Service dogs in Sacramento are amazing. They have been extensively trained, live strict but loved lives, and take care of their owners like truly no one else can. The dogs’ abilities to detect seizures, pick up dropped items, and even warn owners of impending stroke or heart attack make these dogs literally life savers.
With all the amazing things these animals can do, it’s no wonder we have learned to accept them in places we usually wouldn’t, like a restaurant or the office. But there is a growing cynicism towards service and support animals in general, and mostly because of misunderstanding, and I’ll admit that I used to be one of these people.
I was not raised in a house with pets, and I never could understand the “emotional support animal“. I could understand a seeing eye dog or a dog that assists with the hearing impaired, but these are obvious needs that a dog could help with. When I would see articles about an emotional support pig or bunny, I would roll my eyes.
The Best Emotional Support Animal in California
In 2010, Aaron Hirschhorn went on vacation, leaving his dog Rocky at a kennel in Los Angeles. When he returned, the goldendoodle was severely traumatized.
"She was hiding under my desk for two days afterward," the science teacher-turned-VC remembers. Figuring he could provide a more personal service, Hirschhorn naturally did what any entrepreneurial dog-lover would: He started his own pet-boarding business. The venture was successful, to say the least; in one year, he generated around $35,000 in sales. "We started realizing that if we--who have no real experience--can do this, then pretty much anybody can," he says.
Back then, the sharing economy--or what was then known as "collaborative consumption"--was still in its infancy, but Hirschhorn recognized it as a major opportunity. By March 2012, he had launched DogVacay, an online service connecting pet owners to sitters in L.A. and San Francisco; by the following summer, he expanded to several other U.S. cities and Canada. Today, the website books more than $70 million in annual sales and aims to significantly reduce reliance on kennels much as Airbnb has captured millions in revenue from the hotel industry.
The cost to board a pet with DogVacay is around $30 per night, and the startup takes a 20 percent transaction fee. That's generally cheaper than kennels, which range from $25 to $45 per night depending on your location, according to the pet pharmacy PetCare Rx. Besides dogs, DogVacay provides sitters for cats, as well as less common house pets such as chinchillas, ferrets, and even chickens.CREDIT: Courtesy Company
DogVacay is the latest in a series of tech startups taking aim at the traditional pet care industry, and the market opportunity is great. In 2016, Americans spent roughly $60 billion on their pets, according to research firm IBISWorld, which expects that number to increase by 7 percent annually through 2021. In addition to the more standard boarding and grooming, startups are now offering niche products and services, including wearable fitness trackers, game consoles, and even sex dolls. (If your canine just can't stop humping the furniture, consider buying him an inflatable toy from the French online retailer Hot Doll.)
Investors agree that the future of the industry is bright. "There's a macro trend that Americans are having children later in life, and related to that is that there are more dogs than there are children in the U.S.," notes Ben Ling, an investment partner with Khosla Ventures who has invested in DogVacay. "So unless that trend materially reverses, it is a fact that [pet tech] is here to stay, and not a fad."
Although even Hirschhorn concedes that some pet tech is nothing more than "silly gadgets"--think webcam-equipped treat-dispensing devices--many businesses have lately drawn the attention of venture capitalists. Between 2012 and 2016, as much as $486 million was invested in the global pet tech sector across 172 deals, according to CB Insights data. DogVacay has raised more than $47 million to date, from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, First Round Capital, and Benchmark Capital.
"2016 was a strong year for pet-tech financing," notes Alex Paci, a tech industry analyst with CB Insights. "Investors are betting on early companies in the space and clearly see promise."
A complex platform
Of course, as with many young companies in the sharing economy, DogVacay faces significant obstacles, including handling its rapid growth. The company facilitates as many as 40,000 pet stays a night, and counts more than 60,000 registered hosts on its platform. "It's a simple business model, but the actual management of it is extraordinarily intense," says Hirschhorn.
To his point, the startup now has more than 100 employees, many of whom are engineers tasked with continuously refining the platform. For example, a pet owner can search for a sitter who has experience with specific conditions--say, a pet that gets separation anxiety--and who is available on certain dates.
Unfortunately, bad apples can get through, despite a rigorous vetting process that involves background checks and online training seminars. In August 2016, an Oakland couple was devastated to learn that their six-year-old dog, Pippen, had died while in the care of a DogVacay sitter, who had left the animal in a hot car. "In situations like that, we do our very best to support our customers through it," Hirschhorn says, adding that the sitter was immediately kicked off of the site. DogVacay also offers pet insurance, which covers up to $25,000 for any kind of accident or injury a pet sustains during its stay.
The company faces stiff competition, including from Rover.com, the Seattle pet-sitting service that reportedly generates more than $100 million in annual sales. Hirschhorn says he isn't concerned, given that other startups account for a small percentage of the overall pet-sitting market.
"We don't even necessarily view [other sites] as competitors," he says. "We're all working to accomplish the same mission of making dog ownership easier. To me, the competitor is the local kennel, or your neighbor, or your mom."
Hirschhorn declined to comment on whether DogVacay is profitable, though the company said last year that it expects to be in the black in 2017. Beyond this year, it plans to focus on expanding its core business, which now operates across the U.S. and in parts of Canada. The startup also recently expanded to include dog walking and day care, and soon it plans on partnering with wearable fitness trackers--so owners can monitor Fido's body temperature, breathing, and heart rate.
The company's success has been good news for Rocky the fearful goldendoodle, who no longer has to spend her time in kennels. Hirschhorn, speaking while on vacation in the Dominican Republic, says that she's currently boarding with a DogVacay sitter. "From the pictures I've gotten of Rocky at the beach, on a hike, and passed out in her bed," he adds, "I'm pretty sure she's having as much fun on vacay as we are."
Related: Why Pet Care Is One of the Best Industries for Starting a Business in 2017
Service Animals, Emotional Support Animals, and Guide Dogs
The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) legislation, enacted in 1990, is so vague that it has created two classes of service animals. The first is for animals that perform a specific task - Guide Dogs for the blind, wheelchair assistance, hearing dogs, and animals that can detect medical emergencies, like seizures, and summon help. These dogs have been specifically trained for their service mission.
The problem is the second classification - emotional support animals. All animals - lizards, chickens and snakes - can be designated service animals because they lend emotional support to the owner. In most cases they have no task-specific training. While this definition is currently under review, it has placed an enormous burden on those people who truly have a Service Animal.
Bringing your Service Dog into a restaurant, theater, or other public venue can also create some problems unless you can explain that your dog is allowed access under Federal law. Of course this means that you animal must be suited for crowded environments and trained to act properly around people. This is another case where a Service Dog ID Card will be of value.
Do You Know The Service Dog Laws in Your State?
A recent study from the Virginia Commonwealth University found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels throughout the work day, reported higher levels of job satisfaction, and had a more positive perception of their employer.
"There might be a benefit here," Randolph Barker, business professor at VCU and lead author on the study, said. "It's a low cost wellness benefit, and it could be a recruiting opportunity (for businesses)."
The study was conducted over the span of a week at Replacements, Ltd., a dinnerware manufacturing company in Greensboro, North Carolina. Seventy-six of the company's employees participated in the study and were broken down into three groups: 18 dog owners who brought their dogs to the office each day, 38 employees that owned dogs but did not bring them to the office, and 19 employees that didn't own pets.
At the beginning of the day, all of the study participants had a saliva sample taken to determine baseline levels of Cortisol, a hormone that measures a person's stress. There were no noticeable differences in starting stress levels across all employees.
But as the work day wore on, Barker found noticeable differences between the stress levels of those with and without dogs by their side.
Barker then had members of each group report their stress level at four different times throughout the day and found that the workers accompanied by their dogs reported the lowest amount of stress at all points in the workday. The most stressed out group turned out to be dog owners that left their pets at home.
The benefits go far beyond just reducing worker stress, though, Barker said. Dogs owners who were allowed to bring their dog to work reported high perceived organizational support (the feeling that one's employer cares about his or her personal and professional development).
Comments from participants in the study indicated an array of other possible benefits, including increased productivity, higher employee morale, and increased co-worker cooperation, Barker said.
"Dogs were a communication energizer," Barker said. Dogs in the office tended to spark conversations between those with and without pets, and "people who didn't typically talk to one another, were now more engaged" with dogs in the office, Barker said.
Nearly half of those who brought their dogs in reported increased productivity, while the rest reported no remarkable difference in their daily work output. A majority (80%) of those who did not bring dogs in did not report reduced productivity in the office, and 25% said dogs positively affected productivity.
Barker said there are issues companies should consider before enacting a dogs in the office policy, including whether or not the pets are well-behaved, employees potentially having pet allergies or a fear of animals, and the organizational culture of the company.
The study's findings on the positive effect of dogs in the workplace were unsurprising to Replacements, however.
"This is not anything new to us," Lisa Conklin, public relations manager for Replacements said.
Replacements enacted a pets in the office 17 years ago when founder and CEO Bob Page received a dog of his own and didn't want to leave it home alone. The office has seen a slew of interesting pets since, including a duck, a pot-bellied pig, and an opossum.
Customers can even get in on the fun. On the outside of the store is a sign encouraging customers to bring in any well-behaved pets, Conklin said.
Do You Know The Service Dog Laws in Your State?
If you are in the US, you may have heard of emotional support animal or ESA. An emotional support animal works like a companion animal for people and patients, for offering therapeutic benefits. Usually such animals are either cats or dogs, although a patient can choose other pets. The whole purpose of an ESA is to offer relief and support for disability, psychological symptoms or emotional stress. Check some of the basic facts you need to know before getting an ESA certificate.
To get an emotional support animal, you have to check with your physician to consider the option of proving verifiable disability, as stated by law. Your doctor or medical professional will give a note or a certificate, which will mention the concerned disability and the need for emotional support animal that will offer therapeutic care and healing. However, the animal isn't treated a service animal and therefore, there is no need for any formal training. In fact, all domesticated animals, including rodents, birds, reptiles, cats and dogs, can become an ESA.
There are professional companies, which can assist you in evaluating if you qualify for ESA evaluation letters, but these services are just meant for assistance. Ultimately, only licensed medical health professionals can offer you the certificate on their professional paper. Check online and you can find simple forms that will help finding your qualification. Don't miss on asking the rules and regulations with your doctor in detail. As a pet owner, you have to find the benefits of having an ESA, so that you can exercise your rights.