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'Airbnb for dogs': Do pet services go a step too far in today's sharing economy?

Samantha Martin, right, who dog sat Maddy for a fee for owner Jonmichael Moy, left, poses for a photo in Toronto on May 28, 2015. The two strangers were connected through DogVacay which pairs dog owners with sitters.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

It's a dog park divided when it comes to the sharing economy.

The half-dozen locals in the fenced-off section of Toronto's Sorauren Park are all familiar with what's commonly described as "Airbnb for dogs." But none of them have actually used websites and apps such as DogVacay, DoggyBnB and Pawshake.

Joel Freeman, who has always relied on friends and family to look after his two mixed-breed pooches, Lola and Flashman, says he will, though. "I use Airbnb instead of hotels and Uber instead of taxis, so why not DogVacay instead of a kennel?" he says. "If a host has lots of positive reviews and their profile ticks all the right boxes, I prefer the idea of these two staying in an actual home that's near my own."

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Tanya Meeson is firmly on the other side of the fence. "Charlie is like my child," she says, waving a stick in front of the enthusiastic black lab. "Would you let a stranger look after your child? No way!"

As disruptive and influential as the sharing economy has become in such industries as hospitality and transportation, pet services may represent its most contentious, limit-pushing incursion yet. After all, there's bound to be occasional friction when irreplaceable canine family members become part of what is, essentially, a monetary transaction. And it's not limited to kennelling alternatives – some online services let you actually share your dog with others on a regular basis.

DogVacay, for its part, has enticed more than 20,000 North American hosts to offer dog-boarding services in their houses, condos and apartments, and has helped orchestrate more than a million sleepovers. But these arrangements "push the boundaries of what can be shared," says Giana Eckhardt, a professor of marketing at the University of London's School of Management. "In the sharing economy, consumers look toward these companies to provide the type of big-brother surveillance that is needed to overcome trust issues, and this effect is amplified when a living creature is involved."

DogVacay CEO and founder Aaron Hirschhorn acknowledges that the three-year-old California firm faces challenges other sharing-economy players do not. "A dog can't write a review, so our hosts have to know what they're doing," he says, adding that the company has accepted only about 15 per cent of its host applications. "Our service also requires a level of communication that far exceeds what's needed for home stays or car rides. Untrained puppies, for example, have different needs [than] elderly dogs who require injectable medication."

Indeed, DogVacay appears particularly vulnerable to the media-fuelled "horror stories" that plague Airbnb, Uber and other sharing-economy titans. With candour, Hirschhorn describes a recent incident in which a dog required emergency surgery after devouring a host's socks and underwear.

"Things like that happen when you're dealing with thousands of dogs at any given moment," he says. "Thankfully, we're set up to handle those situations. The host contacted us immediately, we had a veterinary tech on the phone and the dog was transported to a local emergency clinic. We paid for it, the dog has recovered, and in the end everyone's happy."

Like Airbnb, DogVacay bends over backward to comfort owners and hosts with around-the-clock phone support and insurance that covers everything from vet bills to furniture damage. DogVacay goes further, however, by requiring hosts to provide daily photo updates.

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Airbnb and Uber rarely take direct aim at their hotel and taxi rivals, but DogVacay doesn't hold back. "People hate kennels," Hirschhorn says. "Your dog is left in a cage for 23 hours a day and you're paying for that."

DogVacay's crowd-sourced dog-sitting seems positively prosaic when compared with dog-sharing services such as British-based BorrowMyDoggy and Vancouver's Part Time Pooch, which connect dog owners who don't always have time to walk their pet with others who are unable to keep dogs of their own. Then there's San Francisco's Walkzee, which is touted as "the world's first online community connecting shelter dogs that need a walk with dog lovers." It has already conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign, has signed up more than 250 shelters – including a few in Canada – and aims to launch in June.

So is it love of dogs, disdain for kennels, convenience or simple frugality that's drawing dog owners? Eckhardt suspects the latter: "Although DogVacay doesn't emphasize the 'cheaper' part in its communications, I suspect this is the main driver for dog owners."

Regular DogVacay user Jonmichael Moy does appreciate hosts' proximity and pricing – "it's about half as much as traditional kennels" – but says the main draw is the personal, home-based care. "I used to think a kennel's experience, location and facilities were so important, but when I started using DogVacay I realized it's the loving, one-to-one relationships with the dogs that really matter."

That said, Moy needed more than puppy love to feel comfortable leaving his three-year-old Boston terrier, Maddie, with Samantha Martin. In typical sharing-economy fashion, Martin's detailed DogVacay profile and glowing customer reviews piqued Moy's interest, and after a meet-and-greet in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park, a weekend sleepover was booked for $30 a night.

"You can tell really quickly whether someone is going to treat your dog with the same level of care you would, or if they're just in it for the money," Moy says. "Right from the start I could tell that Samantha was the right host for Maddie."

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The benefits of the arrangement go beyond financial gain, Martin adds. She lives in a condo with two roommates, which makes having a dog of her own difficult.

Still, there can be problems. One of Martin's charges was "unexpectedly yappy," she says – "the noise was an issue in my building" – while a two-week stint with an older dog yielded unexpected hip problems that led to a veterinary visit (not covered by DogVacay's insurance because of a $250 deductible).

Moy, on the other hand, was left in the lurch when a different host cancelled at the last minute. He was lucky enough to find a kennel with an opening, and "DogVacay stepped in and made up the difference in price," Moy recalls.

Meanwhile, among the dog owners back at Sorauren Park, Joel Freeman struggles to chase down and leash the aptly-named Flashman. "I love these guys, but sometimes you need a break," he says.

Then he adds, laughing, "Will DogVacay take them right now?"

Follow Adam Bisby on Twitter: @adam_bisby

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