If you’re a dog owner, then you’ve probably experienced the quandary of what to do about vacations. Janice Costa, founder of Canine Camp Getaway, discusses why her Lake George, New York, retreat is the ultimate vacation destination for you and your four-legged friend.
Tell us about your love of dogs:
I’ve had dogs my entire life. After we lost our longtime family dog, a lab, I went to shelters all around New York looking for one. Instead, I adopted an enormous, unfriendly-looking shepherd mix. After I brought her home, nobody could visit my new house! She fiercely guarded me in my new home. I had no idea what to do; I had adopted Cujo.
Trainers kept telling me that I should put her to sleep or give her back to the shelter. Finally, one trainer informed me that she was a malinois/shepherd/collie mix, and thus a work dog, and needed a job. Without one, she took on the role of guard dog. He offered to train her, and I had to find work for her. We did obedience classes, agility training, and dog shows. I fell in love with dog sports and the dog world overall. I got to know a lot of dog people.
Did this lead to your idea for Canine Camp Getaway?
Yes, because I had a problem: at the time, I was traveling a lot for my job. It was hard for me, and it really wasn’t fair to my dog. I wanted to find a way that I could take her on vacation, but hotels then weren’t pet friendly—and if you found a hotel that was pet friendly, it probably only allowed small dogs. That’s when I wondered, “Wouldn’t it be great if I got a bunch of friends together to take our dogs on vacation?”
That evolved into me thinking it was a good idea for a business. Well, nobody else thought it was. I started calling hotels, focusing on upstate New York, where I’d spent summers as a little girl on Lake George. However, when I explained what I wanted to do, they’d hang up on me. Eventually, I found a place that agreed to meet. The hotel had sponsored Americade, which is a big motorcycle event upstate, so the owner saw the potential for this to grow and agreed to try it.
I pulled together a staff that included a veterinarian, my original dog trainer, and a few others, and we did a small camp that included health seminars and different dog sports. We only had twenty-seven campers, and it rained like crazy. But everyone had fun and said there was nothing else like it. It’s grown pretty much every year since.
How has it grown?
After the initial camp got to about seventy campers, it was time to do a second event. There are summer people and there are fall people—if you’ve got a big, hairy dog, June can be a little warm for you. However, the swimming dogs all want to come in June. So in 2013, we started doing two camps per year. Now we generally get one hundred campers in June and anywhere from seventy-five to ninety in September.
I also became a therapy dog evaluator, so we offer therapy dog prep classes and testing. We’ve had hundreds graduate through the program, which I love because there’s a ripple effect of helping others beyond the camp. That’s also why we do a lot of charitable events like silent auctions and visiting food banks and give back to various animal charities.
We now have two veterinarians on staff, and we’ve added dog yoga, canine freestyle dance, and more. We’ll usually do a seminar on cancer prevention, including easy ways to keep your dog healthier through diet. We want people to have fun, but we also want to give them tools to help their dogs live longer, healthier lives.
Tell us about the location, Roaring Brook Ranch:
What I liked about this place when we started was there was room to grow. There were approximately 135 rooms, and it had a huge conference center with four rooms, so I could do four indoor classes.
It’s also on three hundred acres of land, so there’s an enormous amount of space, including hiking trails and several big fields, so I’ll generally have eight different activities going on at once.
During the day, we try to give everyone a lot of space because that’s part of the joy of being in the country—if you’re used to being in a city environment, it’s nice to be able to just have wide-open spaces for you and your dog. There are nighttime activities, too, such as a dog-themed game show, dog bingo, and a dog-themed movie.
Do your campers experience a sense of community?
From day one, I wanted this to be a friendly place. Nobody here talks about their jobs or their statuses. It’s all about one authentic connection: we love our dogs. That makes it so much easier to meet other people. My yearly campers are also amazing, taking the initiative to make new people feel at home.
As a result, people stay in touch long after camp with group emails. I also have an alumni Facebook group that most of the campers belong to and everybody updates—if a dog is sick, everybody else sends good wishes; if a dog wins a sports event, people are excited. These connections are amazing and far beyond anything I ever could have dreamed up when I started this.
Do the pooches find pals as well?
It’s amazing. Visitors get off the NYS Thruway to go into Lake George, and the dogs start barking like crazy. They know exactly where they are heading. The dogs make friends every year and light up when they see each other.
What are some of the more popular activities?
People don’t usually let dogs truly run free. Society has rules: you can’t chase that, you can’t do that. Here they can. In fact, many dogs run right out of the cars when they get here because they’re excited and have so much pent-up energy. So we encourage them to take off around our giant field dedicated to lure coursing, which is a very popular activity. Some enjoy the agility activities and can’t wait to run the obstacles.
The dogs love the pool, too. You see labs and golden retrievers running and jumping in, and tennis balls are flying everywhere. We’ve got a little bichon that rides its boogie board and then jumps off. Some will swim, and others (especially little dogs) will just hang out on floats and relax.
Is this your full-time job? If not, how do you juggle this with your career?
I’ve worked full time in the kitchen-and-bath design industry for over twenty-five years. I do some freelance writing and pet-friendly design, and I’m starting a video blog. But camp is something that is always there in my mind because it takes a lot of planning. By November, my right-hand woman and I will start working on weekends, planning events, researching what’s happening in the dog world, planning schedules, asking if we should add anything, and shopping for camp.
I’m sure if I calculated how much money I make for the hours I put in, I’d be horrified. [Laughs] But it was never about money. This was initially a gift to my dog: I want to know when she is old and lying by the fireplace that she can think, “Wow. Remember that time I was in the pool and I had the best time?”
Is this what makes Canine Camp Getaway special?
People love their dogs, but they tend to multitask and not fully engage with them because there’s so much going on. Here you break away from it all and truly engage with your dog, and, yes, I think that’s special. Because of the experience and education, your dog is going to have a better quality of life. It’s a vacation that a regular pet owner would go on as well as a hardcore dog sport person.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of this venture?
I think we are increasingly a lonely and disconnected society. We have so much technology, but we don’t connect the way people did years ago. Dogs make people feel connected, loved, and understood. As somebody who is single, I can tell you: I have a close-knit family who lives nearby, but my dogs are my family.
To connect with other people who love their dogs and see the world the way you do is extraordinary. I think that’s part of why these Canine Camp relationships hold up year after year. No matter who you are or your life situation, the only thing that matters is that we all love dogs—and that creates an instant connection.
So the most rewarding part is absolutely the community. I never imagined the community that we would build—I just wanted to take my dog on vacation and get other people to do it, too. If my legacy is that I created something where people connect and make each other’s lives better, I’m happy with that.
For more info, visit caninecampgetaway.com