Pet service offers options for busy dog lovers

People who can't own pets or who don't want the responsibility now have another option: "flexible pet ownership" through

The idea for the program came about when Marlena Cervantes, a certified behavior therapist in San Diego, began using a therapy dog in sessions with autistic children. She says parents saw great results but couldn't get a dog because they were too busy grappling with their children's special needs.

Offering a variety of breeds, Cervantes launched FlexPetz in San Diego last April for busy people who travel often, work long hours or live where dogs are forbidden. She's already expanded to Los Angeles and New York, is pre-registering members in Boston and Washington, D.C., and plans to open 40 locations by 2010, including Seattle, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Phoenix.

"We're connecting dogs with people who are responsible enough to know that full-time ownership is not in their best interest," she says.

While Cervantes won't divulge the number of FlexPetz members, she says that when she opened the New York chapter in October, she anticipated having 100 members by the end of 2008. FlexPetz reached that goal in two weeks.

Atypical FlexPetz customer is Erika Lupercio, a single mother and full-time student in San Diego, who doesn't feel that owning a dog would be fair to the animal. "[My daughter and I] are way too busy," Lupercio says. "We live in a condo and we don't have a yard."

Ever since joining FlexPetz, the two spend every other weekend and some weekdays with Rupert, an Afghan hound. "Rupert is a ham, and he loves attention," Erika says.

To participate, Lupercio paid a one-time fee of $150 for an orientation session and an annual account maintenance fee of $99.95. She also forks over a $49.95 monthly membership fee and daily rental fee of $24.95 to $39.95 (depending on the day). These fees go toward cage-free doggy day cares for the animals, as well as grooming, food and veterinary expenses.

Cervantes says she obtains the dogs from shelters, rescues and owners who can't keep them. Before placement, she screens them for temperament and the ability to adapt easily to different people. But Cervantes says she happily considers adoption if a member becomes able to own full time.

"We anticipate a number of dogs being adopted out and new dogs entering the program," she says.

Still, groups like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have criticized FlexPetz, saying the program undermines human-animal bonds.

"Consistency will help ensure that a dog's behavior is appropriate," says ASPCA Executive Vice President Stephen Zawistowski. "Everybody who brings that dog home will be treating it differently and have different expectations."

Cervantes disagrees, saying FlexPetz dogs live in cage-free doggy day cares when not with a member and are well adjusted. "We are taking in dogs without homes and giving them fantastic lives," she says.

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