NEW YORK – Autumn may be too late to take the kids away, but for those who have four-footed little ones it could be the ideal time for a family camping trip.
Havens are popping up across the country where man and his best friend can spend quality time together. For some, there's nothing like snuggling up to a cold, wet nose.
Stopping just short of offering romantic candlelit dinners for pups and owners, Camp Dogwood (search) in Illinois, Gone to the Dogs (search) in Vermont and The Dog's Camp (search) in North Carolina give pooches and people the opportunity to get cozy — whiling away the hours making crafts, prepping for costume contests and curling up by the fire before retiring to their shared sleeping quarters.
"I was always looking for something to do with my dogs," said Alisa Olbando of Chicago, who has attended Camp Dogwood six times. "Vacationing with your dogs isn't always easy, because most hotels don't allow them or charge a big fee. I thought this was a great way to do that and not only hang out with dogs, but meet other like-minded dog people."
Olbando said the camp is a blast. "Every time I leave, it's just so depressing," she said.
To keep up the camaraderie all year long, she launched TheCanineClub.com, an online resource for dog lovers in the Chicago area.
Camp Dogwood's fall session (Oct. 8-11) is the most popular, attracting some 125 campers and their pups, said camp director David Eisendrath.
"It's a place where they can come with their dogs to get away from distractions that keep them from spending time with their dogs," he said.
The average two-legged camper is around 35 to 45 years old, but the personalities are as mixed as a mutt.
Olbando recalled two best (human) friends who attended Camp Dogwood. One brought a very active dog; the other had a Chihuahua she carried around the whole time and dressed in sweaters.
Eisendrath said he sees a lot of couples who come together with their pets, or half of a couple who attends with a dog.
"Sometimes the dog is the child of the family, and sometimes it's just the pet that people like to have a good time with," he said. "We do see more and more people looking to their pets to get the same kind of benefits out of a relationship they used to reserve solely for their children, and it's nice to see people celebrating that."
There's nothing wrong with loving your dog, said Judith Horowitz, a psychologist in Coral Spring, Fla. — as long as you remember that it's a pet and not a child.
"If you have children, I think there ought to be in one's mind a clear differentiation between how you treat your children and how you treat your dogs," she advised.
Married couples often dote on their dogs to avoid facing problems in their relationships that arise after the kids have left the house, said Horowitz.
"I can't even tell you how many couples say, I prefer my dog to my partner (because) the dog doesn't give them any grief."
Held on the grounds of a kid's summer camp, Camp Dogwood attendees bunk in cabins with their furry friends and chow down in the canteen (the only place pooches aren't permitted), while the dogs munch in the adjacent Barking Lot.
Whether you have hands or paws, classic camp activities like arts-and-crafts are on the daily schedule. Eisendrath said the dogs make concrete paw prints and paint by wearing booties dipped in different colors. The owners construct new doggie toys or sew a square dedicated to their four-legged counterpart that will be added to a full camp quilt.
And an event called the Dogwood Follies involves costume, talent and trick competitions. Eisendrath said he's seen dogs dressed as everything from Elvis to a bird.
"You want your dog to be the one that shines, just like people do with their kids," Olbando said.
Exercising with your dog is healthy, said Horowitz, but "if you are doing arts-and-crafts and designing costumes to the point that it becomes intrusive upon your pet, then you know that's not such a healthy avocation. A dog is not responsible for an adult's entertainment."
Other autumnal doggie camps include Camp Gone to the Dogs (described on the Web site as "A celebration of dogs and all of the ways they bring joy into our lives"). Fall camps are offered Sept. 5-11 and 11-18 in Stowe, Vt.
And if your idea of camping includes tightly tucked sheets, The Dog's Camp — held Sept. 19-24 at Claxton Farm in Fletcher, N.C. — could be the ticket. Attendees stay at the local Holiday Inn.
Still, while camping with Fido can be fun, using a dog as a substitute for human interaction can be unhealthy, said Horowitz.
"It's the individual need for unconditional love that drives them to be as involved with their pet as going to camp with them," she said. "Something smacks of it being a little bit over the top. Your life becomes consumed by your pet."
Not that there's anything wrong with spending quality time with a beloved pet.
But as Horowitz reminded, "You cannot make a dog into a person."