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Home Sit, Stay or Swap
The offbeat, budget-smart frontier of dog-friendly travel

When Barrie and Tod duBois traveled to France earlier this year, their dog Abbie joined them. The well-mannered Fox Terrier went nearly everywhere with them, including a weeklong sailing trip in Corsica. When they dined out, Abbie was there, under the table and out of servers’ way like a native chien. Almost always, someone brought a water bowl without being asked, and one night in Provence, Abbie was served an entire steak and a meaty lamb bone. It helps that she bears a strong resemblance to Milou, sidekick to the hero of The Adventures of Tintin, a beloved French comic book series.

The previous year, the California-based couple left Abbie behind during a trip to Germany and missed her terribly. “We just didn’t feel that our family was complete without her,” Barrie duBois says. “Having her [in France] to cuddle with in the evening, watching her chase squirrels and lizards … was awesome.”

During their four months in France, the couple stayed free of charge in a succession of private homes while the homes’ regular occupants traveled to the U.S. and stayed for free in one of the duBoises’ two residences (one in Campbell and another on a lake in the Sierras). Listed on as many as 10 home-exchange sites, including HomeLink International (homelink.org/usa), HomeExchange.com, 1stHomeExchange.com and the Vacation Exchange Network (thevacationexchange.com), the duBoises are deeply ensconced in the world of dog-friendly home swaps.

Fueled by a multitude of websites and apps, travelers with dogs or those keen to find a pup at their destination are enthusiastically embracing alternatives to hotels, motels and inns. Among these alternative are house swaps, house-sitting and short-term rentals.

“I like being able to wander into the kitchen for coffee in the morning in my pajamas,” says Barrie, who got her fill of hotels while traveling for her job as an organization-effectiveness consultant. In addition to the low cost of swapping, private homes offer distinct advantages for those with dogs. Many have fenced yards and are located in residential areas well suited for walking. Plus, a house can be a more comfortable environment for dogs unaccustomed to the circumscribed environment of a hotel.

Most home-exchange services charge a membership fee, and the exchange itself can be simultaneous, non-simultaneous or even hosted (with residents on the premises during a stay). Some include resident pets in the deal. Using HomeLink and Intervac-HomeExchange.com, Betty and Bob Shiffman of Frankfort, Ky., have swapped homes during trips to Sweden, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. Bob is retired and Betty teaches at a community college. Generally, they board their dogs—a Labradoodle named Howdy (as in Howdy Doodle) and Daisy, a Cockapoo—during these vacations.

“When we go to Europe, we miss having our dogs with us,” Betty Shiffman says. So they were excited about a recent exchange in Norway that included swapping dog-sitting duties. For the Shiffmans, it meant looking after Cassie, a Golden Retriever who’d been rescued from her plight as a breeder dog in an Eastern European puppy mill.

“Cassie became my shadow,” Betty says. “She even followed me into the bathroom.” The Shiffmans fell in love with Cassie, who went almost everywhere with them. “It was fun to be able to take her so many places,” Bob Shiffman says.

It wasn’t until Cassie bolted during a walk along the beach that Betty started to have second thoughts. Cassie ran home safely, but the experience made the Shiffmans more aware of the responsibility. “I’m not sure we’d leave our dogs during a home exchange again,” Betty says.

For all of his 16 years, Ed Kushins’ Lab Nelson was never boarded. When the Kushins traveled, which was frequently, Nelson stayed at their Hermosa Beach, Calif., home and was cared for by home exchange guests—it was simply part of the deal. For the Kushins’ swap, guests had to want to take care of a dog.

“Even from the very beginning, we always had in the application if pet care was required, right up front. That’s because of me,” says Kushins, who is the founder and president of HomeExchange.com. He says around 20 percent of the site’s more than 40,000 listings specify some sort of pet care, and many are dog-friendly.

On the other hand, not everyone has a home to swap, and for years, frugal adventurers have long known how to parlay house-sitting into a way to see the world on a shoestring. Today, many websites connect homeowners and house-sitters, among them, HouseSittersAmerica.com, HouseCarers.com and MindMyHouse.com.

“A large proportion of our sitters are retired couples who, after a lifetime of work, have decided to pick up sticks and travel the world,” says Lisa Logan, a spokesperson for TrustedHousesitters.com. Two years ago, the UK-based company launched its website to connect homeowners with responsible travelers looking for a place to stay, usually free of charge.

In many cases, pets are part of the equation. “Lots of people love pets but can’t have their own for various reasons, so a break away with a dog or cat to look after is the perfect holiday,” Logan says.

Busy schedules and their grandchildren’s needs have kept TrustedHousesitters.com members Dan and Lyn Reece from having pets of their own, and the couple misses the companionship. Several of their best house-sitting experiences during the last three years included a resident pet.

“In each case, exercising the dog brought instant recognition from the neighbors, and led to making quick friends who could direct us to ‘must-see’ attractions in the area, and great restaurants that weren’t on the map,” says Dan Reece, a security consultant whose skills include fixing leaking pipes and scratching dog bellies.

Like other industry sites, TrustedHousesitters.com runs a “police check” on prospective house-sitters. They currently have 500 individuals from 36 different countries—including 70 from the U.S.

Short-term private home rentals can’t compete with free, but they do offer a way to cut costs (cooking at home, no-fee parking and so forth), plus a break from cookie-cutter hotel chains.

Many dog parents swear by VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner), including the Shiffmans, who rely on it to rent getaways for family reunions that can include up to as many as six dogs. VRBO.com boasts an inventory of around 165,000 properties, most of which are in the U.S. Of these, more than 41,000 are pet-friendly, including the duBoises’ lakefront house. HomeAway.com, which is VRBO.com’s slightly larger parent site, has more international coverage in its 260,000 vacation rentals, 73,250 of which are specifically pet-friendly.

Founded in 2008, Airbnb.com is a hip, new player on the block and is growing fast, with more than 100,000 listings for homes, apartments, houseboats, lofts and cottages as well as individual rooms, floors or suites. The service is available in more than 19,000 cities and 190 countries in a wide range of prices. More than 6,000 of the listings are pet-friendly.

Unlike VRBO.com, Airbnb.com includes many hosted opportunities, such as rooms in homes or apartments in houses, with the residents on the premises and part of the experience. Many times, this includes pets, which can mean playdates if you’re cleared to bring your dog or, if you’re traveling without your pet, a little fur therapy to fight off loneliness.

Layla, a lovable brown dog, offers canine hospitality to guests of a shabby-chic tree house in Burlingame, Calif., available through Airbnb.com. “As we present our ‘Treehouse Overlooking SF Bay’ experience to potential guests, we discuss openly that we are animal lovers,” says Doug Studebaker, treehouse builder and host. In addition to Layla, ten laying hens free range in the yard (which may be one reason guest dogs are not permitted). “This attracts other animal lovers from around the world. Funny how animals seem to speak that international language about love and kindness.”

Advocates of sitting, swapping or renting often mention that staying in someone’s home takes them outside the tourist bubble and helps them forge a deeper connection to a community and place. Include dogs in the mix and the experience deepens even more. As Studebaker says, “Animals have a way of creating heartfelt conversation.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 67: Nov/Dec 2011
Lisa Wogan lives in Seattle and is the author of, most recently, Dog Park Wisdom. lisawogan.com

Photo by Brett Casadonte

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