Camp Gone to the Dogs offers man and his best friend a new leash on life

July 04, 1993|By Jack Severson | Jack Severson,Knight-Ridder News Service

Honey Loring is a self-proclaimed dog nut.

"Certifiable," she declared a while back before the cameras of CBS-TV's "Sunday Morning."

Partial proof of her condition can be seen in the fenced front yard of her frame home on the edge of the tiny southeastern Vermont village of Putney: two white female standard poodles, Athena and Olympia, and Joy, a female greyhound rescued from a nearby racetrack after she was retired.

Then there are the license plates. The plates on her Honda Civic read "POODLE"; on her Toyota pickup they say "TAILS UP" ("Because when your dog is happy, its tail is up," she explains).

But the weightiest piece of evidence that Ms. Loring is canine-crazy is Camp Gone to the Dogs, a summer camp she established in 1990 for dog lovers and the objects of their affection.

"Originally, I was thinking about starting a camp for kids who loved dogs," says Ms. Loring. "But then, I said to myself, 'Wait a minute. I'm not a kid, but I love dogs -- and I want to go to camp.' "

So, Camp Gone to the Dogs -- two back-to-back one-week sessions each summer, with 150 adult campers and staffers and about 200 dogs -- was born.

The camp began life in what Ms. Loring terms "rustic" surroundings. She obtained the use, at summer's end, of a nearby camp for girls where the maintenance of facilities proved to be less than zealous. "The plumbing wasn't at all reliable," Ms. Loring says. "And the campers slept in tents with sidewalls that were made only of screening about halfway up, so every time it rained, their beds and all their belongings got soaked."

And it rained a lot during that inaugural one-week session attended by 60 campers and their dogs. But despite the camp's nearly living up to its name, Ms. Loring -- a seemingly indefatigable 43-year-old with boundless energy and enthusiasm -- and her campers survived the week. In fact, Ms. Loring says they more than survived -- they enjoyed themselves. "Some of that first group of people are among our most loyal campers," she says. "Many of them have come back every year since."

In 1991, the camp's second year, CBS sent a reporter and camera crew to do a feature for "Sunday Morning," and Dog Fancy magazine carried a long article on Camp Gone to the Dogs. The publicity brought inquiries by the hundreds, Ms. Loring says, and the 1992 camp sessions were fully booked by October '91. (This year's sessions, June 20 to 26 and June 27 to July 3, were booked, but non-campers could attend lectures and activities -- without their dogs -- for a small fee.)

One reason for the camp's success may be the change in facilities. Camp Gone to the Dogs now makes use of the dormitories, dining hall and 500 acres of fields and forests of the Putney School, a nearby private boarding school that is also a working farm.

So, who goes to Camp Gone to the Dogs?

Dog nuts, of course. The kind of people who, well . . . let Barbara Burton of Lancaster, Pa., describe them, as she did in the camp's brochure: "Here you can give hugs and kisses to your pets and everyone knows this is normal."

There are serious dog owners who go to camp to take advantage of the professional instruction offered in everything from obedience and show-ring techniques to health care and hunting skills.

Then there are those who just want to get away with their dogs for a week in the foothills of the Green Mountains, and who couldn't care less about the more than 25 classes, workshops, lectures and clinics offered each day.

The campers, both two- and four-legged, run the gamut of possible types.

"We have 85 breeds, plus mixed breeds, coming from 27 states, Canada and Bermuda this year," Ms. Loring says. "And there are all kinds of people, in every gender, gender-preference, color, size and shape. The age range this year is 18 to 82. We're just a big, crazy dog family."

And while she takes great pride in her staff of 40 instructors, trainers and lecturers, Ms. Loring is quick to emphasize that Camp Gone to the Dogs "is not a boot camp. We want people to come and enjoy themselves -- and to have their dogs enjoy themselves, too." A prominent instruction on the sheet listing daily activities reads: "Do it all, or just sit around, kiss your dog and eat bon-bons."

That latter choice will be reflected on this year's official camp T-shirt, Ms. Loring says. The shirt carries the camp logo -- a drawing of four dogs sitting around a campfire, cooking hot dogs on sticks -- with a legend, changed every year, beneath it. This year's wording will be "Remember the bon-bons." The back of each shirt carries a drawing of the south end of a dog heading north, tail high in the air, and the camp's motto, "Tails up!"

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