The little yellow school bus makes its rounds, picking up one eager passenger after another en route to day camp. Small legs quickly climb the stairs, heads pop out of bus windows and excitement reigns as they near their destination.
Never has a school bus been so drenched in drool: each of these day campers has four legs and a wagging tail. It's just another day on "The Doggie Bus" as it takes its canine cargo to the Totally Dog camp, miles from Miami's bustle.
"I wanted a place where owners that are busy could have the peace of mind that their dogs are getting exercise and getting cared for during the day," said Elena Sweet, a dog trainer and paramedic who opened Totally Dog in 1999.
Sweet, now 40, said she saw a need for a place where dogs could run free and be themselves far from the stress of urban life. She found that place on two bucolic acres in Southwest Miami, near Homestead.
The bus is the start of the camp experience.
Dogs board excitedly and there is some barking out the windows as owners wave goodbye. Most of the trip passes sedately, the dogs mesmerized by passing sights and the rumble of the bus, until they get within a few miles of their destination.
"That's where camp starts," said Sweet. "They love the wind, the air in their face."
Sweet's 35-year-old paramedic husband, Jeremy Sweet, is at the wheel.
The dogs grow more animated as camp draws into view.
"They start picking up the smells out the windows and realize they're just about to get to camp," he said.
The dogs bound off the bus just after pulling up.
For most, the first stop is a giant bone-shaped pool. Dogs run in and out, jump from the side or idle by a pipe that's gushing water. They then scurry to get bones, chase one another, swim, shake water off vigorously, and repeat.
Jill Finkelstein says her Yorkiepoo, Pebbles, certainly gets a lot of exercise.
She "gets rid of a lot of energy and just has fun," Finkelstein said. "It gives the dog a break and it gives me a break."
Owners pay about $45 a day for camp.
The Sweets screen prospective dogs, turning away aggressive pets and putting new campers through a four-day training period. The result is an idyllic canine retreat where all the campers, big and small, seem to get along.
As the day wears on, some dogs show signs they're wearing down, napping in the shade.
Kenny Reich sends three mixed-breed mutts - Sophie, Riley and Sadie - to camp.
"They love it," Reich said, adding that his pets' exhaustion at the end of the day tells him they had a doggone time.
"They get off the bus, they get in the car, they go home and they go right to sleep. And they don't wake up again till the next morning," he said.