Catherine Watt rents out her Oshawa yard by the hour as a private off-leash dog park through Sniffspot, a U.S. app that is making inroads in the GTA.Catherine Watt rents out her Oshawa yard by the hour as a private off-leash dog park through Sniffspot, a U.S. app that is making inroads in the GTA.

Homeowners renting out their property has gone to the dogs

Private dog parks can be a lucrative business in a city where finding off-leash space can be both challenging and controversial.

Nala is a misunderstood girl, says her mom. Bonnie Pritchard says her velvety grey American bully dog isn’t always welcome in public leash-free parks. Although Nala isn’t afraid or aggressive, other people and dogs sometimes react to her appearance.

Fortunately, Pritchard’s sister, Catherine Watt, has converted her quarter-acre, shady Oshawa backyard into a private dog park that she rents by the hour through a U.S. platform called Sniffspot.

In the same way that Airbnb and Swimply facilitate short-term rentals of private homes and swimming pools, Sniffspot is an online platform that helps homeowners earn a few extra bones simply by letting their property go to the dogs.

The idea of private dog parks is one that is catching on in the GTA where controversy has recently surrounded the use of school yards as playgrounds for pets and where some dog lovers are concerned about the safety of public off-leash parks.

Bonnie Pritchard is a Sniffspot client because she has a big "bully" dog that needs safe space to run around.

A perfect candidate for passive income

From a real estate perspective, land is the biggest piece of your home and it’s hardly being used, much less monetized, said Sniffspot’s Massachusetts-based founder David Adams.

“It’s really a perfect candidate for people being able to get this passive income. It’s different than Swimply and Airbnb because it requires no work. You basically set your hours and people book you. You don’t have to be there or meet them or anything.”

There are 130 Sniffspots in Canada, says Adams, and the GTA is its biggest base this side of the border.

On Monday, the website (there is also an app) showed 52 Toronto-area Sniffspots ranging from an unfenced 22 acres in Ancaster for $14 an hour to an indoor training facility that rents for $35 an hour. The majority of the Sniffspots are fenced backyards that rent for about $15 an hour.

Watt, who owns two small dogs, worked as a pet sitter until the pandemic crushed her business. When she heard about Sniffspot, it seemed like an obvious opportunity to earn back some of that lost income.

Her yard is fully fenced and double-gated like public dog parks so dogs and owners stay safe. It is equipped with agility training equipment, a kiddie pool for hot days, even a sensory sniff patch of herbs and plants — as well as lawn chairs and a swing for the pet parents.

Sniffspot charges a 20 per cent booking fee that that covers marketing, site management and $20 million in liability insurance.

Dog owners can relax

Many guests who rent her yard for $15 per dog per hour have reactive dogs — animals that are fearful or aggressive. They simply aren’t safe in a dog park.

“Sometimes owners just come in and sit down and read because it’s a chance to relax,” said Watt. “It’s only them and it’s only their dogs.”

When she began her Sniffspot in October 2021, she made a point of greeting visitors personally. But she’s found people with reactive dogs are more comfortable if they don’t have to encounter a stranger, so now she sends a text message welcoming them.

She averages about 12 visitors a month. It hasn’t replaced her pet-sitting income but some of her guests are regulars who buy a four- or eight-hour monthly membership. Dog owners are expected to pick up after their animals. Bags and other amenities are provided and in easy reach in the yard.

“We don’t have as big a property as some (hosts) but we’ve added lots of enrichment and agility,” she said.

Adams founded Sniffspot as a side project after his girlfriend — now his wife — complained she couldn’t find anywhere for her dog Toshii to walk and play when they were travelling. Around the same time, he was taking his dog Soba to dog parks and having subpar experiences.

So he began a website crowdsourcing homeowners willing to let dog owners use their yard. The idea of building a kind of Airbnb for dogs grew out of that.

Some Sniffspots make as much as $3,000 a month. The majority of hosts charge $5 to $15 an hour but the fee is entirely their decision. The company

Sometimes dogs need more adventure than their own backyard

When he started about four years ago, Adams assumed other users would, like himself at the time, be highrise dwellers without a yard. In fact, about 40 per cent of users identify as urbanites. Half live in the suburbs.

Even people who have a yard recognize it’s not the best place for a dog, he said.

“When your dog is out in their own yard, they know it. They’re familiar with it, said Adams. “When I take a dog on a walk or when I take them to a Sniffspot, they are constantly sniffing and exploring. It’s a very active experience for them.”

He says Sniffspot addresses the core needs of dogs.

“Sniffspot is basically the antidote to the modern world for dogs where they can get back to what they’re designed to be, which is a space that’s new, that they can explore without being surrounded by other dogs, people or things that are potentially dangerous to them,” said Adams.

Some Sniffspots make as much as $3,000 a month. The majority of hosts charge $5 to $15 an hour. The company charges a 20 per cent booking fee that covers marketing, site management and $20 million in liability insurance.

“There are spots that have agility courses or spots that have dock diving. Any kind of fun dog activity you can imagine, there’s a spot that supports it,” he said.

Doggie daycare takes canine care to the next level

Beaches residents Jane and David Pushkar have taken the concept of privatized, personalized dog care a step further. They were operating an on-leash dog-walking business in the east end and found many of their clients said they would love to let their dogs off-leash but were concerned about public dog parks.

“There are certain liabilities and problems that can arise in dog parks just because you don’t know who the other dogs are and you don’t know how vigilant owners are about their dogs’ behaviour,” said Jane.

The Pushkars wanted to expand their business by providing dogs with a fully supervised space in which to run off-leash, but the couple live in a one-bedroom apartment without any outdoor area so they had to look for land to rent.

It took six months but they found a plot in Pickering advertised on Kijiji, secured fencing electricity and water, and launched a new business called Pawsies in January. Now they pick up their four-legged clients, take them to play in the country and then drop the dogs at home in the afternoon.

“(Our clients are) not necessarily using our service as a daycare so much as an opportunity for their dog to socialize and just to get their energy out,” said Jane.

The property’s barn is crucial in giving the dogs — and their caregivers — a space to get warm in the winter and shade in the summer, said Pushkar. There are about a dozen dogs on the Pawsies roster but they don’t all come every day. The doggy day camp costs $35 to $45 a day, depending on frequency of use.

The Pushkars hope to expand the business but that will depend on how many dogs they can fit in their van. For now they’ve got a fairly strict route out of the city east on Kingston Road up to Highway 401 and they try and keep new customers within close proximity so the dogs don’t spend too much time in transit.

The feedback has been positive. Clients, she said, appreciate the dogs are safe because the Pushkars test their behaviour for two weeks before they are fully accepted and Pawsies has a zero aggression policy.

Jane says that means, “You know the dynamics of what’s going to go on in the park every day.”

Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

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