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Page last updated at 09:34 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 10:34 UK

A dog that's not for life

Walking Gucci in Green Park

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Gucci, an 18-month-old pomeranian, is a fluffy ball of fun who loves walks in the park. And he can be your dog - for a price - as part of a new service renting out canine companions.

Gucci the pomeranian
Gucci can be yours - temporarily

Living in London, with a garden not much bigger than a picnic blanket and a working day lengthened by a long commute, it seems unfair to own a dog. But wouldn't it be nice to have a furry friend to take for walkies?

To the average British animal lover, the idea of canine timeshare might jar a little. A dog is famously for life, not just for Christmas. Shelters are full of forlorn dogs, surrendered by owners who found themselves without the time or effort to look after an animal.

So perhaps there is sense in the dog hire company Flexpetz opening a branch in London, its first outside the US. There the business is well established, with dogs-for-hire in New York, San Diego and Los Angeles.

To borrow a dog for four days a month costs a tail-drooping monthly fee of 279 in the UK (in the US, it's $279.95) - plus extra for drop-off and collection, if needed. The company says the high cost of maintaining and paying for vets' bill explains the disparity. The target clientele in London will be much like those who have signed up in Los Angeles and New York - urbanites whose busy lives make full-time pet ownership difficult. So far it says 100 have pre-registered in London.

Gucci is the first and only canine recruit to London's Flexpetz, but more will be available soon, says Pippa Woolard, the company's UK representative, who will run orientation sessions and arrange the pomeranian's movements around the capital. The New York branch usually has five dogs.

Patting the dog
Families with young children are among the target clientele

Most Flexpetz dogs in the US have been given up by their owners, who no longer have time to spend with their pets. Others are ex-show dogs or breeders.

Chelsea McNabb is a Los Angeles-based actress and Flexpetz customer with an extremely varied schedule, but who aspires to eventually looking after an animal full time.

"I had considered adopting a dog a few years back, but decided against it because the idea of first-time-dog-ownership was a bit intimidating.

"Typically I spend time with this beautiful coonhound named Sasha. She is very, very, smart. We regularly hike together at many trails adjacent to Hollywood/ Santa Monica mountains. Once I took a Cocker Spaniel named Stevie, who I liked a lot too. But Sasha fits my lifestyle better with the hiking so now I only spend time with Sasha."

Once she has a house with a garden, she hopes to take full ownership of a dog like Sasha. And this is something that is encouraged by the firm.

"The hope is that a member will fall in love and adopt it, once they've seen if a dog will fit into their lifestyle," says Ms Woolard. All of the dogs are available for adoption, at a price subject to negotiation, if a customer finds that a permanent dog does fit into their lifestyle.

It only takes an hour in Gucci's company for my three-year-old to regard him as her dog. And vice versa. "He takes everyone he meets into his pack," says Ms Woolard, as small dog and small girl nuzzle noses.

As thunderclouds gather over London's Green Park to curtail our dog walking, she is reluctant to relinquish control of the lead. A bottom lip trembles. "But I don't want to give him back. I love him."

Unconditional love

Also keen to shower Gucci with love and puppy treats is Huwgh Taylor, a wine buyer who lives in a Chelsea flat, who plans long walks in London's parks to get fit. He heard about the scheme from a friend who travels to New York on business.

Most dogs need the security of a proper routine with one owner
RSPCA's David McDowell

"I saw they were hoping to open in London and put my name down for pre-registration. I work long and unsocial hours, which would make it incredibly unfair on any animal, especially a dog.

"When I was growing up I had a German shepherd collie cross. This scheme means I can have the companionship of a dog without having to leave it alone while I am at work."

And the whole idea of renting a pet fits into modern lifestyle trends. The US economist Jeremy Rifkin suggests in his book the Age of Access that the world was moving away from an emphasis on owning things to renting being the norm.

It may be hard to see how you might get true companionship from a pet that you only see for four days a month.

And animal behaviour experts worry that shunting a dog between multiple owners will cause it distress. The RSPCA's man groans on hearing that the London branch is about to open.

"There will almost certainly be an emotional impact for the dogs as they are moved from owner to owner, from home to home, and then back again until someone decides they want them again," says veterinary adviser David McDowell.

A three-year-old learning how to hold a lead
Learning to hold Gucci's lead

"Most dogs need the security of a proper routine with one owner and without this they could become stressed and unhappy."

Instead of renting a pet, he advises that anyone desperate to spend time with a dog could volunteer for their local RSPCA branch or animal centre.

Flexpetz's founder Marlena Cervantes says only dogs with temperaments suited to the upheaval are chosen.

"Our ideal dogs are extremely social, not owner dependent, good with children and other animals. We carefully screen our dogs for temperament and social ability."

A former behaviour therapist for children with autism, she came up with the rent-a-dog concept after taking her Labrador along to several therapy sessions and seeing how enthusiastically her clients took to the dog.

"And I had many years experience sharing a pitbull/boxer mix named Valencia with my ex-boyfriend. It worked out for my dog to have two loving homes, and she was never left unattended."

Gucci, when not rented out mainly at weekends, will live with a carer. But not Ms Woolard. She is a cat person.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My jaw dropped when I saw this story, this is consumerism gone potty. Dogs are not fashion accessories, rent-a-cars or, how can I put this, escorts. They are living beings with individual personalities and needs. They need stability, care and discipline of one owner, 'a pack leader' for them to look up to and obey. Dogs that have no such patriarch become confused, depressed, and lonely. They also have a tendency to be unpredictable. I have no doubt that the child in your story, or her mother would have loved the Pomeranian so much if it had been aggressive to either of them. What's next? Renting out toddlers and babies to the money rich, time poor bourgeoisie?
Martha, oxford

Speaking for Dogs Trust, which has commented on this issue before, I'd say this is a concerning story. Whilst this service undoubtedly provides dogs with a wealth of treats and affection from various owners, the Charity is concerned about the emotional impact this will have upon these dogs; who does this service really benefit? Certainly not the dogs who need a stable routine and a constant owner to bond with. We would also question where these dogs would be coming from once the company sets up a base in London - currently there are already over 100,000 stray or abandoned dogs already in the UK, many of whom are already being cared for by re-homing organisations like Dogs Trust. If you are desperate to spend time with a dog but perhaps don't have the time or the financial ability to have one for yourself full-time then why not consider volunteering at a Rehoming Centre where, for no cost whatsoever, you can spend time with many different dogs of all shapes and sizes, pedigrees and crossbreeds, as well as having the knowledge you are really making a difference to their lives. Or you could consider fostering a dog in your own home (perhaps as part of the Freedom Project, helping women escape domestic violence) or even sponsoring a dog. Getting a dog is a huge responsibility and a service whereby you can 'rent a pet' for short periods only encourages people to get a dog without thinking it through properly - please remember, A Dog IS For Life.
Alex, London, UK

Rather than waste money and continue turning animals into commodities, volunteer as a walker for the Cinnamon Trust. This way you can give as little or as much time as you like to a dog who is depended on by an elderly or sick person, who is no longer able to walk the dog, but loves and needs it company. It's a win-win situation, costs nothing and helps another person and their dog.
Sally King, Southend, UK

Wonderful story, wonderful service, but very interesting this story appeared between two stories "Even buying bread is a challenge in Zimbabwe" and "Families at risk from Gaza's bursting sewage ponds" Will the world ever get it's priorities right?
Robert Adair, Camberwell Australia

Do it for Free most dogs homes/animal shelters are desperate for people to walk dogs and help and most don't charge for the pleasure.
Greg Dawes, Bristol South Gloucestershire.

My heart sunk when I heard that this scheme was coming to the UK. Canine psychology is such that dogs shunted from home to home often exhibit problem behaviour as a result. They are creatures of habit and need to bond with their pack and pack leader to fulfil their species needs. Dogs are complex social animals, not commodities, and this scheme is clearly only for the benefit of the "carers".
Claire Mendelsohn, London, UK

I'm willing to rent out my dog. You may borrow it for a 100 per week. The last week in July would be good, as we're going on holiday

I think this is ok a couple of times a week for sociable dogs but unfair on them if more than this and unscrupulous people could do this without concern for the dogs at all. All such businesses should be registered and safeguards for the dog's welfare ensured.
Ann Richards, Bournemouth

Geeesh! Not another example of people wanting all the benefits without the responsibilities. What does that teach your children?
Trev, Poole,UK

Oh dear, oh dear. If you don't have the time for a dog don't get one. If you still want to see them then head for your RSPCA shelter or maybe buy a cat instead!
Nathan, Edinburgh

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