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A website that sets up dog 'vacations'

DogVacay host and home owner Tracie Sorrentini holds

DogVacay host and home owner Tracie Sorrentini holds her own dogs, Punky, left, and Puccini as her father Irving Sorrentini helps with hosted dogs, Yuki, left, and Lex at Paw Hills pet resort in Los Angeles. (May 11, 2012) Credit: AP

When you travel and have to leave your dog behind, you can call a kennel, hire a pet sitter -- or find him a new friend online.

The website dogvacay.com, which debuted in New York and Los Angeles in March, has grown fast and is now available throughout the United States and Canada, just in time for the summer travel season.

The site lets pet owners look up hosts in the area who will care for a dog in their own homes, giving a pet the food, exercise and attention you would give if you stayed home -- sort of a doggy version of couch-surfing, for an average price of $25 to $30 a day.

Hosts are checked out and interviewed by DogVacay, and every owner and dog are encouraged to meet the host before the stay.

The Santa Monica-based company was founded by Aaron and Karine Nissim Hirschhorn. In two months it has grown to more than 4,000 hosts in two countries and from five employees to 13, the Hirschhorns said.

When Valerie Steiger of Phoenix, Ariz., had to leave for a two-week Thailand trip in February, her shih tzu mix, Joey, was just 3 months old. Her host has a couple of dogs, and Joey enjoyed them so much, he was depressed when he got home and didn't have any playmates, Steiger said.

"She was wonderful. She took pictures of Joey on an iPhone, she took a video of him zipping around with his buddy. I didn't ask for any of that. She just did it," Steiger said.

Aaron Hirschhorn and his fiancee went on a trip to visit family in 2010 and left their dogs Rocky and Rambo in a kennel. "Rocky came back a little off. She was not acting herself. She was sheepish and hiding under the desk. She is normally a happy, happy dog," he said.

There had to be something better, they said. They let everyone know they were going to start dog sitting. "Business was booming. We got multiple calls a day," he said. They watched more than 100 dogs during eight months.

At the end of their experiment, they had two things: enough money to pay for their 2011 wedding and a business model. They quit their day jobs, joined forces with former MySpace chief executive Mike Jones to create an online community, and raised $1 million in venture capital.

The company's website provides host bios, location, home photos, prices, availability, notes on what they can handle and reviews.

DogVacay provides insurance (up to $25,000 an animal) for emergencies. The company also has a partnership with VCA Animal Hospitals, and owners can rent GPS-enabled dog collars if they want to track their pets constantly. Most hosts will email, text or telephone owners once a day with updates on their dogs, Hirschhorn said.

About a third of the hosts are professional pet care providers, while two-thirds are casual dog lovers who might be retired, unemployed, stay-at-home moms or veterans, Hirschhorn said. Nine out of 10 hosts have their own dogs.

DogVacay takes credit cards for payment when reservations are made, then pays the hosts.

Interviews and security checks by DogVacay and meet-and-greets with host and owner are designed to overcome concerns about adjusting to the new environment.

DogVacay has a concierge, a customer service representative who can help if there is a problem or if someone can't navigate the website.

For the Hirschhorns, dogs may be just the beginning: They own the domain names for a variety of vacays, including pet, animal, cat, iguana, bird, hamster, rabbit and snake.

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