Spot watches you snap your suitcases shut, drag them out to the car, and knows: it's time to go to the kennel.
He cowers in a corner, his huge, chocolate-brown eyes staring pitifully, appealing for mercy, knowing a metal cage and concrete run await him.
Maybe he'd leap out the door with his tail wagging if he knew he'd be romping in fields of silky green grass, paddling around in a cool pond and feasting on specially prepared meals for the next week or more.
Spot would be doing this and more if his owners registered him for pet camp while they take their own vacation.
Folks who run these pet resorts call them "camps," but it doesn't mean dogs howl around a camp fire or build bird houses in arts and crafts sessions. But they do go on nature walks, swim in a pond and play catch or Frisbee. And counselors can accommodate pet owner's requests to read their letters to their dogs, throw birthday parties for them or feed them a special diet. They'll even deliver Spot back to you when the fun is over.
Sound silly? Those who are entrusted with the welfare of animals don't think so.
"Our business is offering peace of mind to dog owners and taking care of the health of pets," says Jim Krack, executive director of the American Boarding Kennel Association. "Whatever it takes to offer peace of mind is legitimate. When you think about it, reading a letter to a pet is really silly. But if it gives peace of mind to the owners then that's fine."
More and more kennel owners are cashing in on the summer camp concept as consumers treat their pets more like children and demand more bark for their buck. As of 1992, says the kennel association, 30 percent of the 8,500 kennels in the United States advertised customized pet care for dogs as part of their pitch. And "kennel" seems too coarse a term to describe their facilities. They are now "camps" or "playschools" or some variation on the healthy playtime theme.
Dogs first became known as campers in the Baltimore area about 10 years ago. Pet camp operators and pet owners say these doggie vacation spots are good for the dogs -- and their guilt-ridden owners.
"Its a relief more than anything else," says Dea Kline of Phoenix, who boards her dogs at Country Comfort Camp for Pets in Jarrettsville. "I know they are going to be safe and cared for, and I can travel and not worry about it."
But it wasn't Ms. Kline's welfare Pat Weiskopf was concerned about when she opened Country Comfort about 10 years ago. She was more worried about canines like Bo and Shep, Ms. Kline's dogs, who have vacationed at Country Comfort since it opened.
"Dogs would worry, fret and chew little holes in themselves if they were in here for three weeks or a month," Ms. Weiskopf says. She added camp activities about a year after she opened her kennel. "I thought, 'We have to get them out. They're going crazy.' . . . We started doing it for the animal's sake.
"Then we started charging for it because it was so labor intensive."
And the charges do mount up. Most camps charge a fee that variesaccording to the size of the dog. Prices start at $15 and go as high as $25 a day for a medium-size dog. Some camps want $1 per every pillthe pet takes and $5 for each 15-minute romp. Most kennel/camps report no outdoor activities for cats. Cats are petted, but are too independent for walks or pond swims, camp owners concur. However, Country Comfort does offer cats a visual feast: a bird feeder that draws a variety of feathered friends just outside a picture window. Camp owners will board cats for about $7 per day.
A survey of local kennels, on the other hand, shows they charge about $10 a day for a medium-size dog. Most offer a nature walk as an option, but it will cost the owner from $2 to $5 additional per walk.
Those who invest their time and energy tossing around Frisbees for canines and mixing up special meals for Spot and Fluffy defend their fees fiercely.
"If anybody thinks we're doing this for the money they're crazy," says Paul DiNenna, co-owner of Misty Ridge Animal Resort and Kennel in Taylorsville. "Where else do you go to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week?"
Since the camps board animals night and day, seven days a week, there's little free time for owner/operators, who work hardest when others are vacationing or sleeping.
"If a thunderstorm pops up at 1 a.m. we have to be here," says Ms. Weiskopf, whose house is about 100 yards from Country Comfort. "A lot of dogs just go berserk."
Bethesda resident Signe Koegel doesn't howl about the money she dishes out to Shady Spring Boarding Kennels and Camp for Dogs in Woodbine. Her chocolate Labrador retriever, Toby, signs up for Shady Spring almost monthly.
"If I didn't have a good place to take him I wouldn't go anywhere," Ms. Koegel says. "I call him my fourth child."
Toby's baby sitters are Charlotte Katz and business partner Donald Farb. They own and run Shady Spring, where a registered dietitian whips up meals for the animals, and Ms. Katz and Mr. Farb watch the pets as if they were their own.
"We probably know more about some of these dogs than their owners do," Ms. Katz says. A computerized checklist tracks each animal's behavior and bodily functions daily.
A former photographer now on Shady Spring's staff snaps an instant photo of each dog at camp and Ms. Katz tacks a report card to it so pet owners have proof that their dogs enjoyed their stay.
"Animals are a good barometer of the truth," says Linda Harned of Bel Air, who boards her Portuguese water dog at Country Comfort. "If he was afraid, or if something wasn't going well, you'd be able to tell."