(Joe Tabacca for The Boston Globe)
Chris Haddix (left) of FlexPetz talked to Farng-Yang Foo in December in the company's New York City office before Foo rented "Sandman," an 18-inch-long Pomeranian.
By Globe Staff
An effort to prohibit a dog rental service from opening in Boston will be discussed this afternoon by a City Council committee.
California-based FlexPetz already offers dog rentals in Los Angeles and New York City and hopes to expand to Boston by "mid-2008," according to its website. The City Council's Government Operations Committee will discuss a proposed ban on pet rentals at a public meeting at 1 p.m. at City Hall.
Globe staff writer Sarah Schweitzer wrote about FlexPetz in December:
First came Netflix and Zipcar. Now comes a company that plans to rent dogs to Bostonians willing to pay steep fees for a canine friend without worry of commitment.
FlexPetz, a California-based company, will open a Boston branch of its dog rental service this spring with a fleet of 10 dogs available for romps on the Common or weekend sleepovers. The company bills itself as an "unique alternative to full-time pet ownership" that will even drop off a dog when you're ready for it and pick it up when you've had enough. It is drawing howls of condemnation from local animal rights groups and animal behaviorists.
"This promotes dogs as disposable items," said Bryn Conklin, an animal protection specialist at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"Dogs need stability in their lives, they need a long-term commitment, and they need a secure environment," said Ray McSoley, a local trainer who called the company a "four-legged escort service."
"It's incredibly disrespectful to the dog, and it's also disrespectful to the renter because it devolves the purpose of having a dog in your life. There is no commitment there."
FlexPetz's president and CEO, Marlena Cervantes, said the dogs often come from shelters and are specially selected for temperaments that can withstand the weekly uprooting. She said they are not without structure and routine in their lives; when they are not rented out to customers, the animals live in dog day-care facilities where they roam free and enjoy pack camaraderie. She said the dogs may wish they were in more permanent situations but that compared with the shelters where many of them came from, they are better off.
"Bear in mind that these dogs are in need of homes, and they understand that," she said. "They are happy to not be caged up, to receive top veterinary care, to be regularly groomed, to be active, and to be playing with other dogs."
The company says its target market is busy professionals without time to care for a dog of their own.
It has opened branches in San Diego, Los Angeles, and New York this year and plans others in Washington, San Francisco, and London by spring. The service is not cheap. To rent a dog, customers must pay $300 in initiation and membership fees and then shell out more when it comes time to rent a dog. A weekend day with a dog is $39.95.
Dog drop-off and pickup at a home or office is an additional $35. An "inconvenience fee" of $75 a day is added for dogs brought back late.
FlexPetz is not the first company to tap into the human longing for pet companionship. In Japan, pet shops such as Tokyo's "Puppy the World" rent out dogs by the hour, with renters given a leash, tissues, a plastic bag, and strict instructions to not let the dog run loose. "Dog ambassador programs" are used at hotels such as the Fairmont Copley, where a Labrador retriever, Catie Copley, is available for walks with guests. At The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, a cat is available to stay in rooms with guests longing for company.
Animal rights activists say many shelters do much the same thing, for no charge.
"Why would you need to rent a dog when you could walk a dog in a shelter in your community?" said Gary Patronek, director of animal welfare and protection at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, where dogs that go out on walks with volunteers wear red vests that read, "Available for adoption."
"If you are feeling a little lonely, we are here," Patronek said.
For Rachel Fleishman, 42, a lawyer in Manhattan where FlexPetz opened a branch in October, volunteering at the shelter near her home was not possible because the shelter's training for volunteers was scheduled midweek when she needed to be at work.
Instead she enrolled in FlexPetz and now spends one weeknight and one weekend day with Bob, a pointy-eared West Highland terrier who likes to cuddle on her couch after long walks.
"By going through FlexPetz, I can do it on my schedule," she said. "Does that make me a selfish professional? OK, maybe ... But no one does this if they're not dog-crazy. It's worth it to me to have an important relationship with a dog in my life."
Cervantes, 30, of San Diego, who is a former therapist for children with autism, said she conceived the idea for FlexPetz when she brought her dog to therapy sessions. Parents raved about the dog and she began to think about how she could share her dog among the families.
FlexPetz's procedure for renting a dog includes an evaluation in which prospective renters are interviewed about dogs they have owned in the past. Their credit histories are also reviewed. Next comes a meeting with a trainer who familiarizes the renter with his or her dog of choice and explains the dog's habits, routines, and commands. Customers may then sign up for time with a dog using an online reservation system.
The dogs' route to FlexPetz is usually via shelters, but some are handed over by families who say they can no longer care for the dogs. The dogs are observed for a month for suitability. If they pass, they become rental dogs.
They tend to go out on weekends with renters and spend the rest of their time in the dog day-care centers, where they are supervised by a person 24 hours a day. The dogs remain in the FlexPetz rotation from age 2 to 3. When they turn 4, they are put up for adoption, Cervantes said.
The company has had several dogs adopted in Los Angeles and San Diego, but Cervantes declined to provide numbers.
Farng-Yang Foo, a Manhattan neurologist and FlexPetz customer, said he is quite fond of Sandman, an 18-inch-long Pomeranian he picks up on Friday afternoons for weekend visits. He thinks about possibly adopting Sandman someday.
But for now, the 31-year-old is happy with a part-time arrangement.
"It's like I am the uncle to the dog," Foo said. "I can take it out for walks and take care of it, but I don't have to worry about it being alone during the day."
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