Eric Husk is sensitive to semantics. He prefers the term dog "parents" or "guardians" to dog "owners." Husk says that the word "owner" implies property, subliminally encouraging people to think of their pets as possessions, or expendable, rather than members of the family.
This philosophy is at the core of City Dog Share, a free pet-sitting co-op Husk founded in San Francisco in May 2011. In a town of start-ups, where there is a social network for every need, City Dog Share stands apart. (Think Couchsurfing.org rather than Airbnb.) Rather than creating micro economies in which neighbors can exchange services for pay — as sites like Rover.com or DogVacay.com do — or following a venture-capitalist model, City Dog Share is a nonprofit whose mission is twofold: to end dog overpopulation and to build communities.
Husk, a social media marketer, runs City Dog Share via localized, open Facebook groups, where members post their needs — whether it's looking for a pet sitter, a dog to walk, or a pup play date — and other group members respond. The organization has branched out to Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Humboldt County, and will soon expand to San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, and Denver. But the Bay Area group is the largest, with 1,200 members, and Husk says about 90 percent of requests in this flagship group get a quick response.
Kachi Okonkwo, a recruiter who lives in downtown Oakland, says City Dog Share has changed her life. When she lived with roommates in San Francisco, she always had someone available to care for her stubborn-but-loving, fifteen-pound Yorkie mix, Dodger. But when she moved to her own apartment across the bay, she had constant anxiety when she thought of leaving town.
Professional dog sitters can charge up to $70 a day. Okonkwo found a pet sitter for $20 a day, but it meant driving to San Jose to drop Dodger off, and leaving him with up to ten other dogs. Berkeley Dog and Cat Hospital boards dogs in their kennel for $29 a day, which includes two meals, two walks, and two treats, but if the dog has special needs or medications, the cost goes up to $39 — and the dog doesn't get to be in a home setting.
Okonkwo, 30, found City Dog Share through a Craigslist ad. "It's San Francisco-heavy in membership, but people who are most in need seem to circulate in the East Bay," said Okonkwo, noting that San Francisco members were often looking for play dates, while East Bay dog parents wanted to find alternatives to paid pet care.
Through the Bay Area group, she met Pente — a short-haired Jack Russell Terrier mix, close in size to Dodger — and Pente's dad, Rishi Desai, a soft-spoken pediatrician. Desai and his fiancée recently moved to Berkeley from San Francisco so they could have a yard for Pente, who they rescued while living in Atlanta. The couple still needs to regularly take weekend trips to visit family in Los Angeles.
"We might find a $60 flight, but then we have to factor in $150 for pet care," Desai said, "which is a lot of money. You end up making choices in your life based on dog care."
Desai, 31, said a major reason he joined City Dog Share was trust. He wanted to build a relationship with regular caregivers for his dog, so she could have a routine. Pente, who was a victim of a natural disaster, is needy of human affection and loves to be chased by other dogs. Okonkwo dropped Dodger off at Desai's Berkeley house early on a recent Sunday morning, along with a stack of dog food-filled Tupperwares, a leash, a carrier, and a chewed-up stuffed animal. When Okonkwo returns to Oakland, Desai will drop off both Dodger and Pente on his way out of town.
"I would have offered to watch Pente again, even if we couldn't trade," Okonkwo said. Rather than establishing a system of exchanges, the ethos of City Dog Share is to "pay it forward" — to pass on the good deed to others.
Though City Dog Share aims to build relationships between dog lovers rather than be a pet care service, Heidi Hill, owner of the Berkeley pet store Holistic Hound, says she wouldn't feel comfortable leaving her Siberian Husky, Pearl, with just anybody. "I endorse the concept in theory, but I wouldn't be open to leaving my dog with someone I didn't know or hadn't been vetted by a friend, colleague, or organization," Hill said.
Husk says the way he knows the members of City Dog Share will be reliable caregivers is by how honest they are about their own dogs. "They lovingly list all of their dog's deficits and idiosyncrasies: blind in one eye, no teeth, doesn't like kids," Husk said: "It increases the potential to find someone right."
Husk started City Dog Share because he had become the go-to pet-sitter for many of his friends, and friends of friends, and decided to create a bigger network of willing caregivers. However, only 10 percent of the Bay Area's City Dog Share members don't own dogs, like Husk.
Although part of the organization's goal is to provide people who don't have dogs with the opportunity to find the dog personality that best fits them before adopting, or just hang out with a canine friend every so often, some dog parents would prefer their loved ones to go to a home with another dog.
"Before I had a dog, I liked dogs but I had no idea what went into caring for them, what goes into the day-to-day," said Okonkwo, who wants to know that her dog will go on his 7 a.m. walk and not end up in the emergency room if someone forgets to put the chocolate out of reach.
By giving dog parents more options to care for their pets, and the opportunity to try out dog parenting, Husk hopes to radically reduce the number of dog surrenders, a major source of homeless and abandoned pets.
Leeann Lorono, executive director of Contra Costa Humane Society, says she's all for any organization that helps people care for pets, and fully endorses City Dog Share. Husk gave Contra Costa Humane Society City Dog Share's first corporate donation of $150 in December, and Husk said any future money he raises that doesn't go to programming will go directly to dog welfare organizations.
Husk hopes to expand the sharing network to other pets in the future, but says for now, dogs are most in need. Recently endorsed by the Cesar Millan Foundation, City Dog Share has as its long-term goals the ability to offer wholesale emergency vet care and a nationwide spay/neuter program. Until then, the group's immediate concerns are connecting local dog lovers with one another.
While the motivating factor for Desai to join City Dog Share was to find care for Pente, he found an added benefit in making friends with local dog owners. Now that he has found a few go-to people for pet sharing, he doesn't need to post on City Dog Share as regularly. But he admits that turnover in urban areas is high, so when people move, he knows he can return to City Dog Share and develop new relationships. "It's just one more way that dogs are helping humans," Desai said.