LOS ANGELES - When you travel and have to leave your dog behind, you can call a kennel, hire a pet sitter - or find him a new friend online.
The website DogVacay debuted in New York and Los Angeles in March and, just in time for the summer travel season, is now available throughout the United States and Canada.
The site lets pet owners look up hosts in the area who will care for a dog in their own homes, giving a pet the food, exercise and attention you would give if you stayed home - sort of a doggy version of couch-surfing, for an average price of $25 to $30 a day. Hosts are checked out and interviewed by DogVacay and every owner and dog is encouraged to meet the host.
The Santa Monica-based company was founded by Aaron and Karine Nissim Hirschhorn. In two months it has grown to more than 4,000 hosts in two countries, Hirschhorn said.
Valerie Steiger's Shih Tzu mix, Joey, was just 3 months old when she had to leave for a two-week Thailand trip in February. Joey has been back four or five times since, said Steiger, whose job as a life coach keeps her on the road.
Her host has a couple of dogs and Joey enjoyed them so much, he was depressed when he got home and didn't have any playmates, Steiger said.
"She was wonderful. I was talking to Joey (through a cell phone app) from Thailand. She took pictures of Joey on an iPhone, she took a video of him zipping around with his buddy. I didn't ask for any of that. She just did it," Steiger said.
Steiger has used kennels in the past. And there are good ones, she said, but dogs are kept in crates or cages for several hours each day. "It's like they are in jail."
Knowing where her dog is and what he's doing is important to her because "this is my baby. I'm leaving my baby behind," Steiger said.
Hirschhorn and his fiance went on a trip to visit family in 2010 and left their dogs Rocky and Rambo in a kennel. "Rocky came back a little off. She was not acting herself. She was sheepish and hiding under the desk. She is normally a happy, happy dog," he said.
There had to be something better, they thought. They let everyone know they were going to start dog sitting, then watched more than 100 dogs in eight months.
"Business was booming. We got multiple calls a day," he said.
At the end of their experiment, they had enough money to pay for their 2011 wedding, and a business model. They quit their day jobs, joined forces with former MySpace CEO Mike Jones to create an online community and raised $1 million in venture capital.
The company's website provides host bios, location, home photos, prices, availability, notes on what they can handle and reviews. DogVacay provides insurance (up to $25,000 per animal) for emergencies, the company has a partnership with VCA Animal Hospitals and owners can rent GPS-enabled dog collars if they want to track their pets constantly. Most hosts will email, text or telephone owners once per day with updates on their dogs, Hirschhorn said.
About a third of the hosts are professional pet care providers while two-thirds are casual dog lovers who might be retired, unemployed, stay-at-home moms or veterans, Hirschhorn said. Nine out of 10 hosts have their own dogs.
Hirschhorn wouldn't divulge the number of stays logged in the first two months, but said about half of all boarders are repeat customers.
DogVacay takes credit cards for payment when reservations are made, then pays the hosts. Interviews and security checks by DogVacay and meet-and-greets with host and owner are designed to overcome concerns about adjusting to the new environment.
"If they don't want to check me out, it means they don't care about their dog very much," said host Lauren Meyer.
Meyer has a 2,500 square-foot home in a quiet neighborhood in Los Angeles and charges $38 per night. She always has had older, larger dogs with medical problems, so she's not afraid to keep dogs with special needs, she said.
The biggest problem for the Hirschhorns is keeping up with demand and updating the websites, he said. There is a concierge, a customer service representative who can help if there is a problem or if someone can't navigate the website.
Personal dog chef Danielle Rapin, of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been hosting for three months at $40 per night. She has had four boarders so far, but has six meet-and-greets lined up in the next two weeks as people prepare for summer vacations.
DogVacay has been good for her 4-year-old mini-Greyhound mix too, she said. A 12-pound rescue, Baci once had to fend for herself on the streets, so didn't have much time for socialization. But she turned into a remarkable hostess.
"It's been rewarding to see her develop," Rapin said.
For the Hirschhorns, dogs may be just the beginning. They own the domain names for a variety of vacays, including pet, animal, cat, iguana, bird, hamster, rabbit and snake.