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The app says 'woof': Technology eases worries for pet owners

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Maureen Royer leaves her 13-year-old dog, Rubie, at home while she works every day, but she doesn't worry that the dog walker won't show up.

Royer gets an email every time Rubie's dog walker arrives that tells her not only when the visit started, but the route the Boston terrier/pug mix will take for her stroll, how long the dog was out and when she returns home.

"I know my dog is safe," Royer says. And that has made her trust Ashley Woodall, owner of See Spot Walk, even more than she did when they first started working together about a month ago.

Woodall, whose business is based in Baltimore, uses an app called Pet Check to let her clients know when and where their dogs are walked. Clients are given refrigerator magnets printed with QR codes. When Woodall arrives for a walk, she scans the code with her smartphone, which triggers an email to the dog's owner letting him or her know the pet's walk has started. From there, the owner can click through to a map that tracks Woodall via GPS on her phone and shows where the pet was walked. When she arrives back at the client's house, Woodall scans the refrigerator magnet again to end the session.

"Clients can log in to their own personal, secure dashboards," she says. "There, they can watch the walk as it happens — it shows up on a map as little blue pawprints." Clients can also use the site to request walks or visits, make payments, update their pets' information with her and send notes at any time. From her end, Woodall can update clients on their pets' activities that day and keep track of her business, including an automated alarm that goes off if she is running more than an hour late for an appointment.

"It makes my business much more efficient," she says. "It offers peace of mind for my clients and for walkers."

Woodall says clients also love the technology. "It gets rid of the uncertainties that people have about dog walking," she says. "Technology takes care of it, which is really nice."

Woodall is among a growing number of walkers, pet day care providers, and dog and cat service providers to incorporate technology into their businesses, with many of the newest devices centering on apps for things like tracking a pet's activity and keeping them entertained while owners are away.

Howard County dog walker Nicole Wright signed up with Pet Check before launching Wags Dog Walking last fall. She says she can't imagine running her business without the GPS and automated billing technologies.

"One person at the very beginning told me, 'Oh, I don't need all that,' " Wright remembers of introducing the system to her clients. "I thought, 'Wow. I hope other people want it.' But since then, everyone has been excited about it."

Like Woodall, she says some of her clients say they signed up with her because they can see where she goes with their dogs online and because the billing is automated and all online — no more remembering to leave a check on the counter for the dog walker.

"Quite a few clients have told me the system is why they wanted to sign up with Wags," she says.

Some pet business owners, having embraced gizmos and gadgets for a long time, are incorporating new apps in their work.

Jo Anne Garrett, owner of Baltimore's Good Doggie Day Care, says webcams were part of her initial business plan more than a decade ago, and that adding an app to that system has been fantastic.

"We started with webcams and live streaming when we opened 10 years ago," she says. "We loved it and owners loved it. It gives our parents the confidence that their dogs are being well cared for, and it gives me as the business owner a wonderful resource to use even when I'm not there."

About three years ago, Garrett's webcam service provider added an app to its offerings, and she passed that along to her clients.

"We went online with that as soon as it became available," she says. "It's been spectacular. I honestly don't think I could run this business at this point without having that app on my smartphone."

The app lets owners check the day care's webcams from their phones. "We have 16 cameras, and this lets me check any part of the dayc are anytime I want," she says.

Garrett says her customers have come to depend on the technology. "When we had a snowstorm with a lot of wind and ice [in February], Comcast had some issues with the cameras," she says. "They were blinking on and off. I must have had 100 phone calls come in with people telling me something was wrong with our cameras."

It's not the first time she's seen her customers' enthusiasm for the service. "Our dog owners have come in and said their employers have told them, 'I hope the dog day care pays well, because if you don't stop watching those cameras, that's where you're going to be working!'"

Technology hasn't just made its mark on businesses. Dog owners are getting into the social arena with Dog Land, an app that lets dog owners share information on dog-friendly places, view pet photos, and share thoughts with other owners.

"The basic idea came about because it seemed like there was no way for dog owners to quickly access not only dog-friendly places but connect with the local community," says developer and Baltimore native Gareth Wilson, president and creative director of BetterPet Inc. "Other attempts at dog social networks have become novelties more than anything. We wanted a way to connect people, and dogs can be a great ice breaker."

The app, he says, is growing by 1,000 users per week. "We want a million users by the end of the first year," he says.

Dog walker Woodall says apps make a lot of sense for dog owners and those who own pet-focused businesses since they put a lot of power in a dog lover's pocket and bring peace of mind.

"I have the same concerns my clients have," she says. "Are my walkers there when they're supposed to be there? Are they completing walks clients have paid for?" The app tells her all that and more.

Royer says it gives her lots of assurance that Rubie is doing well even when they're not together.

"It's fantastic," she says. "I have had a dogsitter the majority of Rubie's life and had to find one when we moved here from California a year ago. I had no idea this technology existed. But it's really cool."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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