Pet care in a click: Online services link pet owners with animal-loving sitters

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TORONTO - Emilie Boyer doesn't have a dog, but spending time with cocker spaniel Ralph more than makes up for it — and the boost to her bank account doesn't hurt.

Since last October, Boyer has been registered as a pet sitter with Pawshake. The online service connects pet owners with animal-loving pet sitters, dog walkers, day care and home boarding solutions in their communities.

"I grew up with dogs. I love dogs, (but) I'm not too sure (about) getting a dog on my own. Sometimes it can be tricky," said Boyer, who moved to Toronto from Paris about six years ago.

"Honestly, pet sitting is the best compromise I've found to be around dogs."

Rates start at $15 per night and are inclusive of complimentary insurance, 24/7 customer support and daily photo updates. Pawshake retains a 19 per cent contribution from sitters, said co-founder Tanguy Peers.

Would-be clients can comb through online profiles of sitters and are encouraged to meet them ahead of time.

"All of these websites are based on trust. It's really important that we have the right people on the platform," said Peers. "There is some vetting done when the people sign up, and there is ongoing vetting being done once people have registered."

Peers co-founded Pawshake with Dries Coucke, with whom he worked at eBay and Kijiji. Coucke developed their company's concept under tragic circumstances.

His father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and the family sorely needed help to care for Ibeau, his parents' Labrador.

Coucke had previously founded pets.be, a not-for-profit website to find homes for rescue pets. He solicited help on the site's Facebook page and "the community immediately responded," recalled Peers.

Pawshake now operates in 15 countries, and has about 1,000 sitters in Canada.

"There are more and more of these websites being developed focusing on one category," said Peers.

"Think about travel with Airbnb, cars with Uber. We thought having a website where you could book pet care would actually be very helpful."

Billed as the world's largest educational association for professional pet sitters, more than 260 Canadian business owners are active members of Pet Sitters International, said marketing and communications manager Beth Stultz. There is an initial US$135 membership fee for Canadians and US$125 in subsequent years, which includes benefits like pet-sitter insurance and a listing on PSI's Pet Sitter Locator.

McMaster University professor Nick Bontis said the ease with which potential buyers and sellers can connect — boosted by the use of mobile technology — is key to driving growth of crowd-sourced services.

"That's what peer-to-peer is all about is having people find each other without the manufacturer or the retailer in the middle," said Bontis, professor of strategy in the DeGroote School of Business.

"That's what happened with Uber and that's what's happening with these pet vacation stays."

DogVacay.com clients can access potential sitters on a desktop or mobile app, said Nicole Ellis, product manager, resident dog trainer and expert for the online service.

The company has 25,000 approved hosts across North America. They must participate in a five-step vetting process which includes a call to discuss their pet care background, their home environment and experience in medical and emergency situations, said Ellis.

The company takes a 15 per cent contribution, and hosts determine their own pricing. The average for a flat overnight fee is $25.

Despite its pooch-centric moniker, DogVacay has launched CatVacay and also offered care for hedgehogs, birds, parrots, pigs and horses, said Ellis.

"Some of our hosts are people who perhaps travel too much to have a dog of their own, but then when they're watching DogVacay dogs, they're so excited. They're out there taking hikes and going to the beach and totally loving the dog.

"The biggest difference is having your dog in a loving environment," added Ellis. "If you want your dog to sleep on the bed, he can continue to sleep on the bed. You keep your routine.

"Your dog's in a home — not in a kennel."

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