It’s 5 a.m. on a Thursday. Zuna DeLuca, a two-year-old hound dog, is lost in deep sleep under the covers of her “parents’” king-sized bed. Her legs are twitching, as are her eyes behind their lids. Zuna is lost in an exciting dog dream which doubtless includes a bone, half-destroyed tennis ball, or that fluffy white cat that tortures her from the neighbor’s yard. She will remain cozy and asleep until about 7 a.m., before sluggishly rising for her morning business. Zuna doesn’t know it yet, but her breakfast will be served 45 minutes early today. When that happens, she will quickly figure out that today is Thursday. Today is camp day, and the bus will be arriving shortly after breakfast to take her away for an amazing day outside with all her canine friends. Meanwhile, in the Oregon Coast Range 31 miles west of Corvallis, Oletta Lewis is awoken by several dogs’ whimpers. It’s time for her to start her day. After all, running a dog camp is a full-time job.
Oletta and her husband Lane own an 80-acre ranch near Eddyville. It’s called Adventurous K9, and it’s a bit like camp for dogs. Her staff consists of her five sons, mother, husband, one friend, and four dogs. Together they host upwards of 40 dogs every weekday without using cages or kennels. The clients all carry their own specially designed leashes, but they are rarely used to restrain the animals. The dogs are led on long hikes and allowed to play with their friends. They are picked up every weekday morning from five different cities on the coast or in the central valley, and returned home every afternoon.
But it’s not just a furry free-for-all at the ranch. Plenty of organization, planning, and practice goes into every successful day at Adventurous K9. At the heart of the process is a complicated conditioning technique developed over time by Oletta and her staff. She calls it “Quantum Pack Dynamics.” Every dog is assessed at their home before being accepted as a client, and again when they arrive at camp for the first time. The assessment determines behavior traits and likely roles of the new dog in a pack. From there, each dog’s training is broken into smaller pieces, hence the word quantum. The specific lessons taught to the new pack member allow them to integrate into the group.
Quantum Pack Dynamics took a long time to develop and refine, but Oletta explained that it’s quick to execute. “Some dogs will learn it within the first half hour, some it takes longer. It kind of depends on the dog. Usually they get it the first day. If they don’t get it, that just means we have a little more work to do.”
The cuddly campers appreciate the structure and accept Oletta and her staff as pack leaders. “The dogs trust in me to let me make all the decisions for them. So by the time I get done with my program with them they know what I want, and when I ask them to do it they’re going to do it. And they do it happily. They’re all smiles,” she said.
The idea for Quantum Pack Dynamics was born back in 2005 when Oletta was working as a special education teacher. She had dogs then, as now, and discovered that many of the techniques used in the classroom could work on her pack at home. Before long, word got out, and friends and family began leaving their four-legged kids in her capable hands. These “learning clients” were critical to refining the technique. In 2006, Adventurous K9 became an actual business with paying clients. In 2007, they added something truly unique to the business.
“Old Yeller” is the nickname of the first short school bus owned by Adventurous K9. It was refitted to accommodate dogs instead of children, and used to pick up and drop off clients. Imagine the surprise of motorists at the sight of a yellow bus filled with smiling dogs. The clients themselves have always loved the bus, and eagerly anticipate being picked up. Oletta explained, “I warn people that [the dogs] know the bus. Once they’ve been, they’ll know. And they know their days. If they’re on regular days, they know their days.”
Old Yeller is now retired, and serves only as an emergency backup to the two currently active buses. Their routes take them through Corvallis, Philomath, Lewisburg, Newport, Toledo, and Siletz. A number of clients living outside of Adventurous K9’s regular service area are still able to attend camp. Waldport, Yachats, and Reedsport clients meet the bus in South Beach. Portland and Salem clients meet the bus at a rest stop on I-5. Each bus is manned by one driver and one rider, who keep the passengers on their best behavior. In their current configurations, the coast bus holds up to 30 dogs while the valley version can carry 16.
How does the staff handle the arrival of so many dogs at once? The answer is gradually. When the dogs exit the bus, they are brought to a holding yard, new dogs last. Then Oletta brings her dogs out to meet the newcomers. They take as long as they need to get comfortable. For most dogs, it only takes a few minutes before they’re ready to go play. There are no problems with leash aggression at K9 camp. Oletta explained, “They’re introduced with no leash and nothing attached, so they have to basically learn to deal on their own instead of with their human partner.”
After a play period, the campers are separated into packs for their day’s activities. Oletta mostly predetermines the groupings on the previous night, based on factors like age, experience in camp, personality, and preferred playmates. Little dogs generally spend the day at “Grandma’s play yard.” Puppies and seniors are grouped together in one big pack for a full day of fun and frolicking. The more experienced dogs are broken into two hiking groups. In addition to the 80-acre property, Oletta’s staff also has access to miles of the surrounding BLM land. A two-hour hike group and all-day hiking group both hit backcountry trails for their exercise. Don’t worry about anyone getting lost on these hikes. The staff guides the packs carefully, and equips every dog with a GPS collar.
Everyone meets back at the ranch by about 3 p.m. and loads up on the buses for the trip home. Oletta’s work day doesn’t end when the campers go home. Adventurous K9 also does overnight boarding. With help from her husband, she corrals and controls the long-term campers. Clients can be booked for days, weeks, or even months.
Dog dinners are served around 5 p.m., followed by more playtime. Some nights, Oletta doesn’t find a free moment until 9 p.m., when most of the dogs have gone down for the night on their choice of a seemingly endless supply of dog beds. In addition to checking emails and returning calls of potential clients, Oletta manages to post about 100 pictures a night to her Facebook page. The parents of her clients eagerly await the photographic chronicles of their pet’s day at camp. Oletta finally settles in to bed around 10 or 11 p.m. to not be disturbed until 5 a.m. Unless, that is, someone has to go out for potty in the middle of the night.
Adventurous K9 runs year round, and has broken ground on construction of a massive indoor arena which will be used heavily in winter months.
Learn more at www.adventurousk9.com or look for the short yellow bus around town on weekday mornings and afternoons.
By Dave DeLuca