Pack a camp dog; unpack staff stress.

There has been a large amount of attention lately being put on the topic of the mental health of summer camp staff. Rightfully so, as studies show that more than 80% of college students felt overwhelmed by all they had to do in the past year and 45% have felt things were hopeless.

While the very idea of coming to camp for a new counselor may sound uplifting, spontaneous, care-free, and “a break”, camp environments can also bring on stress, anxiety, and worry.

Camp directors have been reading up on the topic of mental health, attending presentations on how to best offer support to staff over the summer, and learning how to take care of themselves as to lead by example. Here’s one more, simple way to help your summer staff reduce feelings of anxiety and worry this summer…..bring a dog to camp!

The friendlier, the more playful, the sweeter the better! According to Purina Dog Foods, “When we are around animals, we become more joyous, communicative, expressive, and calm.” And Harvard Health Blog,  states that pets also improve people’s psychological well-being and self-esteem.

Playing with or petting an animal can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol. So if your camp does not yet have a dog, get looking! Maybe one of your seasoned staff has a trained dog that is good with children and large groups of people, if you don’t have a dog readily available at your home. We wouldn’t suggest buying a puppy now and planning on bringing it to camp. Dogs who are a little bit older and out of the puppy stage make a better camp fit. Also, puppies will take up a lot of your time, and time is not necessarily a free resource at camp.

When traveling recently through the Charlotte, NC, airport, I met a therapy dog, who volunteers with her owner to reduce stress of travelers. On a college campus yesterday, I witnessed a “de-stress with dogs” event to help students relax before finals week. Relaxing with dogs is a real thing.

Translating this theory to camp…I saw the advantages first hand last summer while at camp where three dogs all enjoyed camp life. Dog 1 visited only on walks through camp and got tons of hugs from mostly campers. Dog 2 was well trained and stayed off the leash but near his owner. This dog was “dog-sat” often by other staff members and by full bunks of campers. Dog 3 stayed on a leash and came to the office in the afternoons to sit on the porch and almost always had a visitor with him. The best part was the new activity entitled “Doggoe’s” which was camp-speak for your group being able to hang out with the dogs at the waterfront, swimming and playing. Easy to do, with huge results on the mental health radar.  The amount of dog-related activities at camp is endless, really.

The down-side of a camp dog? Yes, poop. Yes, barking at squirrels. The upsides? helping the self-esteem of your campers and staff, lower stress levels, a non-judgmental listener, a perfect hug, and contagious calm. Well worth it, if you ask me.




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