Offbeat ways to make money: DogVacay

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(MoneyWatch) As a life-long dog lover, Jay Koblenz couldn't imagine going too long without a pet. But when his Great Dane died, he was too devastated to immediately replace him. By the time he was ready for another dog, he had a better idea: He'd watch dogs for other people and make good money doing it.

Now Koblenz is semi-retired but earning about $1,000 a month watching people's pets while they go on vacation through a company called DogVacay. On a typical night, Koblenz will be have three to six animals to play with and take for walks.

"For somebody who loves dogs like I do, it's being paid to play," said Koblenz, 59, who lives in Orange County, Calif. "Every once in a while, we have dogs that I'm glad to send home. But it's rare when I'm not happy to see another dog arrive."

DogVacay was the brainchild of another dog lover, Aaron Hirschhorn, who came up with the idea after spending $1,700 to have his two dogs kenneled during a 10-day vacation. Despite the cost, the dogs returned home frazzled and needy from being stuck in a cage for the bulk of the visit. Hirschhorn thought there had to be a better solution -- for both the dogs and their owners -- and started an online registry of people willing to watch their neighbor's pets.

People like Koblenz who are willing to pet-sit register on the site by answering a handful of questions about their experience with animals, what types of animals they could watch, the accommodations and whether they have special skills, such as pet grooming or are able to administer medicines to ailing pets. The registrant then sets their own rate -- anything from $15 to $100 a day -- and uploads pictures to complete their profile.

When someone wants to book a pet sitter, they browse the site by either geography, needs -- such as a big back yard or no other pets on site -- or both. If they find a match, they pay with a credit card and DogVacay passes on the payment to the pet sitter, minus a 15 percent fee.

In addition to providing upkeep for the website, that fee also pays for a comprehensive pet insurance policy that allows pet sitters to bring their charges to the vet, if needed, without worrying about the cost. DogVacay also offers a 24-hour hotline for pet sitters with problems. The site encourages sitters to snap a photo of each pet each day and email or message it to the owner to let them know what their pet is up to.

Problems do sometimes arise, Koblenz said. Dogs occasionally don't get along with others or aren't completely housebroken. He insists on off-site "meet-and-greets" to make sure pets won't fight before he takes them into his home.

Koblenz, who charges $30 a day, also asks owners to bring their own leashes, bowls and food so that the dogs won't get sick from eating unfamiliar kibble. So his costs boil down to time -- walking dogs and cleaning up after them -- and wear and tear on his residence.

So far, he said problems have been rare and customers are so plentiful that he has to turn them away on holiday weeks and long weekends, when demand is particularly high. Now that he's been doing it for a while, he also has repeat customers, so some of the dogs already know each other.

Hirschhorn noted that pet sitters can customize their profile, stipulating, for example, whether they want to watch big dogs or small, or whether they have different rates for different breeds. Customers have boarded everything from Great Danes to rabbits, he added. And, by and large, the service has become a win-win for both owners and pet sitters.

The sitters earn income in their own homes and at their own rates and pace, since they're able to turn away jobs whenever they choose. And dog owners often find DogVacay to be cheaper than a kennel, while providing much better care for their pets.

"It's a better experience for the dogs and it's half the price of a kennel," Hirschhorn said. "I really don't think there's a downside.

This is the first of a periodic series of stories on offbeat ways to make money. If you have unusual profession that you'd like to talk about, contact me at kathykristof24@gmail.com

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