Some dogs trade tricks for treats. The four-legged members of Dog Scouts of America earn merit badges for mastering skills like tracking scents, navigating obstacle courses, pulling sleds, and understanding sign language.
"We're not just about badges and bragging rights," says Lonnie Olson, founder and president of the group. "Our goal is to promote the human-canine bond through positive training methods and fun activities."
The nonprofit was founded in 1995 and has grown from a single summer camp to a national organization with troops in 20 states and several annual overnight camps. Dog Scouts of America borrowed the basic concept of traditional Scouting programs: Scouts must master new skills to earn merit badges and take part in things like hikes and camps -- dogs even wear backpacks filled with their supplies.
The activities help keep dogs active, which is important, because 56% of American canines are overweight or obese, which can cause health problems ranging from arthritis and high blood pressure to a shortened lifespan. K9 Fitness and DOGa -- dog yoga -- badges ensure canine scouts get their exercise.
It's not just dogs learning new skills; dog owners benefit, too. To earn a first-aid merit badge, owners must learn to recognize the signs of emergencies, check vital signs, and give basic first aid; dog scouts act as "patients" to help their owners practice.
Dog scouts also volunteer in their communities, taking part in search-and-rescue missions and visiting schools and nursing homes as comfort dogs. Several troops have hosted fundraisers to purchase Kevlar vests for K9 officers and animal-size oxygen masks for local fire departments.
Olson believes Dog Scouts of America has helped several owners learn reward-based training to correct unwelcome behaviors and make it more likely that dogs will remain in their homes.
"Most dogs end up in shelters because of behavior issues," she says. "We're doing more than teaching and training, we're saving lives."
By the Numbers
117: Number of merit badges available through Dog Scouts of America.
7: Percentage of dogs in the U.S. that take a training class.
50.2 million: Number of dogs that tip the scales above a healthy weight.
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