The Perfect Pet For Commitment-Phobes

Love SUVs but just don't want to own one? Easy. You can sign a lease. Crave a big-screen TV but don't want to commit to a particular brand? Easy. You can rent it. Adore canine companionship but don't necessarily want to own a dog? Easy. Now you can borrow one, just like checking out a library book.

Welcome to the age of FlexPetz, a New York-based business that allows the city's super-busy, super-distracted residents to get a little quality time with the dog of their choice. Want to go for a run? There are big, active dogs. Need a cuddle? There are small, yippy dogs. And when everyone is finished playing, the humans can just hand the puppies -- and the responsibility -- back to FlexPetz.

Marlene Cervantes, the founder and CEO of FlexPetz, says she's gotten a great response because it's an idea whose time has come. "There's just thousands of reasons that prevent people from full time dog ownership," she explained to The Early Show contributor Dr. Debbye Turner, a veterinarian.

Cervantes, who launched her business in February, says she rescues shelter dogs and carefully trains them to be comfortable with lots of people.

"We expose them to babies, to small children who tug on their ears and pull on their paws. We expose (them) to different dogs, just to make sure that they are super, social dogs," she said.

Members can reserve time with a dog for a few hours or as long as seven days. But in order to get a FlexPet, they have to be a member. And that's no walk in the park.

"We gather a great deal of information from the potential members -- we take birthday, credit card information, Social Security number, a huge amount of information from each potential member," said Cervantes. "We schedule a time to meet in person. We want to make sure that the members demonstrate that they are truly compassionate people that they are joining this program for the right reasons."

And being a FlexPetz member costs more than a little kibble. Including the sign-up fee, monthly membership rate, and the cost to actually reserve a dog, it'll run more than $1,400 a year. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association says it costs on average just $1,200 a year to own a pet full-time.

Kat Miller, Ph.D., an animal behavior counselor for the ASPCA has qualms about
the FlexPetz model. "The ASPCA's official position on the FlexPetz concept is that is goes against the essential human animal bond that we are trying to promote," she said. "Dogs thrive on consistency and routine and when the routine is constantly changing it can create frustration for the dog and that's when some behavior problems start to develop.

"My initial feeling was concern for the animals being treated as a rental car. We all know how rental cars are treated, you know, not like you treat your own car."

Cervantes believes that problem has already been addressed. "We carefully screen and select our dogs. We make sure that they are not owner-dependent, that they thrive in a pack structure and that they're super-social and playful. Those are the dogs we incorporate into our program," she said.

But, according to Turner, Cervantes takes great care with her stable of pooches, who, when not on loan, live in a cageless doggy day care situation. "Dogs are pack animals. They thrive in a pack environment and that is the structure we create for our dogs," said Cervantes.

Though the whole point of responsible pet ownership is teaching a person to be committed to a pet for the life time of that pet Cervantes doesn't feel the FlexPetz model doesn't encourage irresponsibility. Rather, she says, "The decision to be a part-time owner is a responsible decision. These are people that realize 'I just don't have the free time.'

"In the past, you either owned a dog or you didn't. And this creates a whole new opportunity to get their doggie fix."

In addition to the New York flagship, Cervantes has also launched FlexPetz in San Diego and Los Angeles. She's also planning to open in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and New York.