If you had asked me before I went to Camp Gone to the Dogs what a cookie-spitter was, I would have said someone who gobbled so many Oreos they erupted. So, I stood stunned during a September weekend in Stowe, Vermont, as I watched a woman pop a “cookie” (in this case, a bit of cheese) into her mouth, chomp a few times, then let the wet crumbs fall directly into the eagerly waiting jaws of a golden retriever.
Welcome to my eye-opening, rejuvenating week in a glorious setting of swaths of green grass, mature leafy trees, and big open fields as I bonded with my dear Maltipoo, Manny. Yes, I am a midlife woman who has gone on a getaway with her Maltipoo. The cookie spit, the introduction to “crack” (morsels of Italian meatball), and an immersion in arcane words and training methods like “rally” (methods for showing your dog at a place I would never go, like Westminster Dog Show) were just the beginning of the experience.
Travels with My Pooch
A friend originally described dog camp to me as a place you could “play with and train your dog all day and drink with other women of ‘a certain age’ all evening.” It sounded like a hoot I could have with my peers. Even more, I wanted a week’s adventure for Manny and me, to help me bust me out of my rut—too much working from home, too much attention to the needs of others, too much everydayness. I wanted to understand my dog better and I wanted to learn something. Manny, who brilliantly fulfilled his job as lapdog at home, also needed some formal education.
When I signed up, I didn’t know that only five of the 55 campers were newbies, like me, and the rest returnees. Nor did I know, until I experienced the atmosphere at the Mountaineer Inn on its gorgeous grounds, that dogs are an all-consuming thing for some people, like stamp collecting, horse dressage, or golf.
I witnessed a whole new world as I watched owners, trainers, and canines of all types bond with the single purpose of learning and performing—catching a Frisbee, hunting for a live rat in a simulated barn, finding the light at the end of a big plastic tunnel, and more. These dogs and people were pursuing excellence together in myriad ways and doing it with every ounce of determination in them. And for the first time, since I was being trained to train him, Manny and I were a real team.
So, clueless at the beginning, and a little nervous before the audience of other campers and their dogs, I soon got the hang of weaving Manny through a series of upright poles, bribing him to do my bidding with some “crack,” and shouting out commands like an Army sergeant.
Dog Boot Camp: Getting Schooled
In the so-called Puppy Kindergarten, where Manny (age seven, incidentally) and I probably earned a grade of C, I overheard two people discussing in detail the virtues of Dremel. I later discovered this was a brand of dog toenail grinder. Nooo, I thought. You Poodle aficionados go too far. Over the week, I began to realize there might be some truth to the idea that people can actually look like their dogs. Maybe that’s why some so enjoyed fussing with their dog’s toenails.
Even though I was far less serious than most of the other campers, I began to see how my behavior changed Manny’s during the course of a few days. When I persisted, he progressed. When I lost concentration, as I did when I shortened up on the leash while learning how to navigate around a potentially aggressive dog, I was gently advised to remain relaxed and confident. Practice finally made my moves automatic.
Replacing the Kids
Linda Summersgill, of Moorestown, N. J., whose dogs Ruckus (Miniature American Shepherd) and Pearl (English Springer Spaniel) are trained like champions, described what working with her dogs does for her, echoing the experience of others: “This has stretched me and taught me so much. If you had told me I’d be doing this now at this time of my life, when my kids are grown, I would never have believed it.”
Some might think a week’s vacation with one’s dog is an expensive, meaningless indulgence. For many of us, our dogs gave us a way to redirect and reconnect with the love and compassion we lavished on children who had outgrown such close attention; plus, we were meeting new, unusual people, challenging ourselves, and laughing. A lot.
After dinner each night, instructor Mare Potts read invented daily reports from the field, anthropomorphizing the dogs who participated. “And then I opened the screen door all by myself to go on a great adventure,” read Potts of Australian Shepherd Gracie’s adventures. “I walked all the way around the Lodge and found snacks on the ground while everyone was looking everywhere for me, screaming my name. I had so much fun! Until Arlene found me dragging my leash and brought me back.”
More Than Mere Mammals
Of course we know intellectually that dogs are garbage-loving, rodent-killing, shoe-chewing creatures sometimes capable of violence toward each other and people. Yet to me and most of the other campers, our dogs are more than mere mammals we walk on leashes, more than con artists who wag their tails to cadge room and board. They make it clear by what they do, even by the expressions on their furry faces, that they understand our moods and want to obey our commands as best they can, all the while accepting us unconditionally.
Part of the reason for this unlikely, perhaps exaggerated love fest between humans and canines was surely the spell of the “love hormone,” oxytocin, proven to be produced when mothers and infants, as well as dogs and their owners, look into each other’s eyes. Unlike some of our fellow humans, our dogs never reject us, always forgive us and constantly want to please.
Going to dog camp changed some things for Manny and me. Now when I call him, he races to me instead of grudgingly meandering. He knows how to wait for a treat and how to heel. I accomplished my mission of shaking myself out of the doldrums and awakening to the world around me. I’m not a cookie-spitter and I never will be, but when all is said and done, I know I’m Manny’s special human. And he’s my best friend.