- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - They go on camp outs. Earn merit badges. And sniff out good deeds.

They are the Dog Scouts of America, a nationwide group founded 20 years ago for hounds and owners dedicated to positive training, canine bonding and community get-togethers.

Troop 157 meets every month in Broward County, hosting fund-raisers and events to spread good will among the animal kingdom - all for a $25 annual membership and the chance to earn up to 80 specialty merit badges.

“We’re like a little pack,” said Terri Cannici, a Weston dog owner and member of Troop 157 Broward Paw Patrol. “This is a very close group of friends, like a close-knit family. All of our dogs get along. A lot of the dogs are competing in dog sports and we’ll cheer each other on.”

Cannici and her dogs joined the scouts a few years ago after going to a birthday party for a bulldog belonging to the Paw Patrol.

Buddy, her beagle, and Lola, her Rottweiler, are both therapy dogs. They wear their badges - which cost $25 apiece — on their therapy vests.

Just like Cub Scouts and Brownies, canine members start out as cadets until they earn their first Dog Scout badge, a show of good manners.

The organization now boasts 38 troops in 18 states along with Canada and Puerto Rico, but has had troops in just about every state at one time or another, said Michigan founder Lonnie Olson, who started the group in 1995.

“We started out as more of a camp than anything else,” Olson said from her home in St. Helen. “Just like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have camps, we had a camp for dogs. And then we realized we were changing people’s lives.”

Being part of the troop helps both man and beast build a stronger bond and deepens the camaraderie between members, Olson said.

Dog Scouts of America has troops in Florida - including two in Lakeland and Eustis near Orlando - California, New York, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Iowa, Nevada and Wisconsin.

“Even though it’s called Dog Scouts of America, anyone can join,” Olson said.

International members hail from Denmark, Japan and the United Kingdom, sending in videos to help earn their dog badges.

In Broward, troop leader Cindi Stone helps organize monthly events for the Paw Patrol’s 68 members and their dogs.

The membership includes a mix of mutts and purebreds, from Chihuahuas and Shih Tzus to Labs and golden retrievers and everything in between.

On a recent Saturday, the Dog Scouts convened at a lake in Dania Beach to work on those good ole canine swimming skills.

“It’s hysterical to watch them,” Stone said. “Dogs are children in essence. Temperament wise, they are two and three year olds. And what’s more fun than watching a two or three year old play in the water.”

But it’s not just about getting that badge, members say.

“The badge is just a nice little memory of having had fun with your dog,” said Stone, who shares her Coral Springs home with one dog-loving cat and three Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Reggie, Reba and Roxus.

Eight-year-old Reggie has earned more than 10 badges; 7-year-old Reba has five; and 1-year-old Roxus is still working on his Dog Scout title.

“Our goal is to create a strong positive relationship between the dog and its owner, so we have a better behaved dog,” Stone said.

Brothers Ian Rothenberg and his brother were among the troop’s first members when they joined in 2007.

They have since moved from Sunrise to Palm Beach Gardens, but still attend Dog Scout events with their three Shih Tzus, Jasmine, Tami and Jayde.

Jayde, the youngest, is still a cadet, but her two sisters have earned five badges apiece.

Family and friends tend to find it amusing when members tell them about the Dog Scouts.

“At first when you tell anyone they look at you like you’re a little crazy,” Rothenberg said. “I tell them that Dog Scouts strengthens your bond between you and your dog. The badges all involve training and positive reinforcement. And then they kind of understand.”

Christine Geschwill, a dog trainer and photographer from Plantation, joined Troop 157 in 2009. Most of her friends are in the Dog Scouts too.

“We want our dogs to be active and have a social life, and not just be an accessory in a household,” she said.

Grace, a white and fluffy rescue dog of mysterious origin, has earned 11 badges so far. Clover, Geschwill’s beagle, has earned her Dog Scout title and is now working on her doggie paddling badge.

Dog scouts can earn badges in agility, community service, obedience, nose work, sports, trails and outdoors - including kayaking and paddleboarding, dancing and painting.

To earn their community service badge, dog scouts can visit sick kids in the hospital or comfort nervous kids while they read at the library.

There’s even a “Clean Up America” badge that requires members to pick up 50 piles of doggie doo left behind by less responsible owners. Sometimes, dogs will help pull a wagon of poop.

Other than photos, badge earners aren’t required to deliver proof of pickups. These guys are on the honor system.

For more information on the local Dog Scouts troop, go to dsatroop157.com.

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Information from: Sun Sentinel , https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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