Many dog owners suffer guilt at leaving their pets while away. A business helping overcome this angst has launched – and is using Spark Lab, the ideas and innovation network – for advice to help it expand.

Heartache at the thought of leaving her 'kids' at home to travel overseas gave Courtenay Colligan an idea for a business.

Colligan's 'kids' are her two pet dogs - Louie, a two-year-old miniature schnauzer and Panda, a three-year-old bichon shih-tzu cross. Last year Colligan was heading overseas for a month, but a last minute work trip for her husband Darryl meant their plans for him to look after the dogs fell through. So they decided to employ a sitter to look after them.

But it was easier said than done.

"Finding someone was incredibly difficult and it was hard to know where to start," says Colligan. "We were not keen on leaving them at a boarding kennel. Darryl was going away on a work assignment and I was off to a wedding in Rarotonga before also going away for my job."


Although she eventually found sitters - they had to use two as neither were available for the whole time - the arrangement was less than ideal. But it ultimately led to Colligan, who lives in Nelson, becoming a business owner for the first time in her life.

It was while searching for a sitter she noticed Pat Me, a dog-sitting business established in 2013, was for sale. "It hadn't really taken off and it occurred to me 'I could do this', especially as through my own experience I know what dog owners go through."

She sat on the idea for some time before deciding to buy the business late last year. An online digital platform providing a digital dog-sitting and match-making service, it operates a database of sitters enabling them to connect with dog owners looking for the 'perfect' sitter while they are away.

After linking to Spark Lab's facebook group, she now runs the business around her full time job as a travel consultant. This has enabled her to tap into the knowledge of more experienced business owners.

"Even though they are not from the pet industry, their advice has been very helpful," she says.

In the first month 150 new sitters and dog owners throughout New Zealand listed on her website, a number she expects to grow steadily.

Her goal is to have enough sitters in most areas of the country so owners in any particular location have at least two or three quality people to choose from. The market is huge with 31 per cent of New Zealanders owning a dog and over 543,000 registered in New Zealand at May, 2015. Her ultimate goal is to expand into Australia.

Colligan is filling a much-needed niche for dog owners - and believes having dogs herself helps her understand the depth of feeling people have for their pets.

"We love Louie and Panda's presence in our lives, we love them greeting us when we get home, they are a big part of our lives. Once a fortnight I take them to a doggy daycare so they can socialise with other dogs."

Many dog owners are reluctant to leave their pets in boarding kennels, often citing health or feelings of guilt as reasons.

Dogs are also known to suffer separation anxiety. Digging, gnawing and scratching at doors and windows, constant barking and howling or soiling inside are among behaviours characteristic of this.

Colligan says once owners have found a sitter the Pat Me platform enables them to chat and ask questions or even organise a meeting to ensure the dog and sitter hit it off. "It is important people can go off on holiday without guilt about leaving their four-legged family member out in the cold."

A renowned expert in pet nutrition and fitness and former veterinary medical officer with the US Department of Agriculture, Dr Ken Tudor, says pets with live-in sitters tend to be less prone to separation stress.

In comments on petmd, a website providing pet health information globally he says: "To me the obvious choice is live-in pet sitting. Stress is less severe when in the familiar surroundings of their own home and it is as close to a normal environment for the pets as possible," he says.

Colligan joined the Spark Lab facebook group very soon after launching her business. "I have never run a business before," she says, "and I did have doubts about how to start. I have found Spark Lab very useful as a sounding board and having contact with people with more experience in business.

Spark Lab is a free innovation and ideas network for evolving businesses like Pat Me. Participants can discover the best communication tools, learn about social media channels and the simple, therapeutic ability of sharing struggles and successes with others of like minds and situations.

Colligan says although she did not attend any of Spark Lab's motivational talks (which were part of a national tour last year involving 17 events and 25 speakers), she intends to continue to look to it for ideas and help.

Spark lab gives new zealand businesses the knowledge, support and digital tools to be better and go further. we know businesses that embrace technology perform better, and we're passionate about helping that happen. that's what spark lab is all about - find out more here.