As any dog owner knows, vacations — or the complications thereof — are one of the few serious drawbacks of animal companionship.
Long car trips are tough on many pets, and few owners are eager to take a dog aboard a plane or train. Then there's the question of where your pet stays when you get there. Unless you own a vacation home, you're likely faced with leaving your dog behind. But that prompts its own fraught questions: Kennel or pet sitter? Will she get enough exercise and attention? Can we really afford to leave him?
Those kinds of questions — and a bit of serendipity — were the germ of an idea behind a new company, DogVacay, founded by Philadelphia native Aaron Hirschhorn and his wife, Karine Nissim-Hirschhorn. Since launching March 1, DogVacay has begun connecting pet owners with pet "hosts" in a dozen cities, and arrived in Philadelphia this month.
DogVacay is the creation of two ambitious people. A graduate of Central High School and Swarthmore College, Aaron has an MBA from UCLA and worked for a venture-capital firm. Karine is a film writer and director who was busy working on new screenplays.
But the concept they turned into DogVacay.com was born of humble origins. You could even say those origins had names: Rocky and Rambo.
When the couple traveled from their Santa Monica, Calif., home, the dogs would stay at a kennel. And Rocky, a Goldendoodle, seemed particularly worse for the wear.
"Nothing bad happened," Aaron Hirschhorn hastens to add, "but she came back anxious and just out of sorts" — a familiar concern among dog owners. Even the best kennels can be stressful.
Their concerns led them to the Internet, and to the discovery that dog sitters offered their services online. They even experimented themselves, listing "Aaron's Dog Boarding" on Yelp. "All of a sudden we were getting five or six calls a day," Hirschhorn says. There was tremendous demand for a service that Karine could provide largely in her spare time when she took breaks to walk their own dogs.
It was as if the couple saw the proverbial lightbulb switch on: Why not create an online service that matches dog owners with people willing to care for their pooches when a family is away?
In the lingo of the day, DogVacay is based on the idea of "collaborative consumption," which expands the familiar seller-buyer business model in part by fostering peer-to-peer deals. You can list yourself on the site as a dog host or create a profile as a dog owner who might seek services — a profile not visible to the public. So far, the site lists about 4,000 registered hosts, including nearly 150 in the Philadelphia area.
They include people such as "Skyler P," who says her apartment near Fairmount Park is small but plenty spacious for her dog, Penny, and a canine visitor. She and Penny use the park to "go for walks and ride bikes (well, she runs along with me!)." And if you're concerned about Skyler's dog-handling skills, she mentions that she has fostered three dogs — that's how she acquired Penny.
One attractive feature of DogVacay is that you don't have to just take Skyler's word for whether her services are worth her $25-per-night fee. In return for its cut, which runs from about 5 percent to 10 percent, DogVacay vets the hosts — "pun intended," Hirschhorn says — and provides insurance coverage for emergency vet care for both the guest and host dogs.
Hosts start with an eight-page questionnaire, and DogVacay's 12-member staff follows up with a phone interview and reference checks. It recommends a pre-stay "meet and greet," to make sure the pets can coexist, but leaves most details to the participants.
Hirschhorn says charges are set by owners and range from about $15 to $25 a night for a stay in an apartment to $40 or $60 for a visit in a large home with a yard. One host has a 20-acre ranch in Malibu and charges $70 a night. (Hmm, I wonder whether they take in pets' owners, too.)
If DogVacay takes off, the Hirschhorns are prepared with similar domains to cover cats, rabbits, hamsters, and other pets. They already offer dog-walking, dog day-care, and in-home dog sitting. And they can even help the occasional desperate cat owner through a "concierge desk," a staffed service that helps people connect with sitters off-line.
With a $1 million in venture funding, DogVacay has had particular success in New York, where kennels are expensive and cars are rare.
The site already allows hosts to list from anywhere, befitting the couple's Great Dane-size ambitions.
"We have a big vision, which is to be the premier national pet-services brand. And that takes a long time," Hirschhorn says.
Of course, as any dog owner knows, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first sniff.