At FlexPetz, Every Dog Has His Day, or Hour
In the 2005 romantic comedy Must Love Dogs, Sarah ( Diane Lane) and Jake (John Cusack) meet on an Internet date. In her Internet profile, Sarah says that her ideal man must be a dog lover. The title’s twist, such as it is, is that neither Sarah nor Jake owns a dog, and both have to borrow one for the date. The film struggles all too hard to be funny, and fails mightily. If it had been made today, Sarah and Jake would have rented their dogs. And that would be no joke.
Called variously “rent a pet” or a “four-legged escort service” by its opponents, FlexPetz, started last year, offers what founder Marlena Cervantes deems “shared pet ownership” in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York. The company plans to expand to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., London, and other cities. FlexPetz rents out dogs by the hour, day, or week.
Much of the initial press reads like advertising. “A small, but growing industry now allows want-to-be pet owners across the country to experience the joys of owning a pet, without the long-term, day-to-day hassles,” chirped ABC News online.  “Earlier this year a San Diego-based company called FlexPetz started renting man’s best friend for pet lovers who might want to take a dog on a long walk and maybe play a game of fetch, but don’t have the time to own a pet full time.”
And the customers quoted in the articles readily express their satisfaction with their pet assignations. Rachel Fleishman, a Manhattan attorney, spends one weekend day each week with a West Highland terrier named Bob. “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.”
Although most articles at least raise the question of the ethics of the further commodification of canines or the potential psychological harm to dogs -- CBS News, in one report, quoted an animal behavior specialist talking of “animals being treated as a rental car” -- Cervantes usually gets the last word, and makes her company sound like some do-gooder nonprofit. She rescues dogs from shelters at about the age of two, and they will be put up for adoption when they turn four. While this is made to seem altruistic, in fact the young adult purebred dogs she rescues, then puts to work, are the most likely to be adopted from shelters anyway. (The FlexPetz Web site pictures some of its dogs — a Labrador retriever, Boston terrier, an Afghan and a miniature pinscher.)
While the service is purportedly for busy people who don’t have time for a full-time pet or aren’t permitted to have one in their apartment, Cervantes claims some dogs have been adopted by renters. “Our members are responsible in that they realize full-time ownership is not an option for them and would be unfair to the dog,” she told the Associated Press. But then she told The New York Sun that it can be a learning experience that can lead to full-time commitment: “A lot of people go out and get dogs and then abandon them,” Cervantes said. “They don’t understand the full responsibility of dog ownership, and this a wonderful way to learn.”
Perhaps babies could be rented out to give people considering parenthood a few hours of child-rearing experience. Or maybe commitment-phobic men using escort services can make the case that they are getting an hour’s taste of what a relationship might be like. And how can urbanites with little time or space in their lives for a full-time pet suddenly adopt? Are they going to change jobs or sell their co-ops?
The point is that FlexPetz is not a do-gooder nonprofit. Membership is an expensive proposition. There is an account set-up charge of $250. In addition to the monthly fee of $279.95, which includes four days of dog rental, members pay $45 in dog rental fees per day or part of day. Delivery of the dog to your home is extra, and generally runs about $20.
And the chances are good that getting a “doggie fix,” as Cervantes calls it, isn’t good for the dog. Deborah Sarfaty, a New York veterinarian, observes, “Dogs get attached quickly, and then it’s lifted away from them, which is cruel.”
FlexPetz’s Web site says that it plans to open in Boston, but animal advocacy activists have bitten back. In February, a bill was introduced in the Massachusetts legislature that would prohibit renting pets in the state. Cervantes said that she still intends to open a rental outlet in Boston and would be willing to testify before the legislature.
Perhaps those interested in learning about dog care should confine themselves to FlexPetz’s rental outlet in the virtual world of Second Life, the online social networking site. There they can rent a virtual dog for $2 a week (proceeds go to “animal welfare groups”). A press release announces that “to maintain a ‘real world’ experience, the FlexPetz dogs obey commands and even randomly poop — requiring the member to clean up after their dog.”
For those seeking a more serious part-time relationship with a dog, why not volunteer as a dog walker at a local shelter? It’s free, and it would genuinely do some good.
- Sarah Schweitzer, “Man’s Part-Time Best Friend” — The Boston Globe (17 Dec. 2007).
- FlexPetz Web site (www.flexpetz.com).
- Lauren McGrath, “Love on a Lease: Renting Man’s Best Friend”—ABC News Internet Ventures (12 Feb. 2007).
- “Man’s Part-Time Best Friend” (note 1 above).
- “The Perfect Pet for Commitment Phobes” — CBSNews.com (19 Oct. 2007).
- “Man’s Part-Time Best Friend” (note 1 above).
- Lisa Leff, “Company Sinks Teeth Into Dog Time Shares” — Washington Post (AP; 29 Jul. 2007).
- Annie Karni, “Pet-Renting Concept Termed ‘Shocking’” — The New York Sun (17 Aug. 2007).
- FlexPetz Web site.
- “Pet-Renting Concept Termed ‘Shocking’” (note 9 above).
- Ellie Olleson, “Fangs Bared Over Rent-a-Dog” — The Worcester Telegram (5 Mar. 2008).
- FlexPetz press release, “FlexPetz, the Flexible Dog Ownership Company, Now Give Dogs a Second Life” (13 Feb. 2008).