IT'S the ideal service for animal-lovers who don't have the time to cope with the demands of full-time pet ownership: welcome to Rent-A-Dog.
FlexPetz offers the chance to walk, feed and love a dog - at times that suit you best. The owner of the business likens it to a holiday timeshare, with dogs instead of apartments.
For an annual fee of around 50, monthly payment of 25 and a per-visit charge of 12.50 a day (more expensive on Fridays and Saturdays), you can select from a wide range of four-legged companions - including Afghan hounds, Labrador retrievers and Boston terriers.
Membership costs cover the expense of training the dogs, boarding them at a cage-free kennel, home or office delivery, identity chips, vet bills and insurance. It also pays for a care kit - lead, bowl, bed and food - that comes with each dog.
The service currently only operates in California, but there are plans to move into New York and London. Marlena Cervantes, founder of FlexPetz, said: "Our members are responsible in that they realise full-time ownership is not an option for them and would be unfair to the dog."
Ms Cervantes, 32, a behavioural therapist who got the idea while working with pets and autistic children, added: "It prevents dogs from being adopted and then returned to the shelter by people who realise it wasn't a good fit."
She hopes to franchise FlexPetz concept so dogs will have housing options other than kennels when not in use. For San Francisco, she has hired a caretaker who plans to keep the dogs at her house when they are not on loan to members.
FlexPets member Shari Gonzalez, 22, said she was thinking about getting a dog when she heard about part-time ownership. She never doubted there was room for a dog in her heart - but not in her busy life, with a small flat and full-time college course in San Diego.
"I was thinking, 'How is a dog going to bounce from house to house and be OK with that? I didn't want a dog that would come into my place and pee."
Her misgivings were allayed after she spoke with Ms Cervantes, who explained that only dogs with social temperaments were selected and each would ideally be shared by no more than three owner-members.
Since signing up, Ms Gonzalez said her dog, Loki, had become a treasured part of her life.
They spend one day each weekend together. He sleeps at her flat and she takes him on walks, to the beach and parks. "I never even thought that was a possibility," Ms Gonzalez said. "I thought you either owned a dog or you didn't."
Ms Gonzalez recently met another of his part-time companions, graphic designer Jenny Goddard, 33, who is married with a six-year-old son. She said having a dog a weekend or two a month has been perfect for her busy family and encourages them to spend more time together outdoors.
"It's funny," she said. "He is so friendly and immediately playful with us, people are surprised he is a rental dog."
Melissa Bain, a vet at the University of California, said she had concerns but no hard-and-fast objections to a service like FlexPetz. On the positive side, it might give people an easy way to test the ownership waters and keep a few dogs from being put down, Ms Bain said. Possible downsides would be irresponsible members who treat the dogs like a lifestyle accessory instead of a living thing.
"It depends on the people and it depends on the animal. Some dogs may be fine and some may become stressed because they are moving from home to home," she said. "Perhaps they had a good experience with a good part-time owner and then they get shipped back. What kind of message does that send to kids? That dogs are disposable."
Ms Cervantes said the hour-long sessions FlexPetz members are required to spend with their dog and a trainer before their first outing ensures the dogs are going into caring, competent homes.
'BUYING INTO A PART-TIME PET IS BARKING MAD'
ANIMAL psychologist Dr Roger Mugford, who runs the Animal Behaviour Centre in Surrey, said: "The idea of a 'timeshare' dog is a disastrous one. It's possibly one of the worst concepts I've heard for making money.
"Dogs need continuity, they are creatures of routine. They need a consistency of diet, but also of signals. You might have one household that encourages barking as a way of warning off burglars, but another won't want it.
"I think you would end up with a seriously messed up dog.
"A dog needs an emotional centre; it needs a family who are going to love and care for it as it gets older and more expensive in terms of vets' bills.
"For most people owning a dog is similar to having a child. It's the same inclusive, wrap-around type of relationship.
"I can also imagine so many law suits arising out of this, where one party refuses to give the dog over because they believe that one of the other owners is neglecting it. It's a lawyer's dream charter.
"This is the worst example of using dogs as a piece of property I have heard."