Finding Fido temporary digs when you’re out of town

03/14/2012 12:00 AM

03/13/2012 4:29 PM

The next time you’re going out of town, you don’t have to leave Fido with your slacker brother or at a kennel where the dog might be cooped up in a cage all day.

With Internet startup Dog Vacay, you can drop off your pooch at the home of a fellow dog lover. Hosts watch your pet while you’re away and set their own rates (usually $15 to $80 a day).

It’s free to become a member, and more than 600 hosts have already joined in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, co-founder and Chief Executive Aaron Hirschhorn said.

Hosts share information about themselves, their homes and their experience with animals on the website; they’re encouraged to send photo updates and review the pets they’ve watched. Owners also leave reviews of hosts after they pick up their dogs.

Hirschhorn founded Santa Monica, Calif.-based Dog Vacay with his wife, Karine Nissim, after they had trouble finding a place for their dogs, Rocky and Rambo, to stay. Before launching the site, the couple tested the concept themselves, opening up their Culver City, Calif., home to more than 100 dogs during a nine-month period last year.

To ensure safety, the company calls hosts and checks social media networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn to verify their identities. Dog Vacay also offers training with an instructional video and has relationships with local 24-hour animal hospitals in case of emergencies. Insurance plans are available, and GPS-enabled dog collars to track the pets can be rented.

“We ask about people’s motivations,” Hirschhorn said. “If they were truly a bad person who was trying to game the system, we think that comes out pretty quickly.”

Valerie Steiger, 54, used Dog Vacay last month when she had a two-week vacation to Thailand and needed a place to leave her puppy, 4-month-old Shih Tzu mix Joey.

“I didn’t want to kennel him but felt like I didn’t have any other choice,” the life coach from Santa Clarita, Calif., said. “He would have basically been locked in a cage all day with two five- or 10-minute playtimes by himself.”

A few weeks before her trip, she found Dog Vacay online and contacted host Danielle Haffner in Tujunga, Calif., who invited Steiger and Joey to her home for a one-hour meet-and-greet. During the meeting, Steiger got a tour, checked that the home was securely gated and asked about Haffner’s experience with dogs. The process, she said, sold her on the concept.

While Steiger was in Thailand, Haffner sent iPhone videos and photos of Joey playing and kept her updated on how the puppy was doing.

“He was on vacation while we were on vacation, so it was great,” Steiger said. “He got to play with puppies and run around like a nut. In fact, I don’t think he wanted to come home.”

The website is quickly becoming a tool for professional dog sitters to advertise their services, and enabling dog lovers who don’t have their own pets to spend time with one.

“I never found I was in a place with my life where I could take on a dog full-time,” said host Lauren Meyer, a 27-year-old production designer who charges $38 a night for dog-sitting at her 3,000-square-foot home in Silver Lake, Calif. “I was looking for a way to be involved with the animal community with a no-commitment-type style.”

Dog Vacay is the latest start-up from Science, a Santa Monica tech incubator founded by former MySpace CEO Mike Jones. It has seven employees and takes a service fee of 3 percent to 10 percent from each dog-sitting transaction. Hosts who have better reviews and are booked more frequently are charged a lower service fee.

Hirschhorn said the company planned to quickly expand to other cities and would roll out iPhone and Android apps in the next few months.

In the future, Dog Vacay might also include other animals. Hirschhorn said he already owns the domain names for PetVacay.com and CatVacay.com.

“I think it’ll be a very natural evolution, but I do know that cat boarding is not such a big issue,” he said. “But it’s very easy for us to build those into the platform.”

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