Media / Startups

No, Dog Parker isn’t a ‘startup dog prison,’ says CEO

After The Outline poked fun at her company's product, we spoke with Chelsea Brownridge about how to dispel damaging perceptions.

The Dog Parker in action. (GIF via Dog Parker/YouTube)

In certain corners, Dog Parker, which makes internet-connected doghouses intended to keep dogs safe from theft while their owners run quick errands, is an exciting new development. The company, an alum of the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, has close to 40 doghouses stationed outside businesses in Brooklyn and has some 500 customer accounts.

But to others, the idea of a smart doghouse has proven to be ripe for mockery.

A couple of weeks ago, The Outline ran a story by Amos Barshad about his fascination with what he calls “startup dog prison.” Spoiler alert: he ends up entering the doghouse himself and receives a rebuke by voicemail from Chelsea Brownridge, the cofounder and CEO of Dog Parker, herself.

Here at Technical.ly, we found the story, which ultimately is not unkind to Dog Parker, quite hilarious. But it’s not the first time the company’s product has been compared to doggy jail. The Twitter account Internet of Shit, which humorously raises concerns of privacy and security regarding internet-connected devices, has also skewered the concept. “Please use our app to lock up your sad dog in our internet box,” reads one tweet.

So that got us thinking: How does a startup combat a damning perception of its product? We went straight to the source and asked Brownridge exactly that. Here’s what she had to say.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Technical.ly Brooklyn: Have you heard feedback similar to Barshad’s before, that the Dog Parker is a “dog prison”?

Chelsea Brownridge: Yeah, we definitely have. There’s a bigger conversation that happens with crating animals just in general. It helps with behavioral issues, because dogs are den animals. Still, there are a lot of people who feel like crating your dog, even at home, is just not kind to the animal.

The Dog Parker has added a new context. It’s a neighborhood doghouse, it’s out on the street. I think because it locks, people jump to, “It’s an enclosed locking space like a jail.” I think once you get one step removed from that and you think about it, a doghouse has been a thing for decades and decades. Ours just happens to lock because the main feature is, of course, to keep your dog safe from theft and any other kind of altercation.

TB: Aside from Barshad, the Twitter account Internet of Shit has made some snarky comments about Dog Parker. How do you respond to concerns related to the internet of things?

CB: I do think that there’s some truth to this trend of “internet of shit” — people throwing internet connectivity into things because it’s trendy. But for us, it’s at the core of our offering. For example, we often get the question, “What if a dog isn’t happy?” Right now, actually, on my phone, I’m watching a dog in the Dog Parker. We’re always monitoring the doghouses to make sure that the dogs are comfortable and happy and safe. We can hear if they’re whining or barking, we can see if their ears are back or if they’re clawing. I can see in the house and hear the house because I’m able to livestream that, because of the internet.

The other thing is, “Well, what if it gets too hot or too cold?” Because of the internet connectivity, we know the temperature inside the house at all times. And it’s automatically triggered to do heating, cooling, additional fan pressure, ventilation, because we’re able to program the house and monitor it through that constant connection. The list of features we have, from the webcam to auto-sanitizing to temperature management, is all because of the internet connection in the house. And so for us, it doesn’t feel like this afterthought. It’s actually where the product started.

TB: How do you dispel the notion that the Dog Parker is a “dog prison”?

CB: What we can and will continue to do is evolve the physical look of the house. The very first model we had was very boxy. It had a flat roof. The version that we have out now has a peaked roof, and so a lot of people recognize it as a doghouse more so than a box, which is great for us. We’re going to continue working to soften the appearance and make it more friendly as we continue to get feedback from our users and from the public.

We do try to remind people that dogs are den animals. And I think once you remind people of that, they get it: “Oh, right, my dog loves his crate. My dog loves to hide under the bed when it’s a thunderstorm because that’s where they feel safe. My dog likes to burrow under the covers because that’s more comfortable for them.” But for people to apply that logic to a brand new thing they’ve never seen, it takes time. It takes education, it takes storytelling.

The other thing we have to combat, which The Outline pointed out and we hear all the time, is this narrative of, “Oh, I’ve seen your Dog Parker, but I’ve never seen a dog in it.” Because we’ve been so selective in opening up the network, the utilization has purposely been kept relatively low. I think now, as we’re growing, people are going to see them in use more. But at the end of the day, our business model is built around 60 minutes a day of utilization per house, which means that for 23 hours a day, the houses aren’t in use. That allows us to break even on our units in just a couple of months.

The beauty of our business — and I think this is why we’ve been successful in raising money and growing the way we have — is that we don’t require the house to be filled for hours and hours a day to have a successful, thriving business. We break even at 29 minutes a day on a unit, and we’ve a runaway success at 60 minutes a day per house. The houses get used about two to three times per day. The businesses are happy with that, and the dog owners who in a pinch have a safe place for their dogs are really happy for the extra option.

TB: Have you engaged with animal welfare experts? If so, what feedback have you gotten from them on the Dog Parker?

CB: Yeah, tons. My veterinarian, and then other veterinarians in our neighborhood, and then other references I got from people were the very first group of animal experts that we engaged with. We were talking to them about safety standards: what diseases we have to be concerned about, how disease transfer takes place, how to keep these houses a clean, safe environment.

Then we moved on to animal behaviorists when we started designing the house itself. So we asked them, “What are the right dimensions? What are the right materials? What are the sounds that dogs like and don’t like? How do we educate our customer base on how to train their dog to get used to the Dog Parker?”

Since then, we’ve engaged animal advocacy groups. We work really closely with Best Friends Animal Society. We’ve been working with people within the city who are animal advocates. State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal, whose office is on the Upper West Side, is a big animal advocate. We’re also putting together an animal expert advisory board. We’ve had informal relationships with a lot of these people who have helped us and provided testimonials, and we’re excited to finally be formalizing that in a way where we’ve got a group of 10 to 12 people who work with us day in and day out.

TB: How have you incorporated that feedback into different iterations of the Dog Parker?

CB: Some of the policies we had in our early days were based on the advice we got from vets or other existing policies. For example, New York City has a law which says you cannot tether, or tie your dog up, for more than three hours. When we were thinking about what our time limit should be, we were like, “OK, well, let’s look to the New York City law around tethering. We’ll make our maximum time limit three hours.” So we put that out there, and then when we saw that the average time people were using the Dog Parker was around 15 minutes, three hours was just much too long. People were having a very strong reaction to that policy. So we’ve since then dropped the limit to 90 minutes.

Similarly, we looked at studies about safe temperature ranges for dogs. They recommended between 32 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. And so we said, “OK, well, it will never get colder than 32, and it will never get hotter than 85.” Our goal, of course, is to always keep it comfortable in the 50s to 70s, but at the outermost temperatures, the Dog Parker can still be in operation. People then had a very strong reaction to 85. We found that with our technology, we were able to keep the house below 80 even on a really hot day. So, we said, “OK, the technology works. People have a stomach for 80. Let’s change it to 80.”

TB: Before Barshad wrote his story, had anyone ever gone into the Dog Parker or put something in there other than a dog?

CB: When we first started, I expected a much higher level of graffiti, of tampering, of people putting things that aren’t dogs in the Dog Parker. I’ve been surprised by how little of a problem it has been. But yes, we’ve had a handful of people want to try out the Dog Parker themselves. Amos isn’t the first blogger to do it. We had another blogger from Brokelyn do the same thing.

TB: Oh, I missed that one.

CB: Yes. I don’t know if Amos thinks he’s the first, but he’s at least the second blogger to do it. We have had, I think, two to three other people try it out. It tends to be late night or on the weekend, so people may or may not have been drinking. But we get alerts every time someone starts a session. We’re able to call them or text them and ask them, kindly but firmly, to exit the Dog Parker. It’s funny, their answers. They’re like, “Oh, I just wanted to try it out for my dog,” or “Oh, I just wanted to see how big it was.”

At the end of the day, I don’t mind when people do that so much, just because I think the end result is generally, “Wow, I unlocked this house, it’s big enough for me, it’s air conditioned, I can see myself on the webcam.” So they’re pretty impressed afterward. That’s on one side of the coin, kind of good, because they’re able to experience it themselves and see just how nice it is in there and how the technology works. But on the other side, of course, we don’t want people putting themselves in the Dog Parker.

TB: Any final thoughts?

CB: Something we work on every single day is, “How do we bring this brand new thing that no one has ever seen to market? How do we educate that market? And how do we change behavior?” I think as far as startups go, that’s one of the tallest orders out there: changing behavior. Being able to use a doghouse while you’re out and about has never been an option before. So it’s amusing, it’s interesting. It’s the best thing since sliced bread for some people. And for others, it’s scary.

The good news for us is that every week, more and more people are signing up, and they are having good experiences. With enough time, hopefully the “dog jail” narrative starts to dissipate, and people embrace the word we want them to embrace, which is “doghouse.”

Series: Brooklyn

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