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Relationships ‘Online dating, but for dogs’: How apps are taking a bite out of the pet care industry

David Sahly was in a pinch. He had an out-of-town wedding to attend, and none of his standbys could take care of Ray, his five-year-old chow chow. On the advice of fellow neighbourhood dog owners, the 41-year-old resident of Toronto’s Liberty Village turned to Houndr for help.

In the same way pet owners ask friends or family for help caring for an animal, Houndr is meant to help people find others in their neighbourhood who can walk or pet-sit dogs on an as-needed basis. Through the app, which officially launched in Toronto on Thanksgiving weekend, Sahly found someone he recognized and she was happy to watch Ray for the evening. He’s used it again since that initial booking, and while he hasn’t been asked to care for anyone’s pets, he’d be happy to do so.

“The thing I liked about Houndr is they are people in my neighbourhood, people I’ve seen walking around,” Sahly said. “It’s like online dating, but for dogs.”

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Houndr is part of the latest on-demand app wave: dog care. It joins the likes of dog-walking apps such as Spot, in Western Canada, and Rover, available in Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, and dog-sharing apps such as Dogtime Community in Montreal and Vancouver, in which people pay a monthly subscription to spend time with local pups.

While Houndr itself is free to download, users asking for help pay $5 for each half-hour walk, up to $20 a day or $25 for an overnight stay. It’s far cheaper than the traditional dog-walking, day-care and kennel services in the city, which start around $18 an hour, Houndr co-founder Amy Bath says.

The app isn’t meant to be Uber for dog-walking. Instead, the money helpers receive is akin to gifts of gratitude – enough for a few coffees or a bottle of wine, Bath says. It’s also not meant to replace regular dog-care services, but rather to connect neighbours when pet owners are in a pinch, such as running late from work or called to an impromptu gathering. The original idea stemmed from Bath and her partner’s own challenges in finding a last-minute sitter.

“We live in Liberty Village,” Bath said. “We looked out the window and thought, ‘This is such a dense neighbourhood – how is it we don’t have anyone to ask [to look after our dog] in an emergency?’”

Growth has been steady since the beta version launched in May. Users verify their locations via text messages. They also provide a social-media account, such as LinkedIn, that Houndr staff use to confirm their identity. Dog owners are also encouraged to meet potential walkers ahead of time, Bath says. As a small startup, Houndr doesn’t offer pet owners or walkers insurance coverage – although it’s something the company is working toward, she adds.

People are generally getting more comfortable hiring strangers through apps, says John Minchin, founder of Calgary-based Spot. Unlike Houndr, Spot offers a more traditional dog-walking service for both last-minute services and recurring, scheduled strolls.

When the app first launched two years ago, about 30 per cent of dog owners scheduled meet-and-greets with their potential dog-walkers, Minchin says. As Spot has expanded – it launched in Vancouver and Victoria in August – fewer than 10 per cent of owners use this option.

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“With Airbnb, people are more used to the notion of someone staying at their homes, and the way the sharing economy has grown with apps like Uber, people are open to a service like this,” he said.

The boom in pet-care apps is more complex than the growth of other service-oriented apps such as Uber and Airbnb, since owners tend to be far more attached to their animals, says Michelle Switzer, an anthropologist who studies millennials at Toronto consultancy Idea Couture. Today’s young adults are far more likely to see themselves as “pet parents,” developing deep relationships with their fur babies, she adds.

“It’s a little ironic,” Switzer said. “People are caring so much more for their pets, but are okay passing them off to strangers.”

That comfort with strangers is partly rooted in users’ desire for greater social interaction – of the human variety, she adds. Between an increase in people who work from home, a decline in religious community participation and a shift toward denser, yet less cohesive neighbourhoods, there is a stronger sense of isolation among young adults.

“As we’ve become more individualized, these apps are a way to connect people,” she said. “People are starting to form relationships in new ways. Technology is building these imagined communities.”

With dog-walking apps, which allow users to vet potential providers through reviews, there’s a sense the person has been approved by the community of dog owners.

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On-demand walking apps are, however, an unregulated category. In the United States, where apps such as Rover and Wag! are more established, the services have come under media scrutiny recently as users complain of limited liability and, even worse, missing and dead pets. Earlier this summer, a woman in Atlanta came home from a business trip to find her dog had died after falling off the second-storey balcony of the Rover-booked sitter’s apartment.

It’s up to the individual pet owners to decide if they want to use these services, says Susan Dankert, spokesperson for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada, adding that whenever people book dog walkers – whether through traditional services or on apps – it’s important to vet them thoroughly, including looking for training certifications and criminal checks, and whenever possible, meeting the walker face-to-face.

“That person is going to be entering your house,” she says. “You and your dog need to be comfortable with them.”

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