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Tails on the trails

Nonprofit Free Animal Doctor and Airbnb offer excursions with rescue dogs

From Web Exclusives

On the eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains in California, Runyon Canyon Park is known for its rugged trails, celebrity sightings, and impressive views of the Los Angeles basin, the iconic Hollywood sign and, on a clear day, the Pacific Ocean.

Among locals, the park has also long been known as a great place to take dogs, with several designated off-leash areas. But until recently, the dog-friendly policies weren’t much of a draw for tourists.

That changed in 2017, not long after Sam Bernardo learned that Airbnb (an online marketplace where people can book privately owned travel accommodations) wanted to offer its customers some off-the-beaten-track tourism opportunities and was looking for nonprofits to host “social impact experiences.”

Bernardo and his friend Ryan Boyd had recently launched Free Animal Doctor, a nonprofit crowdfunding website that helps individual pet owners and animal welfare organizations raise money for veterinary care they can’t otherwise afford. They were researching ways to attract more donors and boost the organization’s profile.

At first, Bernardo and Boyd weren’t sure that social impact experiences were a good fit for the organization. They didn’t have a shelter or sanctuary and spent much of their time troubleshooting IT issues and requesting treatment plans from veterinarians. On the other hand, Bernardo and Boyd found themselves regularly taking in shelter dogs whose medical needs were being funded through the Free Animal Doctor platform. At any given time, they had about a dozen foster dogs between them, all of whom could use more exercise and socialization.

They took the plunge, and in July 2017, “canyon hikes with rescue dogs” debuted on Airbnb’s list of recommended excursions for LA tourists. “It took off immediately,” says Bernardo. Two to five times a week (depending on the season), travelers from around the world gather at the park’s southern entrance for a two-hour trek across rugged dirt trails, accompanied by a guide and a pack of excited pups.

“An amazing and truly memorable experience,” wrote Michael from Switzerland in a review on Airbnb’s website. “Nothing short of fantastic,” posted Michelle from Singapore. “We had an amazingly authentic day walking the Free Animal Doctor rescue dogs,” chimed in Justine from Australia.

In spring 2018, Bernardo and Boyd expanded the program to include twice weekly beach walks in nearby San Diego, with local rescues helping to provide dogs and sharing in the proceeds.

Participants register and pay the $45 per person fee through Airbnb’s online system, and all proceeds go to Free Animal Doctor. In the first year, the nonprofit raised nearly $120,000 through its guided hikes, and Airbnb’s website was brimming with glowing feedback from tourists.

“We had 950 reviews in San Diego in just a year,” Bernardo says. “I know restaurants that don’t have 950 reviews.”

Other animal welfare organization report similar successes, says Stephanie Hong, manager of Airbnb’s social impact experiences program. Wildlife rehabilitation centers, sanctuaries and rescues around the world “are offering some of the most popular experiences on the [Airbnb] platform. Guests are excited to spend time with rescue animals and learn more about the cause while they travel.”

Bernardo advises nonprofits interested in launching a social impact experience to first make sure their area attracts a large number of Airbnb guests and consider local weather conditions when choosing an activity. Los Angeles and San Diego have worked out well for his group; last year, they only had to cancel about 20 hikes because of heat or rain. But when they tried to replicate the program in Sierra Madre, they soon realized there wasn’t enough demand, and the heat was going to a problem for at least four months of the year.

They’ve learned to adjust their expectations in other ways as well. In the beginning, Bernardo and Boyd thought the hikes would be a good way to find homes for their fosters. But “70 percent of people who come to hikes are from outside the U.S.,” says Bernardo. So while a handful of American tourists have returned from vacation with a new best friend, the impact on adoptions has been mostly indirect. Hikers take photos and videos of the dogs, which are used to promote the animals. And the added socialization can have a big impact on dogs’ adoptability.

That was the case for a small, fluffy mixed breed with green eyes and a troubled past. Mona was a “beautiful dog, but mean,” says Bernardo. “You couldn’t touch her.” But with some one-on-one nurturing in a board member’s home and many successful hikes, Mona’s personality transformed. “She turned out to be the best dog,” he says, and eventually found a home.

Plus, the income from the guided dog walks has been a huge help when it comes to covering lifesaving veterinary care, Bernardo says. Over the past three years, Free Animal Doctor has raised over $400,000, mostly through individual donors, covering care for more than 400 animals in 22 states. (Bernardo believes a lot of the organization’s success can be attributed to its policy of paying veterinarians directly and receiving copies of medical records and bills—factors that allay the fear of fraud that prevents many people from donating through other crowdfunding sites, he says.)

But when crowdfunding doesn’t raise enough money for an animal’s treatment, the organization is able to make up the difference. And the walks help cover the costs of website maintenance, salaries for two part-time staffers and credit card processing fees.

For animal welfare organizations that are considering launching a similar program, Bernardo recommends a trip to California. “Nothing we know is magic or unique; it’s from experience. You need to come do a tour!”

About the Author

As senior editor of the award-winning Animal Sheltering magazine, Julie Falconer writes and edits articles for the sheltering, rescue and animal control fields. Before joining the staff of the Humane Society of the United States, Julie was a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations in Central Virginia. She spends much of her free time assisting with trap-neuter-return programs for community cats.