Leo, an energetic 18-month-old Golden Retriever, and his owner Dennis Dimitri are regular customers at Bagel World in Park Slope. On a recent October afternoon, Dimitri placed an order through a window of the shop while Leo rested on a small carpet by the window and drank from a bowl. A decorative sign in the window reads, “Dog proud? Say it loud.”
Bagel World is dog-friendly. New York City restaurants are prohibited by Health Department regulations from allowing dogs inside, though in March, a new bill passed allowing dogs to accompany their caretakers to restaurants with outdoor seating. And there are a lot of dogs—84,054 licensed animals in New York City, with the most popular names being Max for a male dog and Bella for female, according to a city press release in 2015. Some 25 percent of those dogs reside in Brooklyn and 35 percent in Manhattan.
In a city with so many dogs, dog owners, dogs, and business owners sometimes have a problem: Where to put them while the owner runs errands. Dog Parker, a Brooklyn-based startup founded in 2014, aims to solve that problem. The company is deploying 100 short-term doghouses to neighborhoods in Brooklyn, places for dog owners to leave their companions while they run errands, shop, or get a quick bite.
Dog Parker says it will offer climate-controlled, webcam-monitored, internet-connected doghouses for the rate of 20 cents a minute, or $12 dollars an hour. An annual membership fee is $25 dollars. Customers will be able to monitor their dog through live video on a smartphone app. There’s even a UV light meant to sanitize the house after each visit.
The first doghouses will be deployed this fall in various neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and DUMBO. Once they are in place, an owner will be able to locate an available doghouse on the Dog Parker app, open the structure with a member card or the app itself, place the dog inside, run an errand, and return.
Dimitri is an engineer who lives in Park Slope, and he said he was interested in the idea of Dog Parker. “Leo would like a place to sit that’s clean,” he said, in part because there are cigarette ashes and trash on New York City streets. He also thought that the doghouse would be useful in the winter, when it’s cold or snowy outside.
Todd Schechter with Winston (photo courtesy of Dog Parker)
The co-founders of Dog Parker are a couple—Todd Schechter and Chelsea Brownridge, entrepreneurs with backgrounds in the nonprofit sector. Both used to work for Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post. Dog Parker raised financing early on from angel investors, early stage venture firms, and a dog organization.
The idea for Dog Parker was born, they said, because of a three-year-old rescue dog named Winston. Brownridge was forced to leave Winston at home when she was going for a long walk around Brooklyn with her friends. She knew they would be stopping to eat, a long wait for Winston. Brownridge was so frustrated, she says, that she came up with the idea for Dog Parker. She discussed it with Schechter, and after some research the company started to take form.
“Because of public safety and public health issues, there’s a gap between dogs and their owners and the businesses and their community,” Schechter said. “What Dog Parker is really about is helping close that gap—helping dogs and the dog owners spend more time together, have the chance to go on more walks together, and helping retail businesses better connect with and serve that community.”
The reason Dog Parker launched in Brooklyn is because the co-founders live in Prospect Heights and know the borough. “Sometimes we get comments like ‘Oh, this is so Brooklyn,’ but we actually don’t think it is,” said Schechter. “It’s great for Brooklyn but it’s not only for Brooklyn.”
“Dog owners are a sought out consumer group,” he said. “They tend to have higher average income. They’re more loyal and more frequent shoppers.”
To participate, a store only needs to provide access to an electrical outlet. Also, a store gets $10 dollars every time someone signs up with the store’s code.
Chris Lane, 24, an assistant manager at the waterfront Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory in DUMBO, said that Dog Parker would probably benefit smaller businesses. “Our boss is a big pet lover. Whenever he sees an animal, he tries to accommodate it. He scoops some vanilla ice cream,” Lane said.
Sal Leonardi, 22, manager at the Front Street Pizza, said that a lot of his customers have dogs and he thinks Dog Parker is a good idea, though the shop’s owners are not going to host Dog Parker, at least for now. “As with anything new, not everyone wants to be an early adopter. So some businesses want to wait and see how it goes for other businesses,” Schechter said.
Shaquille McCaul, 21, who works at Jacques Torres Chocolate shop, said that some people are “emotionally attached” to their dogs and sometimes they just leave if their dog can’t come inside. “Generally, Dog Parker is a good idea,” he said, “It’s sad to turn the dogs away— they’re like a form of kids.”
The co-founders said there is already a waiting list of more than 50 stores for Dog Parker. Seventh Ave Gourmet in Park Slope was one of the stores that participated in Dog Parker’s recent pilot program. Alexis Mouhgara, 25, floor manager at the store, said that people were “pretty curious” about the doghouses once they were deployed.
He thinks, however, that the doghouse placed outside of their gourmet shop was too small. “It was only for smaller dogs. Many customers have bigger dogs,” he said. For the pilot program, Dog Parker offered three sizes— for small, medium, and large dogs. The largest being 40 inches’ length, 20 width, and 36 height for dogs up to 120 pounds.
The new doghouses, however, will all be 30 inches long, 33.5 wide, and 46.5 high, and it will have a few technological advancements. Dog owners can start a session using their phone, and can check on the status of a dog during a session—temperature and humidity in the house, plus video and still images of the dog.
In order to become a member, a caretaker needs to sign up online on Dog Parker’s website and meet a number of requirements. First, a dog needs to be vaccinated, second, it need to be older than six months.
Schecter and Brownridge estimate the average time spent in the doghouse is 10-15 minutes, while an owner is running errands. During the pilot program last year the maximum time limit to stay inside was 3 hours, but the co-founders changed that—to a maximum of 90 minutes. The owner will receive text message notifications if the time limit is approaching. The company is also working on a code that will send an alert if a dog starts barking.
If the owner goes past the 90-minute limit, he or she will be charged five dollars a minute until a team member arrives to remove the dog from the house and brings it to the closest dog boarding facility. The owner will then be charged $200 dollars for an administrative fee and the cost of the continuing care.
Dog advocates worry about the length of the visits. “Over an hour is too long for a dog to be cooped up inside such a small space, likely nervous and vulnerable. Although these doghouses are a better option than tying dogs up and leaving them completely unprotected, the best thing that dog guardians can do for their companions is to save the errands for times when Fido is safely at home,” said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) had an identical response to PETA’s: “If pet owners are not planning to visit pet-friendly establishments while running errands, the ASPCA recommends they leave their dogs at home. Leaving a dog unattended could put the pet’s safety at risk.”
However, as the co-founders point out, pet owners leave their dogs tied outside the storefronts all the time. Schechter acknowledged that anything related to dogs has a potential to be controversial. “There are a lot of folks who love what we’re doing; it’s the thing they’ve been waiting for, it’s gonna make it easier for them to adopt a dog, spend more time with their dog,” he said. “But there are also some members of the community who think that people in cities shouldn’t have dogs at all.”
Warren Smith, 66, a freelance CAD designer in the fashion industry who lives in Park Slope, comes to a Swedish coffee shop, Konditori, every morning. After observing loyal dogs waiting at the door anxiously for their human companions, one day he took a picture of one dog, then another, and another. He did so for over a period of five years and turned it into a photo exhibition, which is now featured at Konditori.
Smith hasn’t heard of Dog Parker before. “Is it a good idea? I find myself skeptical, but I’m willing to see how it plays out on the sidewalks and see if I find it convincingly good… or bad,” he said.
Schechter highlighted that once the doghouses are deployed, field teams near them on the weekends will be available to answer questions, and to show how the system works and how to acclimate a dog.
Schechter and Brownridge’s dog Winston didn’t adjust well to crating when he was younger. Schechter said that Dog Parker is not going to be fit for every dog and they weren’t sure if it would be a fit for Winston either. “But after a few training sessions, he loved Dog Parker,” said Schechter.
Schechter said that in order to understand Dog Parker, it’s important to know about the evolution of dogs and that they are den animals, who prefer being in small enclosed spaces. “They actually find a small space to be relaxing because it’s muffled from the loud noises of the city streets, it’s relatively dark and shaded, so that’s peaceful for them,” he said.
American Humane, an organization that promotes the welfare and safety of animals, agrees that dogs are den animals that need a crate for a brief period of time. PETA, however, holds a different view. In their blog post they argue that dogs are not true “den animals” and that a dog crate is “a prison.”
In the future, Dog Parker is thinking of expanding to other cities beyond NYC, including suburban malls or stores in less urban neighborhoods. Bodega cats might feel left out, but he says there’s a better market for dogs right now. “While occasionally you’ll see somebody walking their cat on the streets of the city, you’ll see more dogs. It needs to be limited to one species,” said Schechter.