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Down Range From Your Dog

Finding Care for your pet during deployment

Deployment or temporary duty challenges service members not only with the mission but with managing separation from the daily routines they know. Among the myriad details individuals must square away before heading down range is what to do with their dogs.

For most owners, dogs are family, and leaving them behind is emotionally taxing under the best of circumstances. Unmarried, deploying service members often turn to a loved one, parent or friend. But sometimes there is no one else to look after their pet, and owners with no alternatives and no time left before departing have to relinquish their dogs to shelters.

“They realized that there had to be something better than literally sticking dogs in a cage for 23 or 24 hours while in the kennel and getting back a huge bill with shell-shocked dogs,” says Lee Morrell, DogVacay’s director of public relations.

In circumstances where friends or relatives may be an option, the situation may still not be ideal. The relation in question may not be able to optimally manage a dog’s physical needs, have enough space for it, or may not have an established and positive relationship with the pet. The problems are complex enough that a number of organizations have sprung up to help deploying pet owners find foster care for their little friends, furry or feathered.

Non-profit groups including Pets For Patriots, Dogs on Deployment, and Guardian Angels for Soldier’s Pet. A number of regional Humane Society organizations also offer resources and alternatives for fostering pets. To their number DogVacay.com can now be added.

DogVacay.com is a for-profit web aggregator which matches people (civilian or military) seeking short or long term care for their dogs with a network of independent hosts or boarders. Often referred to as “Angie’s List for Dogs,” DogVacay.com was founded in 2012 by a California couple who were planning a weeks-long trip east and decided to kennel their two dogs. Upon returning they were presented with a bill for $1400.

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A U.S. Army lieutenant from Charlie Company, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division receives a greeting from his furry friend after arriving at Cottage Grove Armory, Minn., July 16, 2007, after returning from a deployment. Minnesota National Guard’s 1st Brigade Combat Team had been deployed for 22 months with 16 months out of the deployment in a combat zone. Long deployments mean extended time away from your pet, something DogVacay.com is trying to make stress free. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Lynette Hoke

“They realized that there had to be something better than literally sticking dogs in a cage for 23 or 24 hours while in the kennel and getting back a huge bill with shell-shocked dogs,” says Lee Morrell, DogVacay’s director of public relations.

DogVacay.com founder Aaron Hirschhorn and his wife sensed a business opportunity. Their  research turned up no real solution for people desiring better care for their dogs than a caged kennel environment. They began the business in their home, watching dogs for others on their own time without resorting to cage storage. The exercise led them to the idea of finding other hosts who would care for and board dogs in a non-cage environment. DogVacay attracted investors, and the enterprise is currently 12 months old.

DogVacay.com uses a five step vetting process for prospective hosts, who fill out an extensive application before they are allowed access to the site. Each application is reviewed, and prospective hosts are questioned via email/phone.

The company now has more than 10,000 hosts in its nationwide network which spans most major metro areas as well as smaller cities near military installations. Hosts are independent business people who list thru DogVacay.com, which handles requests for overnights or longer stays, collects fees from clients, and pays the hosts directly, taking a percentage of each transaction. Individual hosts set their own fees, incentives, and discounts. According to Lee Morrell, costs average about half of traditional kennel rates, ranging from $15 to $50 per night.

“A lot of our hosts offer military discounts. A number have their services set up so that if a military member needs their dog watched over a period of three months, as opposed to just a week, they can [structure] the billing into two week increments so that the customer doesn’t get a huge bill at the end of the period. They can set up it through PayPal so money is withdrawn every two weeks. There’s not a heavy hit at the end of a six or nine month period.”

DogVacay.com uses a five step vetting process for prospective hosts, who fill out an extensive application before they are allowed access to the site. Each application is reviewed, and prospective hosts are questioned via email/phone.

“We also insist that the guest does a meet-and-greet rather than just a booking,” Morrell adds. “We ask them to go and take the dog to the host so that they can meet the host and see if they’re comfortable with the host and the place.”

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U.S. Army Spc. Leo Leroy gets a kiss from Regina Leroy and a bow-wow welcome from dogs Yoshi and Bruiser at a homecoming ceremony on Fort Hood, Texas, Nov. 28, 2009. It’s not always possible to have loved ones pet sit while a service member is deployed. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Sharla Lewis

Those in search of care for their dogs simply go to the website, search available hosts and contact them through the web portal. DogVacay.com also offers a concierge service through which customers can speak directly with a representative, who will search the site for the guest, find multiple hosts for them, and work with them to contact the hosts directly. Once the contact is made, concierges communicate with the [prospective] guests and hosts to ensure the guest gets the best host for their dog.

Sgt. Brandi McAllister, 4th Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault is currently deployed to southeast Afghanistan from Fort Campbell, Ky. She found DogVacay.com through a simple internet search and has been pleased with the service.

“My dogs are like my children. I was looking to recreate an environment most like home that I could. I did not like the thought of them being in a kennel for such a long period of time. I was afraid of the lack of personal attention they would receive and I was afraid they would be lonely. I have a Pitbull and a Pitbull mix, so finding a place was difficult because the breed has such a bad rap. I really made these arrangements at the last minute. I stumbled across DogVacay and they offered a ‘meet and greet’ type of link up. The great thing about DogVacay is that they allow the host to set their own fees. My host and I were able to agree upon a price we both felt was fair and reasonable.”

The company does little advertising yet, but has a significant social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Future plans include more direct marketing to the military and potentially promoting services for cats, birds and other pets.

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Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...