By Greg Presto
For Dog Scouts of America (DSA) founder and director Lonnie Olson, the decision to found the organization in 1995 was as simple as staring at the wall.
“A repairman was in my house, looking at pictures on the walls of my dogs and I playing, and asked why I didn’t do those things with my kids,” Olson remembers. “And I said, ‘My dogs are my kids.’ As long as they want to do things, I want to do it with them.”
So the author and past president of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors launched DSA, an organization that started as a camp where dogs “can go and learn fun stuff, just like kids,” but has grown into an international nonprofit that focuses on enriching the lives of dogs by treating them not as property, but as parents would treat their children.
“I hesitate to use the term ‘parenting,’ because it makes people think that I dress my dogs up in silly hats or something,” Olson says. “But it’s an appropriate term: Parenting involves shaping a being, educating that being, and being a leader for them. You have to educate the dog and give [him] morals, just as you would help a child grow.”
Dog Scout camp is still the centerpiece of DSA’s efforts to improve the lives of dogs and their pet guardians. Held annually in St. Helen, Michigan, the five-day program focuses on teaching people how to teach their pets, rather than training them directly. Activities are much the same as those found at Boy and Girl Scout camps: hiking, backpacking, and even arts and crafts.
“We teach the dogs to paint,” Olson says. “They use their paws or their noses, and paint the picture because they want to. It seems bizarre, but it teaches the person that it’s easy to get a dog to do whatever you want through positive training, even if it’s something strange.”
The similarities to human Scout camps don’t end there. Dog Scouts work toward 60 merit badges in myriad categories, from backpacking and water safety to “All Dog Band,” a musical performance project.
“All Dog Band teaches the dog a different behavior, like painting, but using a different body part,” Olson says. “One of my Border Collies, Saikou, learned to play the maracas. She puts them in her mouth, and shakes her head on command.”
But while Dog Scout camp, in its 10th year, has been a great success for DSA, both Olson and certification program director Chris Puls are quick to point out that the organization is much more. As the troop leader of the Buckeye Bluegrass Brigade, a DSA troop in the Cincinnati area, Puls has helped organize weekly group walks, kayaking trips, as well as community service efforts, such as educational presentations on positive training at local schools and community centers, and fundraising efforts that provide safety equipment to local police K-9 units.
“It’s a great way to meet other dog people, and to do fun, family-oriented things with the dogs,” Puls says.
In her role as certification program director, Puls is helping DSA grow even further, creating programs through which Dog Scout hopefuls can earn their DSA certification and merit badges away from camp. With the Worldwide Certification Program, guardians can submit a videotape and written test to show what the dog—and the guardian—have learned.
“It really tests the handler,” Puls says. “There’s a lot they need to know to teach their dog the behaviors to earn a badge.”
Puls will also be heavily involved in DSA’s future, as Olson has named her as the organization’s next national director, succeeding the founder when Olson decides to step down from her post. Puls hopes to establish more troops, to expand internationally as she has with Canada’s first troop, in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and by establishing more weekend mini-camps like those held in Fort Worth, Texas.
“I want to see more recognition of the organization,” she says. “Eventually, I’d like it to be synonymous with the human organizations, where people naturally say, ‘Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Dog Scouts.’”
But for now, Olson continues to work toward DSA’s missions, from responsible pet guardianship to providing information aimed at decreasing the number of dogs that are killed each year.
“Why are so many perfectly good dogs thrown away?” Olson asks. “People wouldn’t throw their children away, and we want them to look at their relationship with their dogs in the same way. Dogs should be off chains and leashes, in houses enjoying their lives with their pet parents.”
One of founder Lonnie Olson’s many goals for DSA is to establish more troops in the Chicago area. “It’s such a big place, and people don’t want to drive all the way across the city to go,” she says. There are nearby troops in Woodstock, and Leland, and a proposed troop in nearby Downers Grove, but none in the city proper. If you or someone you know are interested in establishing a local troop, visit www.DogScouts.com to learn more.