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Originally published July 10, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified July 11, 2012 at 10:39 PM

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Dog owners go online to find alternatives to kennels

Websites are popping up to serve dog owners looking for cheaper, friendlier places to leave Fido while on vacation.

Seattle Times business reporter

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A year ago, the main competition kennels faced were friends and neighbors who looked after each other's dogs. Today, at least two websites are taking this network of neighbors and turning it into national businesses.

Targeting owners who treat their dogs like family, Rover.com and DogVacay are growing by leaps and bounds.

Since its launch in December, Seattle-based Rover.com has approximately 10,000 hosts and sitters registered in more than 40 states ranging from certified dog trainers to perspective dog owners. The Seattle area is its largest market with more than 700 hosts and sitters.

A couple of years ago, Greg Gottesman found that his yellow Labrador Ruby Tuesday had a cough and scratches after staying in a traditional kennel.

Gottesman thought the poor treatment and $50 per night price tag created an opportunity. As managing director of Madrona Venture Group, he pitched Rover.com when Startup Weekend, a 54-hour proving ground for entrepreneurial ideas, came to Seattle in June 2011.

The idea received top prize; six months later he launched Rover.com in Seattle.

Madrona's entrepreneur in residence Aaron Easterly, a former general manager for Microsoft, worked on the project and succeeded Gottesman as CEO several months later. One of the biggest advantages of finding a host for your dog, Easterly said, is that the dog will receive personal attention rarely found in a kennel.

For example, when Easterly boards dogs from the site, he allows them to sleep in his bed. "The chance that a kennel supplies that is zero," Easterly said.

But, LaVonne Wilson, owner of 12-year-old Seattle kennel Central Bark, said she isn't concerned about online competition. She said traditional kennels are secure, and provide a trained staff and an atmosphere where dogs can interact with other dogs.

"Dogs are social creatures. They like being in an environment with other dogs," she said. "But some dogs don't do well in a social environment. It should be about what's best for the dog.

"There is plenty of room for all (boarding) variations."

She may have a point. According to Scarborough Research, in 2011 about 35 percent of households owned dogs in the Seattle-Tacoma area, about 674,000 households. The American Pet Products Association also estimates pet owners in the United States will spend more than $4 billion on grooming and boarding in 2012.

On the Rover.com website, hosts post pictures and descriptions of themselves and their homes. Dog owners search through the listings — think Craigslist or Airbnb for dogs.

Rover screens potential hosts and sitters. It also encourages dog owners to meet the host in person before booking a stay.

Fremont resident Julie Wamugi has boarded her 4-year-old black Labrador Colby with hosts from the site three times since April without problems.

In addition to meeting with the host, Wamugi said looking at user reviews on Rover.com eased her nerves about leaving her dog with a stranger.

"If I can avoid a kennel I try to do so," she said. "It's nice ... especially for people who treat their dogs like their children."

Most of the sites' registered hosts are dog owners themselves, giving vacationing dogs another animal to play with and showing most hosts already know how to live with a dog.

In King County, traditional kennels that board four or more cats or dogs are required to have a permit and receive annual inspections. However, James Apa, spokesman for Public Health — Seattle & King County, said homes wouldn't be subject to inspections until they start running a long-term business with that number of animals.

The host sets the per night price, averaging $25 to $32, with Rover.com taking 3 percent to 15 percent.

Rover.com raised about $3.4 million in venture capital from Madrona and angel investors. Most of that money is still in the bank, and the majority of what they are using is spent on the company's 12 employees, product development and marketing, Easterly said.

A few months after Rover.com launched, a similar website called DogVacay opened internationally. Based in Santa Monica, Calif., DogVacay includes 4,000 hosts in several hundred cities in the United States and Canada. There are more than 100 hosts in the Seattle area. Much like Rover.com, Aaron Hirschhorn came up with the idea for DogVacay in 2010 after his dogs had a bad experience at a standard kennel.

He and co-owner Karine Nissim opened an in-home dog boarding business and raised $30,000 in eight months, paying for their wedding. "We really feel this frees up people to travel. This is an option that is cost effective and a good experience," Hirschhorn said. "We're looking forward to a busy summer."

DogVacay then paired with Science Inc., a digital business incubator, and raised $1 million in venture capital to pay for additions to the website and customer service, Hirschhorn said. Hirschhorn left his day job as the principal at a venture-capital firm in Santa Monica, Calif., and now has more than a dozen employees. "I live and breathe dog vacation," he said. "It's not always a vacation for me."

Rover.com and DogVacay are similar in several ways, including average price asked by hosts ($25 to $30 per night) and the percentage DogVacay takes (between 5 percent and 10 percent).

Both companies also provide up to $25,000 of insurance per dog.

One major difference between the companies is that Rover.com allows people to sign up as hosts or as sitters. Hosts board dogs in their own homes while sitters travel to the dog. DogVacay only has hosts on their site. Also, users of DogVacay need to be 18 years or older, but for Rover.com, children as young as 13 can use the site with a parent or guardian's signature.

"When you have a unique proposition, you would love to believe that you're going to be the only one forever," Easterly said. "(Competition) challenges us to be our best and our dog owners benefit from that."

News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Connor Radnovich: 206-464-2718 or cradnovich@seattletimes.com

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