Adopt or Shop: This Dog Startup Says You Don’t Have to Choose

(Bloomberg) -- The pet adoption market looks cute from the outside—cuddly mutts looking for homes, eager parents seeking a new family member.

But there’s a darker side to it: so-called “puppy mills” churning out dogs in deplorable conditions to meet the demand for designer breeds like labradoodles. Many disappointed people end up dropping off the dogs at shelters, which take in about three million annually in the U.S. Oversight is spotty:  Just last month, the ASPCA sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for access to inspection records, calling the agency’s enforcement of breeders “dismal.” (The USDA, which licenses breeders, didn’t respond to a request for comment.) 

Into this mess come two former employees at e-commerce site Jet.com. Josh Wais and Lauren McDevitt recently debuted Good Dog, an online clearinghouse of what it deems reputable shelters, rescue outfits and breeders—a kind of Consumer Reports for the pet industry. Its goal is to connect pet parents with available dogs, but by recommending both breeders and rescue outfits, they’ve waded into a longtime industry controversy.

Adopt or Shop: This Dog Startup Says You Don’t Have to Choose

Good Dog, fresh with $6.7 million in funding, has stirred up some people in the rescue world who want nothing to do with breeders. They say Good Dog, by including them in its vetting, may steer people away from worthy shelter dogs, especially since Good Dog takes a cut of sales when people buy their pet through a breeder.

“While it’s great when someone has a business idea that can also do good in the world, frequently those ideas are not well-thought through or not actually solving a problem people are having,” said David Meyer, co-founder and CEO of Adopt-a-Pet.com, which connects people with shelters and rescue organizations. “People can almost always find the kind of animal they want in a shelter or rescue.”

Adopt or Shop: This Dog Startup Says You Don’t Have to Choose

Wais says there’s no way to stop some people from going to breeders. Good Dog can help ensure that buyers are only choosing from upstanding ones.  “We are not going to take a stance on those longtime legacy conflicts,” he said.  In this “very broken system, people are making decisions blindly, so trust is a core tenet of what we provide.” 

Establishing that trust won’t be easy. The very best breeders work through word of mouth—still the most common way to find out about a dog, followed by online sources. Good Dog’s team can’t visit every breeder, so it evaluates them based on standards set by experts in dog breeding, behavior and animal welfare. Its 20 employees pore over veterinary test reports, customer complaints and any available inspection records.

Right now there are more than 1,500 organizations on the site, about equally split among breeders, rescues and shelters. (Shelters maintain a physical home for the dogs and are usually affiliated with a town or city, while rescues rely on foster homes for the mutts.) Only two or three out of every 10 places screened end up making the cut, Wais said. Consumers who purchase from breeders will pay a sliding-scale fee pegged to the price of the dog, likely around five or 10 percent. Good Dog wants to grab a slice of the $75 billion U.S. pet industry, which is increasingly moving online, evidenced by pet superstore Chewy.com’s recent IPO filing.

Good Dog has won some converts, like Jocelyn Schneider, a 26-year-old graphic designer in New Jersey who’s using the site’s “concierge” service—one-on-one assistance from employees—to sift through corgi breeders. “You can search for corgis on Google, but you don’t know who’s reputable,” she says. 

Solving that “consumer pain point” should help Good Dog grow, says Brock Weatherup, a longtime entrepreneur in the pet industry.  “They’re bringing some structure to the industry. It’s an admirable thing, but it’s a hornet’s nest if you can’t control it.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.