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Forget hotels and kennels — now there’s Airbnb for dogs

Elizabeth Swartz (left) of Westwood prepares to leave her puggle, Fenway, with pet sitter Rachel Askew in her North End apartment.
Elizabeth Swartz (left) of Westwood prepares to leave her puggle, Fenway, with pet sitter Rachel Askew in her North End apartment.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

When Stephanie Dedels, a Charlestown mom and dog owner, started hosting dogs for vacationing owners through www.dogvacay.com — think Airbnb for canines — she figured that at $35 a night she’d earn easy money and have some fun. And she has. But something unexpected happened too.

"I've realized that other dogs are so much easier than Cujo,'' she said, out of earshot of her miniature pinscher. "They like to cuddle. They're affectionate."

She paused in a meaningful way. "I've learned a lot."

Her education is not unusual. Over the past few years, as not one, but two high-profile dog-sitting platforms have come to Boston, hundreds and hundreds of students, administrators, artists, grandmothers, and others with noncanine day jobs, have turned into part-time dog professionals. In the process, they've seen the country's pet mania up close.

"People are really crazy about their dogs," said Lindsay Bertrand, a North End host. She charges $40 per night, is booked weeks out, and takes customer service very seriously.

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"A lot of owners ask if it's OK if their dog sleeps in our bed," she said, noting that she and her boyfriend have welcomed a pug who snores, a mini-greyhound mix that stretches her legs into their backs, and a space hog of a Welsh springer spaniel.

The couple's emphasis on hospitality is far ranging. "One of our favorites is a Pekingese that has bad back legs so we carry him up and down our stairs," she said. "He also has only a few teeth so he eats only cooked pasta."

Owners who choose to go the sitter route say they prefer private accomodations because they can be less expensive or more personal than dog hotels and kennels, and they enjoy the chatty texts, photos, and in some cases videos, of their beloved while they're away.

In Needham, Eiblis Goldings said she liked the pre-booking meet-and-greet during which her two rescue dogs sniffed the prospective host and her Medford home. "They have a lot of terrier attitude," she said of her animals, "and not everyone can handle it."

While Goldings was in Europe, the host e-mailed photos of her dogs sleeping on top of each other, just as they do when they're at home.

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"I was comforted knowing they were with a person," she said. "In a kennel they are safe, and it can be exciting at feeding time, but it doesn't seem as nice. They might not care. But [having them with an individual] makes me feel better."

Askew’s roommate’s dog Chotu and Fenway meet in Askew’s apartment.
Askew’s roommate’s dog Chotu and Fenway meet in Askew’s apartment.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

Indeed, most of the user reviews on DogVacay.com and Rover.com express similar sentiments. "I was very nervous about leaving Poet for the first time as he is very anxious and shy," one owner wrote. "Linda treated him so well, and went above and beyond."

"I can always tell how a petsitter worked out by the emotional state of my dog when I get home (he's 100 pounds of neediness!)," another pet parent gushed. "Our dog and other pets were perfectly content when we returned from a long trip abroad."

Clearly many people love their animals. And while it can be hard to put a price on love, Americans spent $55.7 billion on their pets last year, with $4.4 billion of that going to services such as grooming, boarding, and pet sitting, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Prices on DogVacay.com and Rover.com are competitive, ranging from $20 to $100, with $25 to $30 about average. The sites each take a 15 percent cut, and the sitting fees include pet insurance, photo updates, around-the-clock emergency support, and host-vetting.

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At a high-end dog hotels, like Fenway Bark , in South Boston, accommodations for dogs 25 pounds and under start at $59 a night. That buys a 16-square-foot kennel, 10 hours of socialization and exercise, and care by animal professionals. Dogs paying at the top rate, $103 a night, get a bedroom.

Traditional kennels can cost less than $25 per night, and generally offer no exercise without additional fees.

Owners looking for private accomodations on DogVacay.com or Rover.com browse online sitter listings, although they may be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled onto a dating site. In Cambridge, one host lists "model" among her qualifications. In Jamaica Plain, one blurb reads, "Two cats and a girl seek dog love." Other sitters vie to be the most pet-
obsessed: "Let me care for your furbaby!" one blurb reads. Another: "We invite your dog to be our only child."

In Jamaica Plain, Richy Villa, a clinical psychotherapist, says that DogVacay.com advised him to include his profession on his profile along with his $35 rate. "I wasn't sure it would have relevance," he said. But as the company knew, his therapeutic skills translate: He knows how to let a dog get acclimated on its own terms.

The dogs' owners also benefit from Villa's mental health background. "A lot of them have anxiety or guilt about doing something fun and leaving their special one behind," he said. "I reassure them that this is a special thing for the dogs as well. They get to sniff new smells and meet new people."

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With tens of millions of dollars in venture capital funding between them, DogVacay.com and Rover.com are part of the new sharing economy. Like Uber and
Lyft — and of course Airbnb — the dog sites are competing with established — and licensed — businesses, in their case, kennels and dog hotels. Both dog-sitting sites say they tell sitters to check local regulations before taking in animals.

Some hosts — particularly those who take in several dogs at once — can earn thousands of dollars a year. Locally, most hosts have been welcoming furry guests for a year or two. And many are in it as much for the dog as for the money.

"This fills a dog void," said host
Rachel Askew , 25, who feels too young to be a pet parent.

"Owning a dog is expensive and a huge responsibility," she said. "This lets you choose when you're available, and you don't have to pay for anything."

If there's a downside, it's seeing how much some dogs miss their owners. Askew recently hosted two beagles in her North End apartment, and they howled and cried for an hour after they were dropped off, she said.

"They remembered where [their owner] parked her car on Commercial Street, and every time I took them on a walk outside, they'd run to where her car was parked."

(The dogs eventually cheered up, Askew reported.)

Sometimes it's not the dogs, but the hosts, who suffer separation anxiety.

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Melissa King, a Medford host and pet artist (her website is www.pawblopicasso
.com) said that when her boyfriend was away recently, a visiting Griffy Poo (a Brussels Griffon -poodle mix) kept her company. "When her mom picked her up I was totally alone," King said.

The five-pound dog, she added, "almost fulfilled my boyfriend's role."


Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @beth
teitell.