SAN FRANCISCO – From the state that popularized purse puppies, drive-thru dog washes and gourmet dog food delivery comes the latest in canine convenience — a company that contracts out dogs by the day to urbanites without the time or space to care for a pet full-time.
Marlena Cervantes, founder of FlexPetz, bristles when people refer to her five-month-old business as a rent-a-pet service. She prefers the term "shared pet ownership," explaining the concept is more akin to a vacation time share or a gym membership than a trip to the video store.
"Our members are responsible in that they realize full-time ownership is not an option for them and would be unfair to the dog," said Cervantes, 32, a behavioral therapist who got the idea while working with pets and autistic children. "It prevents dogs from being adopted and then returned to the shelter by people who realize it wasn't a good fit."
FlexPetz is currently available in Los Angeles and San Diego, where Cervantes lives. She plans to open new locations in San Francisco next month, New York in September and London by the end of the year.
She's also hoping to franchise the FlexPetz concept so the dogs will have housing options other than kennels when not in use. For San Francisco, she's hired a caretaker who plans to keep the dogs at her house when they aren't on loan to members.
For an annual fee of $99.95, a monthly payment of $49.95 and a per-visit charge of $39.95 a day, (discounted to $24.95 Sunday through Thursday), animal lovers who enroll in FlexPetz get to spend time with a four-legged companion from Cervantes' 10-dog crew of Afghan hounds, Labrador retrievers and Boston terriers.
The membership costs cover the expense of training the dogs, boarding them at a cage-free kennel, home or office delivery, collar-sized global positioning devices, veterinary bills and liability insurance. It also pays for the "care kits" — comprised of leashes, bowls, beds and pre-measured food — that accompany each dog on its visits.
Charter member Shari Gonzalez said she was thinking about getting a dog when a dog trainer she consulted suggested part-time ownership. At first, she had reservations.
Gonzalez, 22, never doubted there was room for a dog in her heart. The issue was her life, which included a small, two-bedroom apartment and a full-time schedule of college classes in San Diego.
"I was thinking, 'How is a dog going to bounce from house to house and be OK with that,"' she said. "I didn't want a dog that would come into my place and pee."
Her misgivings were allayed after she spoke with Cervantes, who explained that only dogs with social temperaments were picked for the program and that each would ideally be shared by no more than two or three owner-members.
Since signing up, Gonzalez said a black Lab named Jackpot has become a treasured part of her social network. They spend an average of one day each weekend together. He sleeps at her apartment and she takes him on hikes, to the beach and to parks frequented by other dog owners. The money spent on her membership has been well worth it, she said.
"I never even thought that was a possibility," Gonzalez said. "I thought you either owned a dog or you didn't."
Although she has never seen the doggy day care center where Jackpot spends his off-days, Gonzalez recently met another of his part-time companions, graphic designer Jenny Goddard, 33. Goddard, who is married with a 6-year-old son, said having a dog a weekend or two a month has been perfect for her busy family and encourages them to spend more time together outdoors.
"It's funny," she said. "He is so friendly and immediately playful with us, people are surprised he is a rental dog."
The idea of commitment-free pets is not entirely new, although no one in the United States has tried it with as much drive as Cervantes. Most private animal shelters, for instance, encourage volunteers to become temporary foster families to animals awaiting adoption.
For 15 years, the Aspen Animal Shelter in Colorado has gone a step further with a Rent-a-Pet program that allows residents and tourists in the resort town to take dogs out for a few hours or overnight for free.
"It benefits the homeless animals, keeps them socialized and exercised and in the end they end up getting adopted," said owner Seth Sachson. "The people benefit, too. When a tourist walks around town with a dog, they feel like a local."
Melissa Bain, a veterinarian with the Companion Animal Behavior Program at the University of California at Davis, said she had concerns but no hard-and-fast objections to a service like FlexPetz.
On the positive side, it might give people an easy way to test the ownership waters and keep a few dogs from being euthanized, Bain said. Possible downsides would be irresponsible members who treat the dogs like a lifestyle accessory instead of a living thing.
"It depends on the people and it depends on the animal. Some dogs may be fine and some may become stressed because they are moving from home to home," Bain said. "Perhaps they had a good experience with a good part-time owner and then they get shipped back. What kind of message does that send to kids? That dogs are disposable."
Cervantes said the hour-long sessions Flexpetz members are required to spend with their dog and a trainer before their first outing ensures the dogs are going into caring, competent homes.
Her members, who range in age from 5 to 60-plus, include single women in search of security and a conversation starter, Navy personnel who love dogs but are at sea for much of the year, and seniors who live in apartments where dogs are not allowed.
"Usually, our dogs are lavished with attention, and it's undivided attention from our members because it is the only time they have together," she said. "Some people take a dog home and realize, 'Hey, I can adopt a dog."'