Dogs Ramp It Up for Some Very Special Children at an Ohio Camp

Children Camping with Pet Dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • There’s a very special summer camp for kids with serious illnesses such as cancer, heart, lung, and kidney disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. The camps are run by Flying Horse Farms of Mount Gilead, Ohio
  • Flying Horse Farms camps have a very special feature: canine counselors. The dogs are ever-present at the camp, where the kids take them through agility courses and train them to do tricks. The dogs are also present for most camp activities to support and provide an outlet for the children
  • The dogs provide an invaluable service to the campers by creating smiles, reducing anxiety levels, building confidence and a sense of mastery in the kids, and providing quiet comfort and unconditional support when needed

By Dr. Becker

Flying Horse Farms is a non-profit organization in Mount Gilead, Ohio that runs camps for children with serious illnesses. Their motto is, “For a week at a time, being sick takes a backseat to being a kid.”

A Special Camping Experience for Some Very Special Kids

The children who attend camp are battling conditions such as cancer, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, rheumatoid arthritis, blood disorders, gastrointestinal disease, and craniofacial abnormalities. Despite their illness, the kids are encouraged to run, jump, play, swim, and participate in other activities that interest them. They can go boating, fishing, or hiking. They can learn archery or work on arts and crafts projects.

The camps are completely free for all participants, and in 2014, over 800 kids made their way to Mount Gilead, Ohio and a Flying Horse Farms camping adventure.

Mount Gilead looks just like any other summer camp, with a lake, swimming pools, outdoor amphitheaters, and plenty of open play areas. But behind the scenes, there’s a lot of special stuff going on. Doctors and medical personnel from all over Ohio volunteer their time to care for the campers. Ropes courses are modified for kids who can’t walk. There are wheelchair ramps leading out to campfire areas. Fully stocked medical stations are strategically placed throughout the camp, and a state-of-the-art medical facility is staffed with doctors and nurses. There’s even a helicopter pad for emergencies.

Canine Camp Counselors Are a Special Feature at Flying Horse Farms

Another very unique feature of Flying Horse Farms is that not all the camp counselors are two-legged. There’s also a team of friendly, well-trained, kid-loving canine counselors onboard to make sure the children get the most from their camping experience.

The dogs are provided to the camp by Joel Slaven, a trainer and animal rescuer. All of Slaven’s dogs are rescues, and each year several of them and their trainers go to camp to liven things up and make important connections with the kids. Last summer, three agility dogs and three therapy dogs and their handlers were onsite at Flying Horse Farms. The dogs who are selected for camp must be comfortable being handled and hugged by lots of kids, and must have the energy and motivation to run and play with them as well.

The canine counselors play two roles with the children. One of their jobs is to allow the kids to work with them, running them through agility courses and teaching them tricks. The dogs also visit various activities throughout the day to give the campers an opportunity to play and laugh and connect with them.

Although the dogs are always around and involved in much of the camp’s schedule, allergic or fearful children are managed in such a way that they feel safe and comfortable, and are also able to participate in all the activities they enjoy.

Canine Counselors Offer Short- and Long-Term Benefits for Campers

The dogs at Flying Horse Farms provide both short and long-term benefits for the children. Their presence raises the camp’s happiness quotient, while at the same time reducing anxiety, improving the kids’ confidence, and providing quiet companionship when needed.

The presence of the dogs also encourages uncommunicative kids to open up. Working with a dog on the agility course can help children with behavioral problems gain confidence and composure. The dogs are also beneficial for children with phobias or generalized anxiety. Some children leave camp after a week having overcome challenges like fear of the water.

Working with the dogs on agility and training gives kids a sense of mastery, which can be a rare feeling for a youngster living day-to-day with a debilitating illness.

The canine counselors are also a welcome presence for homesick children and those who are missing their own pets, as well as kids who can’t have a pet at home due to their illness or treatment protocol. And for children who fall ill at camp or must receive sometimes-painful medical treatments, the presence of a warm furry body offering unconditional acceptance helps them cope.

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