Girl Scouts Camp Wood Haven welcomed a different kind of camper this past summer, the likes of which the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania had never had before as a member. As with all things trailblazing, no one was sure how it would work out.
Nobody except Summer Laurin, the 15-year-old Girl Scout from West Chester who led the lobbying effort to have her BFF join her in camp. In the end, her buddy, who goes by the name of Echo, fit in just fine. She even made the week better for some campers.
“Pretty much Echo was just another girl there,” Summer said.
Of course, none of the other girls brought chew toys with them.
Echo, with her brindle brown coat and flop-over ears, is Summer’s service dog in training. With the help of Main Line Deputy Dog, a Malvern-based nonprofit, the teen has been teaching the young American pit bull terrier mix how to help her cope with a host of issues, including anxiety and PTSD, that are rooted in trauma from earlier childhood experiences. (Service dogs can also be trained to summon assistance, wake their person from a nightmare, and interrupt self-harm.)
Earlier this year, her grandmother Harriet Laurin, with whom she lives and who adopted Summer when she was about 10 years old, was encouraging Summer to think about attending camp to stretch herself socially. Summer’s good friend Layla Nsereko also wanted to attend camp and asked Summer to go with her. Both girls love horses, and Wood Haven has an equestrian program.
Summer said she’d go — on one condition: She wanted to bring Echo with her.
“It was pretty much an ultimatum,” she said. “Echo is not just a cute dog I wanted to bring to camp. She helps me.”
So a Zoom conference was set up with Summer, Laurin, Camp Wood Haven director Ashley Booth, and some other Girl Scout leaders. Several conversations followed to discuss the logistics of having a service dog at camp.
But the bottom line — and what won over the Girl Scout leaders — was Summer’s drive to advocate for herself and her service dog, both by asking for what she needed and by being willing to explain how Echo provided assistance.
“This was really girl-led,” Booth said. “Summer embodies that courage, confidence, and character-building that we expect from our girls and want to help them develop. That really drove the ball home for us.”
Neither Summer nor Echo had an easy start in life.
Summer, a volunteer with the Brandywine Valley SPCA, met Echo in December 2020, when Echo, then a puppy, arrived as a rescue to the facility from a kill shelter down South. Summer had been wanting a service dog for a while, and Echo captured her interest right away.
“A lot of dogs are scared. They’re nervous, head down. Echo was just sitting in her kennel, playing with a toy, very alert and confident. That’s what you would look for in a service dog,” said Summer.
She asked the manager if she could foster Echo, at home.
“This dog learned ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ and her name that same night, which is pretty incredible,” said Summer, who already had a lot of experience with dogs. She’d been helping her grandmother train them since she was little, and she has done training herself since she was about 12. She even trained Lucy, another Brandywine Valley SPCA rescue, to be a therapy dog for young children.
Summer is a natural with animals, said her grandmother.
“She has always felt comfortable around dogs because she’ll tell you herself dogs had never failed her, dogs had never let her down, and dogs never lie,” Laurin said. “Unfortunately, everyone who has been in her life has let her down in some way.”
“I had a lot of negative experiences with adults and not really a stable life,” Summer explained. “That created the issues I have now.”
(While living in a previous parental home, Summer suffered abuse and neglect by other adults in her life, said Laurin. She was removed from the home by the Delaware County Office of Children and Youth Services and was placed with her grandmother.)
Last spring, Summer and Echo started service dog training at Main Line Deputy Dog, which works with people who have physical challenges or mental health concerns, training their own dogs to be certified service dogs.
By the time Summer was supposed to leave for camp, Echo had already learned quite a few helping tasks.
For example, when crowds or feeling crowded causes Summer to have a panic attack, Echo will walk circles around the teen, creating a safe bubble. It helps Summer calm down.
In times of great anxiety, Summer said, she has started scratching her arm until it bleeds. When that happens, Echo bumps Summer’s hand with her snout; if that doesn’t work, the dog will put both paws on Summer to help her stop.
Echo also helps ground Summer when she suffers flashbacks to her past or when her PTSD causes her to disassociate. The dog helps bring her back to the real environment at hand, not the frightening place where her mind is taking her.
“She adds help I wouldn’t ever be able to get from a human,” said Summer.
So off to camp they went. Echo, Summer, and Layla bunked together in their own platform tent.
“Echo did really well,” Summer said.
On the first night, their counselor invited Summer to tell her group anything she wanted about Echo. She asked the campers not to pet Echo while she was working — “She has a job to do, that’s why she’s here” — but otherwise they could treat her like any other pup.
“Most people treated her like she was a human,” Summer said. “They were like, ‘Come on, Echo, join us!’ It was really funny.”
When the girls gave one another nicknames, Echo got one, too: Wolfdog, a nod to her one blue eye and her Siberian husky ancestry.
Echo also ended up being an unexpected help to other campers, especially those feeling homesick. The dog’s loving, friendly nature was just the comfort they needed.
Meanwhile, Summer’s openness about her mental health issues provided an additional learning experience for all.
That was especially important for some older attendees, said camp director Booth, “because they’re at an age when mental health starts to become more of an apparent topic. Summer provided an outlet to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK to feel this way, and this is how I’m taking care of myself.’ The girls saw that they can be part of something like camp and not be excluded just because they’re going through something really tough.”
In the end, both girl and dog had a blast. Echo bounded along, off-leash, on forest hikes, played Pass the Ball and Monkey in the Middle, and enthusiastically gathered sticks for activities (needless to say, she was also the girl to beat in the race events). And although Echo can be quite the howler, Summer said the pup opted to sit quietly beside her fellow campers during sing-alongs.
The experience went well enough that the Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania say they would be open to consider service dogs in the future at their camps.
Working with Summer and Echo allowed the Scouts “to explore the protocols, procedures, and accommodations needed for service dogs and our campers to have the best care and a safe environment to have fun,” said Jennifer Allebach, chief mission delivery officer, Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania.
“We look forward to discussing with parents and guardians who would like their girl to bring their service animal [to camp] where reasonable accommodations can be made to ensure girls have access to activities,” she added.
And Summer, despite her initial reluctance, is glad she went, thanks to Echo. Not only did she come home with the phone numbers of new friends, she also plans to return to camp next summer — for two weeks instead of one.
And she plans to continue advocating for the value of service dogs.
“Everyone has something that comforts them the most,” she said. “Dogs are my happy place. They kept me safe when I had issues in my life. At the end of each day, whether it was a good day or a bad day, I always had a dog that was there for me.”