In a city that’s expert at peddling solutions to problems no one quite knew they had, the Dog Parker was probably inevitable: a rentable doghouse that allows New Yorkers to stash their furry charges while they fetch groceries and retrieve dry cleaning, errands only complicated by a leash and a Labrador.
There are five of these cramped canine quarters so far, none bigger than 30-by-40 inches, and all on the sidewalks in front of stores in — where else? — Brooklyn. Part of a pilot program begun last fall, they were tagged as “Uber for tying your dog outside the deli.”
And they’ve been blessed with mostly breezy, uncritical coverage by local TV newscasts and a variety of news outlets. A Bustle piece enthused: “What looks like a fancy gym locker sitting on the sidewalk is actually a box you can park your dog in.”
But as the Dog Parker prepares to launch 100 new boxes across Brooklyn — with hopes of spreading to other cities — it’s likely to get more sharp yanks on its leash, like when Gothamist pointed out that “it’s kind of like leaving your dog in a tiny jail cell?” Or when renowned dog expert Alexandra Horowitz tweeted:
parking your dog.
I'm afraid not.
— Alexandra Horowitz (@DogUmwelt) March 18, 2016
Dog Parker’s founder and CEO, Chelsea Brownridge, bristles at criticism. She said she came up with the idea out of frustration, when she found she couldn’t take her beloved Winston with her wherever she went. She says it will enable dogs to accompany owners on their errands while helping to “eradicate the terrible behavior of tying up your dog to a pole.”
Her business is largely self-funded, she says, and (inevitable Uber references aside) “is based almost entirely on Car2Go.”
Like Car2Go, users join the service online, download the app and pay an annual fee (for Dog Parker, it’s $25), before getting a card in the mail. Members use the app to find and rent the Dog Parker, and use the card to open the crate, where they can then lock up their dog for 20 cents a minute while they get groceries, grab a meal or take a yoga class. The app also lets them monitor their dog through a small camera in the crate.
She offers the Dog Parker for free to retailers, who under New York laws, control the three to five feet in front of their stores — “We operate like an ATM machine or vending machine,” she says.
Horowitz, who runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and is the author of “Inside of a Dog,” grounds her work in trying to see the world from a dog’s point of view. And from that vantage point, she said, the Dog Parker looks like a dog.
She questions whether the Dog Parker is “safe,” as advertised. “It’s safe because the dog’s locked up, but that’s purely from the human point of view,” she says. Most dogs, she said, would likely feel trapped.
And there’s also the problem of the box’s mostly blocked views. “If there’s any sound, they can’t see what’s going on,” Horowitz said. “Dogs look; they don’t sit with their backs to something.”
Brownridge counters that the sound is “highly muffled” in the doghouses because of soundproofing, and that future models will have more windows.
The Dog Parker claims to be “climate-controlled,” which just means they are insulated, and have a fan that’s activated when the temperature or humidity hits a certain limit. When the temperature drops below 32 or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit, dog-owners are alerted to come pick up their dogs, and the boxes won’t work again until conditions improve. It also penalizes owners who leave their dogs past the service’s three-hour time limit; at that point it starts charging $5 a minute, and after 30 minutes, an employee will be sent to remove the dog and place it in a boarding facility, where it will cost $200 (on top of the boarding fees) to pick up a dog.
Still, even following the rules could result in a dog sitting in a box for three hours at 33 or 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Brownridge agrees that’s a terrible scenario — but insists it would never happen. The average stays have been for 10 to 15 minutes, she says. She added that her staff can watch the dogs on the cameras and would monitor dogs that were left for too long, or in dangerous conditions.
Even as the number of doghouses expands to 100? “Yes,” she said.
She sought feedback from “a number” of experts before launching Dog Parker, she said, and in the process developed a “network of animal advocates who really believe in what we’re doing.” Brownridge said she had engaged with different organizations, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
But when asked about the Dog Parker, the ASPCA released a thoroughly disapproving statement from Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of ASPCA’s adoption center: “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.”
Interestingly, both Brownridge and Horowitz compare the Dog Parker to the shunned practice of leaving dogs in cars, which in many places is illegal. To Brownridge, her company offers a humane alternative. But to Horowitz, it’s not entirely different at all. It justifies putting a dog in a position of discomfort for our own, very human, convenience, she said.
Doing that can backfire, because as a culture, our treatment of animals seems only to become better as time goes on. Consider the long line of pet innovations that were once considered acceptable — from choke collars to declawing cats to “debarking,” or modifying a dog’s vocal cords to keep it quiet — and now are much less so.
Or just ask Mitt Romney, who in 1983 placed Seamus, the family Irish setter, in a crate atop a station wagon for a 12-hour drive, where he became sick. Seamus got better — but the incident mercilessly dogged Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“We evolve,” said Horowitz. “Which is good.”