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.
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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.