Canine Counselors Make Camp Fun for Kids With Serious Illnesses

Camp director Ryan Brownfield says he’s in awe of the change in the children. “The transformation is the thing that gets me each camp session,” he says.

One recent camper suffered from behavioral and anger issues. Brownfield says, “We weren’t sure if we would be able to have him at camp or that he’d be able to stay here.” However, after a couple of nights working with the canine counselors on the agility course and spending some calming time with the pups, the camper made a turnaround, even opening up during group sessions about his struggles.

Courtesy of Flying Horse Farms
A camper gets a cuddle from a canine counselor.

Dane recalls one camper with a debilitating fear of thunderstorms. During a storm one night, the canine counselors visited the cabins as they do each evening. The scared child, cuddling with the dog, suddenly took on a more nurturing role and began comforting the dog. “It made him less afraid,” Dane says. After bonding with the pup that night, the boy began showing bravery in other areas of camp life, including conquering his fear of water. “By the end of camp, we were all calling him ‘Deep End Ken’!” Dane says.

Working with the dogs on agility and training also builds confidence and a sense of mastery for the kids, which, for some, is a rare feeling, Dane says. By learning to “train” the dogs and give them commands, the children are able to, for once, call the shots.

Quiet Comfort

Having the dogs onsite is also helpful for kids who may be homesick and missing their own pets. And, Dane says, some children who can’t have their pets at home because of their treatment light up when they can spend time with the canine counselors.

Though the camp experience is designed to help kids forget their illnesses, sometimes it’s not possible, and campers need a friend to lean on.

Sills recalls a camper who is battling cancer. The camper was in the medical shed receiving treatment. “He was in so much pain he couldn’t talk,” Sills says. The trainers brought one of the dogs to visit. The dog jumped right into bed with the boy, and cuddling and petting the pup seemed to help the young camper tolerate his treatment better. For some kids, the benefits are so notable that they’ve gone on to get therapy dogs after camp.

“There is something special about animals because they give that love back," Sills says.

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