately, you lose a little credibility when you’re standing there with a Miniature Poodle. I chickened out—if I can’t fix the mailbox, I’ll borrow a German Shepherd and go back.”
Follow the Dog
Unlike agility or obedience, where the handler gives instructions and the dog is expected to follow, in tracking the dog is in charge. He wears a harness attached to a 30-foot leash and pulls the handler down the trail. Some dogs are confident and fly down the track, whereas others are methodical and take their time. In a test, each dog receives his own track, and two judges follow the dog-handler team. Putting on a tracking test is labor-intensive and requires a lot of land, so the dog must be certified prior to entry to ensure that he has been trained to the proper level.
Three main organizations sanction tracking tests. The American Kennel Club (AKC) is probably the best known, but allows only purebred dogs. For the beginner level, or Tracking Dog (TD) title, the dog must follow a track 440 to 500 yards long with three to five turns and aged 30 minutes to two hours. At the end, he must indicate a scent article, such as a glove, to the handler. The Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) title requires intermediate tracking skills. At the most advanced level, or Variable Surface Tracking (VST) title, the track is 600 to 800 yards long with four to eight turns, aged three to five hours, and covers three different ground surfaces, mimicking an urban environment.
To give you an idea of the degree of difficulty, AKC Field Representative Herb Morrison says the TD has a 55 to 60 percent passing rate, the TDX has a 20 percent passing rate, and the VST has a 5 percent passing rate. The rare dog who passes all three levels is a Champion Tracker (CT).
Elizabeth Falk and her five-year-old Bull Mastiff, Archie, recently made AKC history when he passed his TD. He became the first of his breed to earn his VCD (Versatile Companion Dog), which requires Novice-level titles in agility, obedience and tracking.
“One of the challenges was me trusting my dog,” says Falk, who accidentally flunked Archie at their first tracking test. “He was trying to turn, but I thought the track went straight [and] it was a deer track. Our first trial was definitely a valuable lesson.”
The World of Scent
On the other hand, DVG America, which offers tracking as part of its Schutzhund working dog program, requires the dog to be right on top of the trail or risk losing points. Whether you decide to track for fun or compete, the key is to be open-minded about your dog’s abilities. Carolyn Krause, author of Try Tracking!, began tracking in response to a comment by a sport writer who described Dalmatians, her chosen breed, as “stone-nosed.” Over the past 25 years, her dogs’ multiple tracking titles have clearly proven him wrong.
“If you have ever looked at grass with dew on it and saw all the trails from animals crossing,” says Krause, “that gives you an idea what the world of scent shows your dog. We can see it for just a few minutes. By simply taking your dog to different areas and trying things in the book, you can learn a lot about your dog’s personality and temperament. You don’t have to pursue a title, but you do need to make a commitment to it. You have to drive around with a “tracking eye”—oh, there’s an interesting place—and wonder if your dog could follow that. It’s amazing what your dog will show you.”
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Dog on Board
The race was on. a dozen people on stand-up paddleboards paddled ferociously across the Santa Cruz Harbor, flinging water with every stroke, and nearly 300 spectators had gathered on this overcast Saturday morning to watch their antics. The big draw? Dogs. Each paddler was toting at least one four-legged companion. Some sat between their owner’s legs, ears flapping. Others stood at the front of the board like hood ornaments, tongues flying. On one board, a pair of Rat Terriers scurried back and forth as though their movements could help propel their vessel. There was a bit of sliding, and a lot of laugher.
The event, dubbed DogJam! by its creator, Neil Pearlberg, is an annual fundraiser for the Santa Cruz Animal Shelter and something of a rare breed on the stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) scene. But as more people take to the sport, it’s likely their dogs will, too. “A standup paddleboard just happens to perfectly fit one person and one dog,” says Pearlberg, owner of Santa Cruz Stand Up Paddleboard Co. “Plus, you get a dog on a stand-up paddleboard and he just seems to know what to do.”
Pearlberg’s dog, Rusty, an Australian Shepherd/Bernese Mountain Dog/mutt mix, doesn’t like water, but will always get on the paddleboard. The pair is known around town for paddling ocean waves together. “I think it makes him better on the board — the fact that he’s not interested in jumping in and swimming,” says Pearlberg. “There was one time when I got knocked off by a rough wave and resurfaced to see Rusty still on, just surfing by himself.”
SUP, an ancient form of surfing, has its origins in Hawaii. And before it had a name, it was the way surf instructors gained perspective to observe students and read the incoming swells. Stand-up paddleboards, which resemble surfing’s longboards, stretch 10 to 12 feet and are geared more toward balance than speed. A single long-necked paddle is used to move the board through the water.
The sport has exploded in the last five years, thanks to celebrity advocates like big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, and the fact that, unlike most board sports, SUP is easy to get the hang of. It’s not overly technical; doesn’t require a high fitness level; and can be done on lakes, rivers or the ocean, on still water or in waves. For dog owners, it opens up a whole new way to experience water sports with their pooch.
“Any dog can do it,” says San Diegobased dog trainer Lara Schindler. She started her Portuguese Water Dog, Snorkel, on a stand-up paddleboard when he was four months old, but says dogs of any age can get involved; they don’t need to be puppies. “This is one activity where the type of dog really doesn’t matter,” she says. “They can be any age, any breed, even any size. I’ve seen people SUPing with 100-pound dogs.”
What matters, according to Schindler, is making the dog’s first experience with the board a positive one. She suggests starting slowly on land, ensuring that your dog knows the basic commands — “sit,” “stay” and “down” — before you go on the water. “You don’t want the dog to be afraid of the board or the water, and you need a way to [keep] him from just jumping off the board whenever he wants,” she explains.
Schindler also recommends starting on a bay or a lake, as it can be tricky to maintain your balance in waves, which makes it scarier for your dog. Outfitting your dog in a life vest will help your peace of mind if he accidentally falls off, as well as give you a handle to lift him back on the board. Schindler teaches people to stand-up paddleboard with their dogs in one-hour private lessons. She says that’s about as long as it takes, even for people with no prior SUP experience.
Stand-up paddleboarding instructor Linda Brown, owner of Michigan-based Paddle the Mitten, echoes Schindler’s thoughts on the ease of learning the sport, but says every dog is different. All three of her Dachshunds enjoy SUPing on Michigan’s inland lakes, but learned at different paces. Kraut, the six-yearold, took to it immediately, and charges right up to the front of the board. The youngest, Gretchen, was the shyest. “Her first time out, she did fine until she realized the other two were still back on the shore,” Brown says. “Then, she jumped in and swam back.”
While Brown typically SUPs with one pup at a time, on occasion, she’s had all three on the board at once. Kraut stands at the helm; Gretchen sits between her legs; and Fritzie, the oldest, patrols back and forth. “I can’t say I recommend it,” she laughs. “They’re stubborn and don’t listen to me all at once.” Whether Brown has one dog on the board or all three, she uses the HovieSUP Nomad — a generous 12 feet long, it supports up to 350 pounds. She suggests buying a bathmat with suction cups for the front of the board, where most dogs like to sit, to reduce sliding. (The middle and rear sections of most boards have a non-slip surface.)
Brown’s favorite client is Judy Huston, also a Michigan resident, who decided to take up the sport at age 71 — and to do it with her 92-pound White Shepherd, Kole. Huston, a former windsurfer, heard about SUP from her son and thought it would be something fun to do with Kole, who has developed intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) and can no longer participate in many activities for fear of injury, and Callie, her 15-pound Sheltie.
‘The trickiest part with Kole on the board is balance,” Huston says, “He’s so big, you really feel it if he moves around.” She asked for a HovieSUP Nomad of her own for Mother’s Day so she could practice with Kole on the pond in her backyard. “I’m so looking forward to it,” she says. “I think it will be the most fun I’ve had with my dogs on the water in my whole life.”
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Into the Wild
When I haul out our backpacks, Argos leaps for joy. Time for another wilderness trip! A weekend outing in a nearby national forest or a week-long adventure in Washington State’s Glacier Peak Wilderness is equally exciting for my 12-year-old Shepherd mix. He knows we’re headed out to do some backpacking, and boy, is he ready!
You and your dog can get ready too — and why not? Once, at the summit of Angel’s Rest (a bluff on the Columbia River Gorge), about a three-mile uphill trek from the trailhead, I met a full-of-beans Dachshund who was in great shape. Most dogs can enjoy trekking the outdoors. Just be realistic about your dog’s endurance potential and tailor your trip to suit his abilities. Few experiences match hiking with a dog on backcountry trails, and with the right planning and preparation, your trip will be fun, safe and respectful of the animals and plants whose home you’re visiting.
Preparation is key, and it begins with things that — as a responsible dog owner — you’ve already done. Your dog is spayed or neutered (which reduces that roaming urge) and microchipped (collars are a choking risk and tags can fall off). You’ve made sure he’s trained to respond to basic obedience cues, which will help you manage his behavior on the trail, and he’s current on the vaccinations that will keep both him and wildlife safe.
Make sure your dog is on a heartworm- prevention program. Most heartworm preventives also provide protection against intestinal parasites like the raccoon roundworm, and some even provide moderate flea control. Good tick control is a must; check with your veterinarian about preventive products, and take along a Tick Twister or some tweezers. To transmit disease (such as Lyme), a tick must be attached for 24 to 48 hours, so plan to give your dog a good going-over each evening to remove the little monsters before they do any damage.
For day hikes, take compostable poop bags, which are made from corn. But don’t leave them on the trail! Too many times, I’ve seen trails littered with bags people either forgot or chose not to take with them. Your dog’s pack makes it easy to “bag it and drag it”; your dog can carry out his own waste until it can be disposed of appropriately. For multiday treks, carry a garden trowel so you can bury the waste. Don’t just kick your dog’s feces into the bushes because “it’s all biodegradable anyway.” Burying dog and human waste in a six- to eightinch- deep hole at least 200 feet — about 70 adult paces — from water sources prevents bacterial pollution that can make wild animals (and your dog) sick.
Bring two collapsible nylon bowls: one for kibble, the other for water, and pack a towel for cleaning your dog’s paws if you like to have him in the tent with you. Argos wants to bed down beside me, all 80 pounds of him, so I towel him off at night, and clip his nails before every trip to prevent tent rips. (Carry a patch kit just in case.)
Pack a dog first-aid book and kit, plus a snakebite kit with a pump, and learn to use the pump before you go. Add a dose of antivenin (available from your vet), two booties in case of paw injury or soreness, and a muzzle or a sock. Tuck in a copy of your dog’s vaccination records, including his name, breed, age, any medical conditions, the phone number of your vet and your own contact information.
Rivers and streams are gorgeous places to take breaks, but they can be tricky to cross. Scout for the calmest stretch, then throw a stick into the water to determine the speed and force of the current (be sure your dog doesn’t try to go in after it). If you can’t tell how deep the stream is, secure your dog and then wade in alone, using walking poles to probe the way ahead. Before crossing, remove your dog’s saddlebags and attach his leash to his harness (never to a collar!). It’s best not to carry your dog, but if you must, leave your pack, cross with the dog and secure him on the other side before returning for your pack. Take your time and above all, if you don’t feel confident about safety, be willing to turn back.
In camp, before you turn in for the night, secure all food, trash and toiletries from bears and rodents in a bearresistant canister stashed at least 100 feet away or stuff sacks suspended at least 10 feet above the ground and four feet from a tree trunk.
Dogs can pick up a giardia infection from contaminated water. Symptoms include diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. Some dogs show no obvious symptoms, but they can still infect other dogs, so when you get home, collect a stool sample and take it to your vet; if your dog needs medication, it’s best to get it started right away.
Once you’ve made camp, no matter how much you want to, don’t unleash your dog. The “solid” recall that never fails at the dog park may easily fail in the outdoors, where there are so many new distractions. A 25-foot cable will allow him some freedom without giving him an opportunity to chase wildlife, and if you’ve set up well away from the trail, he can’t run at unsuspecting hikers. Remember, you’re an ambassador for dog owners everywhere, and we want to maintain our dogs’ welcome in the backcountry.
All of your preparations will pay off in the companionship you’ll enjoy with your dog on the trail — and what a pleasure to see the great time he’s having! After all, you’re sharing a special partnership that harks back thousands of years, to a time when our nomad ancestors carried everything they needed on their backs, a loyal dog at their side.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Or, What I Learned by Starting My Own Dog Camp
“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!
Adventure athlete has her dog to thank for her rescue after a near-fatal fall.
When Danelle Ballengee headed out for an eight-mile trail run near Moab, Utah, last December (2006), it was supposed to be just another outing.
And that’s probably what her dog, Taz, thought, too.
A two-time world champion in the extreme sport of adventure racing, and a seven-time Ironman triathlon finisher, Ballengee lives in Dillon, Colo., and frequently uses Moab as a training ground. And lucky Taz—a big mixed breed— often gets to come along.“He loves to run with me,” says Ballengee, adding that she thinks Taz is part Australian Shepherd. “He really enjoys it.We’ll run for a couple hours sometimes.”
They were midway through what would have been about a 90-minute run when Ballengee slipped on a patch of black ice, slid down a steep rock face and across a series of ledges, and finally crashed to the ground some 80 feet below, shattering her pelvis.
As soon as Ballengee realized she wasn’t paralyzed, she started to crawl; it took her five hours to go about a quarter of a mile. Then, when the sun went down and the temperature dropped into the 20s, hypothermia became a very real threat. Ballengee drank water and ate her energy gels sparingly, but knew that if she closed her eyes, she’d fall asleep and might never wake up. Rather than giving in, Ballengee did subtle abdominal crunches, both to stay awake and to keep her body temperature from plummeting. She also took comfort in having Taz at her side.
“I wanted to curl up next to him and be closer, but I couldn’t move. But it still helped to have him there. I wasn’t really alone,” Ballengee says.
Ballengee has always loved dogs. When she was a child, her parents had an Australian Shepherd, a Springer Spaniel and, later, a Golden Retriever. She considered getting a dog when she graduated from college, but developing her career as a professional endurance athlete, race director and personal trainer took a lot of her time. When she wasn’t running, cycling, swimming or kayaking, she was planning for a race or traveling to an exotic location—New Zealand, Argentina, Italy, Switzerland, Hawaii or Fiji—to participate in one.
Still, she really yearned for canine companionship, and kept her antenna out for a good candidate. In 2003, in the middle of a busy summer, she drove two hours to a rescue facility north of Denver.“It was one of those places where you know you’re not going to leave without a puppy,” she recalls. It was love at first sight when she laid her eyes on a 10-week-old mutt, part of a litter that had been rescued from a Kansas farm.
During their first year together, Ballengee took Taz on short walks and trips to the lake. As he got bigger, they started running and hiking together, eventually covering as many as 15 miles at a time, and occasionally hiking to the summit of one of Colorado’s 14,000- foot mountains. So while the Moab trail she and Taz were running that day was rugged and remote, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Ballengee. “She trains 20 to 30 hours a week by just going out and having fun in the mountains,” says Dave Mackey, an ultrarunner and adventure racer from Boulder,Colo.“It’s amazing, but that’s what she does. That’s who she is. She’s tough as nails.”
When the sun rose the morning after her fall, Ballengee’s optimism was renewed, but Taz was growing restless. He spent that day running off and returning, each trek seemingly longer than the last. When night again found the pair alone in the wild,Taz wouldn’t sleep next to Ballengee; instead, he lay about 15 feet away. “The whole time I was thinking, ‘I can’t die. I’m not ready to die,’” she says. “It scared me to even think about it, so I just kept fighting and telling myself I just had to stay awake.”
At about noon the next day—more than 48 hours after Ballengee and Taz began their fateful run—police found her pickup at the Amasa Back trailhead.As a search and rescue team assembled, a dog matching Taz’s description was spotted heading toward town.“We were going to try to identify the dog, but the dog basically didn’t want to be caught,” said Curt Brewer, chief deputy of the Grand County Sheriff ’s Office in Moab. “When the dog turned around and started running, we decided to follow it.”
By midday, Ballengee had become very lethargic. When Taz returned from his longest journey yet, he wagged his tail and gulped water from the small water hole on which Ballengee had come to rely. “I figured maybe he had a nice run and was just happy to be back. I gave him a little pat—and then I heard the sound of an engine. He knew that someone was coming… he knew before I did.”
The rescue team arrived and worked quickly, strapping Ballengee to a stretcher in preparation for being airlifted to a hospital in Grand Junction.“The dog took our rescue personnel right to her,” Brewer says. “I think we would have eventually found her because we were in the right location, but the dog saved us some time. And that was important, because if it had gotten dark, that would have complicated things. And it wound up snowing later that night, too.”
He spent that day running off and returning, each trek seemingly longer than the last. After surgery to repair her broken pelvis and an extensive rehabilitation, Ballengee made a full recovery. By late spring this year, she and Taz were once again trail-running, albeit a little more cautiously, and in May, Taz received the National Hero Dog Award from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles.
“It’s pretty amazing, what he did,” Ballengee says.“We figured he must have run about 15 miles when he led the rescuers to me.He definitely helped save my life.”But it might have been a case of one good turn generating another: Taz was repaying Ballengee for rescuing him.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Grab a leash and get moving!
Having trouble sticking to an exercise program? Research shows that dogs are actually Nature’s perfect personal trainers—loyal, hardworking, energetic and enthusiastic. And, unlike your friends, who may skip an exercise session because of appointments, extra chores or bad weather, dogs never give you an excuse to forego exercising.
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that only 16 percent of Americans ages 15 and older exercised at all on an average day! This is where your canine personal trainer can help. A survey of dog owners, conducted at the University of Western Australia and published in Health Promotion Journal of Australia in August 2008, revealed that dogs are great motivators for walking because they:
What are the benefits of regular exercise? Dr. Joanna Kruk reviewed medical literature describing the health benefits of exercise. Her research showed that the risk of developing a number of serious health problems is reduced by physical activity and exercise:
How much exercise is enough? According to the World Health Organization, adequate exercise to promote good health includes:
Researchers at the University of Western Australia found that seven in every 10 adult dog owners achieved 150 minutes of physical exercise per week, compared with only four in every 10 non-owners. Among new dog owners monitored for one year, recreational walking increased by an average of 48 minutes per week. And, among folks like you who read dog magazines, six in every 10 walked their dogs every day.
Is dog walking really effective exercise? Many people are become interested in exercise to help lose excess weight. Obesity is a global epidemic, affecting about one in every three to four adults in the United States and Europe. Dog ownership and obesity were evaluated in Seattle, Wash., and Baltimore, Md., in a study published in the journal Preventive Medicine in September 2008. Dog owners who reported walking their dogs were almost 25 percent less likely to be obese than people without dogs. Researchers in the April 2008 issue of Health Promotion Journal of Australia reported that having a dog in the house reduced the risk of childhood obesity by half!
Plan for success. It’s easy to forget about healthy walking plans, so set the stage for a successful program:
So, grab a leash, whistle up the pup, and go for a walk—today and every day! Dog walking is a great way to jumpstart a healthy lifestyle program.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Honing dog's scenting abilities through fun and games.
Discover K9 Nose Work, the latest training activity that develops your dog’s natural scenting abilities through fun and games. The sport leverages every dog’s amazing sense of smell and their love of performing a task. Geared for dogs of all shapes, sizes and ages—K9 Nose Work has found enthusiastic participants seeking a lower impact canine activity that offers great rewards for both handlers and their dogs. By utilizing basic search dog skills, the sport builds confidence, burns off mental and physical energy, and reinforces the bond between dog and owner. All levels of performance reap these benefits and are welcome.
Watch a video of a Nose Work session in action and check out the following sites for more information on classes, tools for training and competition requirements.
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