When Doris Banfield says she's going to the dogs, she's not kidding. For more than 10 years, she and her two bearded collies, Lorna and Buddy, have traveled from their home in Tahoe City, Calif., to Camp Gone to the Dogs in Putney, Vt. There the threesome spends a week playing sports and games and participating in lectures and contests. They even do arts and crafts together. The experience always leaves two of them wagging their tails.
"The dogs make the trip more fun because they're so excited about everything - from the car ride to making friends in hotels along the way to the camp itself," says Ms. Banfield.
But she's not the only one singing - or barking - the praises of camps that offer four-legged campers and their owners a bucolic place to vacation together.
During the past 15 years, more than a dozen canine camps have sprung up in the US. The trend is even catching on in Europe. Experts say it's fueled by the fact that many people consider their pets to be members of the family and don't want to be separated from them even on vacation.
"My dogs know [camp] is a special time, because they get to be with 'Mom' 24 hours a day," says Ginny Vendes, an office manager from Chicago who went to Dog Scout Camp in St. Helen, Mich., with her 12-year-old niece and three shelties. "[The dogs and I] do everything together; they even eat and sleep with me."
The number of those who feel the same - and are willing to pay $750 to $1,300 for the privilege - is growing by leaps and bounds, camp owners say.
"When we started out, we were the first camp for dogs and their owners in the country," says Honey Loring, owner of Camp Gone to the Dogs, which had 57 people at the first session in 1990. Today she fills a lodge with 125 human campers and their canine companions for each ofthe three summer sessions. Dogs and their owners travel from as far away as Australia and Japan.
Over the years, she has become increasingly creative with the activities offered. If a dog has always wanted to develop a hobby other than tail chasing, he or she can learn to jump rope, skateboard, square dance, or paint pictures. (Banfield has one of Lorna's Picasso-esque watercolors hanging in her living room.)
The camp now offers more than 120 classes, including obedience training, agility, swimming, and hiking, as well as evening educational classes, for humans only, and a dog/owner talent show and costume party.
Other camps have a variety of themes and atmospheres to choose from. Camp Dogwood, located in the Chicago area, offers year-round themed camps, including a winter "Woof-Inn," a spring beach party, a lakeside summer camp session, and a "howl-oween" party in fall.
Competitive Edge Sports Camp in Cornwall on the Hudson, N.Y., provides week-long agility-training sessions in which serious canine competitors scale ramps, burst through tunnels, and traverse seesaws.
During the day, small classes cover fundamentals, sequencing skills, intricate handling, problem solving, and game strategy. After lights-out for the pooped pups, their owners get together for social events and lectures on caring for their four-legged athletes.
For those who want their pets to develop a social conscience, Dog Scout Camp might be just the ticket. As with the Boy and Girl Scouts, dogs can earn merit badges in 60 different activities, ranging from backpacking and cart-pulling to search and rescue and picking up cans that have become litter.
A leadership-training program even shows owners how to start dog scout troops in their local areas. "We're trying to make people and their dogs more active in their communities," says Lonnie Olson, a veteran dog trainer who opened Dog Scout Camp in 1996. "We're also trying to create as many responsible dog owners and dog citizens [as possible] to act as role models."
That may be a worthy goal, but for most camp attendees, human or canine, the camp experience is measured by one yardstick: Is it fun to go there?
Ms. Vendes gives her experience at Dog Scout Camp an enthusiastic two paws up. "It's the only vacation spot where you don't have to worry that somebody's going to be bothered that you brought your dogs along," she says.
While Barfield loves spending time with her dogs, she says it's the people who keep her coming back to Camp Gone to the Dogs. "It's like a big family reunion because so many of us have become such good friends over the years - not just the people, but the dogs, too."
Campers exchange e-mails, phone calls, and Christmas cards during the year, providing news about special events in their own lives as well as in their faithful companions'.
"Building community among campers is just as important as strengthening the bond between owners and their dogs," says Alysa Slay, cofounder of Camp Dogwood. Its campers stay in touch via a newsletter and an online chat room at the camp's website.
Such follow-up builds on one of the main attractions of canine camp - dog lovers spending time with other dog lovers and talking about their favorite subject.
The dogs, of course, must do their "talking" with happy yips as they lie in the sun and dream of being back at camp again.