London Community News
By Graham Slaughter
Kathleen McDonald and Harrison, her four-year-old Labrador retriever, emerge from the TIFF Bell Lightbox condominiums, where they live, and head north on their daily constitutional, on this day to the park behind the Art Gallery of Ontario.
As dogs’ lives go, Harrison’s is pretty cushy. He eats organic dog food, enjoys daily excursions to parks and dog-friendly cafés, and is loved by not one, but six doting owners.
Harrison belongs to a dog share, a network of dog lovers across the city who care for one prized pooch.
The idea is simple. While McDonald is at work at the Trillium Gift of Life Network as a clinical co-ordinator or studying for her master’s degree, Harrison spends time with one of six dog-share members. McDonald remains the owner, and pays for his food and vet bills — which she points out are not high for a healthy, well-exercised dog. She’d also rather lend Harrison to a dog lover for the day than pay $33, the cost of a day at Umbrella, a downtown doggy daycare.
“Harrison has a strong foundation, but he’s also got a great social life,” McDonald says.
Informal dog-sharing arrangements have sprung up across North America in recent years, and McDonald’s experience suggests it could work for many busy owners looking to save a buck and have a regular group of minders bond with their canine. Thousands of city dogs are locked at home all day while their owners are at work; at the same time, there are many Toronto dog lovers who for one reason or another can’t have a pet but would jump at a chance to spend quality time with one.
It’s certainly a more appealing arrangement than Flex Petz in New York City, which charges dog renters $45 a day for quality time with a dog, including a Boston terrier named Pirate and a black Afghan named Tango.
The idea came from desperation rather than inspiration. The thirty-something McDonald moved to Toronto from San Francisco last year to finish her master’s degree in nursing at the University of Toronto. She found juggling school and work didn’t leave enough time to walk and care for Harrison. Indeed, for a time she considered sending him back to California to live with a friend.
Hoping to avoid that, she posted an ad on Craigslist. It was a city-wide casting call for men and women who wanted to spend time with an affable (though it must be said lazy) yellow Lab.
She got several responses, some more promising than others.
“One girl came, but there was no way I’d leave my dog with her. She was really goth, but dark goth. Like, she was gonna do rituals with my dog kind of goth.”
Around the same time, McDonald mentioned her problem to a neighbour, Davina Rimmer, an Australian exchange student, who said she’d take care of Harrison when she could, and that she’d put out the word to her friends.
Over the next few weeks, Harrison’s social network snowballed to six members: They live across the city, and include students, musicians and young professionals.
Before McDonald invites someone into the dog share, she says she assesses them as she would someone on a first date.
“It’s like a checklist. They’re well groomed so they can take care of themselves and my dog. Check.”
McDonald says she’s glad the group developed through mutual friends, but she wouldn’t have minded picking up members from the online ad.
It’s worked out well. Harrison has a few play dates each week, but when things get slow McDonald caves and pays for dog daycare. Members of his network usually text McDonald to tell her when they’re free and she co-ordinates a time to drop off Harrison.
Shaswar Arahman, a canine behaviour specialist at the Toronto Humane Society, says he isn’t convinced that dog shares are the best thing for pets.
“I have a hard time getting a family on the same page for training a dog the same way, so if it’s a dog that’s shared between three strangers it’s difficult to get to that point for them all to handle the dog properly.”
Without consistent rules, a dog is less apt to listen to its owner. An enforced dinner time, walking rules and couch-or-no-couch boundaries are necessary Arahman says.
He adds that about 80 per cent of people who adopt a dog with the intention of sharing it — usually students — eventually return it to the pound.
Rachel Nichol and Jennifer Bachler, two downtowners who met through a university friend, share Elsa, a 15-month-old English bulldog. Nichol is the primary owner, so she pays the bills. But they read the same dog books and discuss rules about the care and feeding of Elsa, where she’s allowed to sleep, and how to chastise her when she steps out of line.
Arahman’s consistency rules aren’t news to them. They’re big fans of Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer.
“A dog is a lot like a child. It needs the comfort of strict rules and limitations,” says Nichol, 29, who bought Elsa from an American bulldog breeder last year.
Their two-person dog share is smaller than McDonald’s and in some ways more cohesive. Whichever owner is with Elsa is the “pack leader” (an important Cesar Millanism).
“I wouldn’t do this with just about anybody,” says Bachler, 38, who scrunches her face when she hears of McDonald’s Craigslist ad.
“Maybe I’d do that in my parents’ hometown, but not in Toronto. It’s too big.”
Nichol nods her agreement.
But for McDonald, trusting people has nothing to do with the size of the city.
“You can just see it in their eyes, you know?” McDonald says, while Harrison wanders around the park eating bits of bread intended for pigeons. Trusting strangers, she says simply, is the definition of making friends.
- Torstar News Service