Love on a Lease: Renting Man's Best Friend

Looking for a golden retriever, schnauzer or poodle to keep you company, but afraid of having to walk your dog in the rain or feed it while out of town? You're not alone, and now there may be a solution … for a price.

A small, but growing industry now allows want-to-be pet owners across the country to experience the joys of owning a pet, without the long-term, day-to-day hassles.

Earlier this year a San Diego-based company called FlexPetz started renting man's best friend for pet lovers who might want to take a dog on a long walk and maybe play a game of fetch, but don't have the time to own a pet full time.

VOTE: DO YOU THINK RENTING PETS IS A GOOD IDEA?

The first store opened in San Diego in April, quickly followed by a second location in Los Angeles and then a New York store in September. FlexPetz founder Marlena Cervantes plans to expand her privately-owned company to several other cities, including San Francisco, Washington D.C., Seattle, London and Tokyo.

Consumers have long been able to partially own condominiums through timeshares. And in recent years, fractional jet ownership programs have ballooned and ZipCar has given city residents the opportunity to rent cars for just a few hours at a time. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before companies like FlexPetz provided the same concept for pets.

Pick of the Litter ... For a Price

Cervantes came up with the idea of sharing dogs when she was working with autistic children. She first shared her own dog with the kids and then adopted two rescue dogs to share. The cost of keeping the dogs, however, became prohibitive. So she decided to turn the sharing idea into a business.

"In order to make this work, I would require financial contribution from the families I worked with," she said, "I didn't want to do that -- it was meant as a service."

FlexPetz offers different types of dogs in each location. The company conducts surveys to find out which dogs potential customers want. Larger breeds are popular on the west coast, while smaller dogs are in demand in New York.

FlexPetz members might as well get what they want for the hefty price they pay.

Members are charged a one-time-$150 initiation fee, followed by a $49.95 monthly membership fee for the right to limited visitation. But the fees don't end there. There's a $99.95 annual maintenance fee and, of course, the actual charge to rent the dog: $39.95 a day on weekends and $24.95 per day on weekdays.

The costs cover training and boarding the dogs, collar-sized GPS devices, vet bills, insurance and care kits that accompany the dog on visits to shared owners.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

FlexPetz caters to consumers who live in urban areas and travel frequently. Members may enjoy the company of a dog, but don't have the space or time to take care of one full-time.

The service has proven itself to be a hot commodity in several urban markets. For instance, in New York, the office attracted more than 100 members in just its first two weeks.

San Diego-resident Erika Lupercio became a member earlier this year. Lupercio and her 12-year-old daughter live in a condominium with a balcony, but no front yard. They once adopted a pug, but after about five months, Lupercio had no time for the dog and couldn't keep her.

"I remember how heartbroken my daughter was," she said.

Now as a FlexPetz member, she and her daughter have fallen in love with Rupert, a black Afghan hound that they take on weekend walks in the park.

"When he sees us he knows we're family," Lupercio said

Seeing Rupert on the weekends has allowed her to have a dog of her own without tying up her busy schedule.

"It takes the worry out of all the things you would worry about," she said.

Is This Ethical?

Some folks have a bone to pick with the idea of dog renting. Gale Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Pet Adoption Center and Mobile Clinic Program, said FlexPetz violates the human-animal bond.

"For an animal, a caretaker is more than a fun walk in the park," she said.

Buchwald said it's not healthy for dogs to live transient lifestyles and bounce between owners. She said dogs that don't form a strong bond with one family often end up becoming aloof and self destructive.

"I think it's great that they understand marketing, and I think it's great that they try to fulfill that need, but it's not good for the dog," Buchwald said.

Cervantes disagrees. She said her business takes precautions to ensure the safety and happiness of FlexPetz dogs.

"They're cared for better than a lot of dogs I've seen," she said. "This is a fantastic alternative to shelter life."

Cervantes said FlexPetz does not rent a dog to more than a couple members at a time. She said members are screened for animal-abuse violations before getting the go-ahead to rent dogs. New members must also complete a training session with certified dog trainers to learn how to become responsible pet owners.

Lupercio said everyone deserves a little quality time with a pet.

"It's a little unfair for people to not have the opportunity to own a pet, and this is a nice way of doing it," she said, "I feel like I'm being a more responsible pet owner by doing this and not leaving a dog at home alone."

"I was a bit leery at first, and I had my questions," she added, "But I'm definitely going to stay a member."

FlexPetz members are even given the option of eventually adopting their dog of choice.

A Taste of A Lifestyle

FlexPetz and other shared-ownership services tap into a market segment called the "transumer." These are consumers who want the taste of a certain lifestyle or experience. People with little time or space can stake a claim in pricey, high-maintenance items such as yachts, exotic cars and small planes for occasional use.

Tony LoGrande is managing director of Fitch New York, a global retail consultancy company that first coined the term "transumer" to describe the habits of customers who shop while in a state of transit.

"We have to wake up to the fact that many consumers are transient," LoGrande said. "There are lots of people who have to travel a great deal for a living."

LoGrande said transumer culture will only grow larger as the global economy expands. And as the number of transumers grows, so will the demand for shared-ownership services.

"Transumers are the new nomadic people. I think that is part of the future," he said. "People are exploring the world like they've never done before. And it necessitates them to be able to have the comforts and needs to be able to connect."

LoGrande welcomes the FlexPetz movement, saying the animals are better off spending time with loving members than confined to an animal shelter.

"By sharing a pet, you saved a pet's life," LoGrande said.

Cervantes said FlexPetz is different and disassociates it with the "transumer" movement.

"Our members," she said, "aren't in it for the fad or experience."

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