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Off leash, relaxed, and ready to play

Camp's a romp when owners unwind with their canine pals

Email|Print| Text size + By Bess Hochstein
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2005

Lenox -- My boys were excited when we left the house on a sunny Friday afternoon in June. Especially when I opened the car door and told them they were going to camp. Then again, they always get excited when they go for a ride in the car. Usually it means they're going to see friends, or meet some new ones. Little did they know how right they were this time.

Duffy and Hobbs are my two Pembroke Welsh corgis. Together, we were off to the second session of Camp Unleashed, a new camp in the Berkshires for dogs and their people. My pups were in for a long weekend of doggie fun at Camp Mah-Kee-Nac, a summer camp for boys nestled on the Stockbridge Bowl, just down the road from Tanglewood. (The next session is scheduled Sept. 9-11.)

At the registration table, Annie Brody, Camp Unleashed's founder, greeted us with a welcome package including the activity schedule and a goodie bag with collapsible water bowls, a squeaky toy, and bone-shaped biscuits with each dog's name spelled out in carob icing.

Then the campers jumped into planned activities. Friday afternoon began with a guided nature hike through the woods. While the humans treaded carefully along the trail, on the lookout for poison ivy, the dogs sorted out their relationships. Several people kept their dogs on leash, especially those pooches with little experience running free. The majority ran and barked wildly, unrestrained and uninhibited.

The breeds ranged from a gentle young Rhodesian ridgeback named Phoebe to a passel of lap dogs, some of whom got a lift from their humans along the trail.

The hike wore the dogs out before the next session, a workshop called ''Doglish: Understanding how dogs communicate." Brody guided us to a firepit in the woods, humans enticed by cold drinks and snacks and dogs by a bountiful platter of multihued treats. Bryna Davidow, an obedience trainer, described some of the things people commonly do that dogs consider impolite, such as staring directly into their eyes, pointing cameras in their faces, patting them on top of their heads, and hugging them around their necks. She also explained basic canine body language, such as how they communicate submissiveness or nervousness, and behaviors they use as calming signals, such as looking sideways or shifting their eyes, blinking, yawning, stretching, and licking their noses.

Afterward, campers headed to the cafeteria for dinner, which everyone brought outside to eat at picnic tables so they could be with their dogs, some of whom quickly revealed their skill at swiping food. Dogs were fed on their own schedule, away from the pack to avoid food fights. The day ended with s'mores and dog talk around the campfire. Duffy and Hobbs skipped the evening activities. They looked in need of rest, having missed their nap time (which often can be most of the day).

The next two days featured a full range of dog-focused activities, each time slot presenting a choice of vigorous sessions such as agility training and flyball, or indoor workshops on various forms of obedience training or bodywork for dogs. Campers also could skip the organized programs for more hiking, unstructured playtime, or basic R&R. At one point, most of the campers ended up on the beach, where the dogs romped wildly in the water.

The campers formed relationships quickly. Shaggy white Shugga and husky Shadow were fast friends, while Mickey, a 4-year-old basenji, had it in for Hobbs from the start. Hobbs, a former stray heretofore friendly with all dogs, developed an animosity toward Bentley, a 7-month-old golden retriever. As is common at camp, a summer romance also blossomed: Phoebe took an instant shine to Bentley and the two could barely keep their paws off each other. The dog owners took the few minor spats in stride, with a constructive ''dogs-will-be-dogs" attitude. No real fights erupted, as the pooches seemed to relish the relaxed atmosphere.

Summer camp usually presents an opportunity to try something new. The corgis, for example, had never tried agility, and my expectations were low. Duffy is afraid of walking upstairs, and both he and Hobbs must be carried downstairs. Lois Platt, a certified pet dog trainer and the animal control officer of Great Barrington, was running the agility workshops and brought a cadre of trainers with her. She set up two courses, one for beginners and another for more experienced students. With so many trainers, campers barely had to wait to take on the hurdles, tunnels, weave poles, chutes, and other obstacles in agility courses.

Duffy and Hobbs started in the beginner ring, but by afternoon, they had graduated to the more challenging course, surprising me by quickly mastering the dog walk, which entails running up a steep ramp, walking across a narrow plank suspended several feet off the ground, then descending the ramp at the other side. By the end of the weekend, both had conquered the daunting see-saw as well.

Other campers had their own breakthroughs. Emily Silverman of Amherst was delighted when Mickey mastered the chute.

''I didn't think he'd want to try it," she said. ''He's a tough dog, but the unknown is hard for him. I was proud of him. You can see the concentration on his face as he emerges. Or maybe he's just focusing on the treats."

Even treats couldn't lure hydrophobic Hobbs into the lake, though I was hoping to turn my landlubber into a swimmer. Other campers were more successful. Bentley's owner, Norman Biron of Adams, was thrilled to learn how to control his dog during swim time, and Joanna Greenfield was ecstatic when her anxiety-prone 7-year-old cocker spaniel, Godzuki, took her first-ever swim.

''I've tried to get her wading before," said Greenfield. Though cocker spaniels are usually avid swimmers, ''she just seemed uninterested. But this time she just went right in. I was blown away; she just walked into the water and started swimming."

The June session was Greenfield's second vacation at Camp Unleashed; she attended the inaugural weekend last September with her cavalier King Charles spaniel Charlie, another rescue dog.

''I told Annie he's had seven owners, he's head shy, he has severe separation anxiety, he's nervous around other dogs, he hates being touched," she said. ''Everybody thought I was a dog hypochondriac."

But when she pulled her car into camp, ''He jumped out and he ran around and schmoozed with every dog and every person. I think they were just so happy and relaxed and it was the first time he had ever seen dogs and people in such a relaxed state."

The greatest transformation came in the agility ring. She started Charlie on the beginner course, where, as she recalled, ''He was the slowest to learn every single trick. I brought him back later, and we sat together and watched intently as other dogs ran through the advanced course. Then we went in and he did the whole course at a run. He did all the things that he was afraid of, and then he ran up to everyone and did a little happy dance. It was like magic. Then he was running the whole course with anyone who wanted to take him through; the other dogs ran along with him. He went from being the scared, barky dog to being the camp socialite. It was like he just decided people were fun things. He had seemed to be anticipating danger from everybody, and all of a sudden he wasn't."

Camp also proved therapeutic for some of the humans. Because of an illness in her family, Silverman had not been away from home for years until her stepdaughter gave her the gift of a free weekend.

''My friends thought it was a little out there," Silverman said of her decision to attend dog camp. In addition to agility sessions, she also enjoyed canine massage and Tellington Touch workshops, indoor classes that offered valuable instruction in relaxing and therapeutic bodywork for dogs.

''I had never done anything like this before," Silverman said. ''I thought it was a really nice outlet, very relaxing, with the dogs resting at our feet -- except when they got riled up." She was referring to Mickey's sudden aggression toward Hobbs, who took a seat next to me on the bench and fell asleep, unfazed, as I made bandannas for him and Duffy.

Among the 21 human and 26 canine campers were many who, like Silverman, were enjoying their first experience at camp. Oliver, a shy Havanese, had never even been out of New York City. His companion, Patricia Karpas, was so impressed with the canine nutrition presentation by Donna Raditic, a veterinarian in Great Barrington, that she was planning her second trip to the Berkshires for a dietary consultation on Oliver. Others, like Shadow, the Siberian husky from Manhattan, were veteran campers; he had previously attended Camp Gone to the Dogs in Vermont. His companion, Harry Nance, decided to come to Camp Unleashed this year because the long-weekend format suited him better than the weeklong sessions of the other camp.

While Brody, its founder, envisioned Camp Unleashed as a country vacation for city dogs and their best friends, the majority of campers have come from rural and suburban Massachusetts and upstate New York. Some attended as day campers. Others chose to enroll as sleep-away campers, including second-timers Ellie Steffans and her elderly black Lab, Budda Bebe, from Woodstock, N.Y., and Greenfield, Godzuki, and Charlie, from Chatham, N.Y.

''I was having such a good time socializing with dog people," Greenfield said. ''It's so great being able to tell dog stories to other people and not having their eyes glaze over. It's such a loving, happy group of people; you feel it the moment you walk into camp, how much people love their dogs, no matter how badly they behave."

Bess Hochstein is a freelance writer in the Berkshires.

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