Move over, Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. There’s another big dog in town when it comes to the gig economy.
Whether using the newer mobile apps, friends, or the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar shops, busy Americans are turning to on-demand dog walking services to make sure the nation’s 90 million canines get some exercise. Recent retirees, teachers on summer break, and enterprising students are all stepping up to take on the task — and cashing in.
“I love animals, so this just seemed the way to go,” said Sharon Anderson, 59, of Conshohocken, who got laid off from QVC in 2015 after 29 years, when her job was outsourced to Poland.
Initially, Anderson looked for a traditional, 9-to-5 job, but soon decided she’d rather pick up puppy poop than ever again deal with office politics. These days, she walks dogs for clients of Rover and Wag! — two popular dog walking and pet sitting apps — as well as for clients she finds on her own.
“I don’t want to get back into the office-and-career field again,” said Anderson, who said she never considered Uber or Lyft because the idea of strangers in her car was not a good fit. She now considers herself retired, loves her flexible schedule, and earns $300 to $500 a week for about 25 walks. She’s not only less stressed than she was while at QVC but has “toned up” from all the walking, and has been able to get off blood pressure medications.
More than 63 million American households own at least one dog and that figure continues to grow, with busy millennials making up the largest number of pet owners (35%), surpassing baby boomers (32%), according to the American Pet Products Association.
And they’re shelling out major money for their pups’ care and well-being: In 2019 alone, Americans spent more than $75 billion on their pets, about $1 billion of which paid for dog walking. The service has grown an average of 3.7% per year since 2015, according to IBISWorld, a global industry research firm.
Kate Goldstein, an assistant coach for the Villanova University women’s lacrosse team, uses Wag! when her busy schedule and unpredictable hours keep her from getting home on time to Coal, her 4-year-old black lab/pit bull mix.
“It’s like Uber,” she said. “It’s convenient, and [walkers] don’t need much advance notice.”
But that convenience isn’t cheap, she said. A 30-minute walk costs $20 — equal to the daily rate of Coal’s day care.
Overall, Goldstein has been pleased with the Wag! walkers. Sometimes, one of them even asks if Coal would prefer a run to a stroll.
“Hell, yeah! Go for a run,” Goldstein said. “The more energy he gets out, the better.”
For pet owners booking the services, both Rover and Wag!, which operate in all 50 states, function much the way car shares and Airbnb do. (Rover also operates in nine countries, including Great Britain, Spain, Norway, and Germany.)
Once the job is posted on the app, registered walkers can take on the assignment.
“Wag! fits into the economic change around how we are treating our pets,” said Garrett Smallwood, CEO of the San Francisco-based company.
There are short application forms on both websites, where owners fill out a questionnaire about their pets. Both companies perform background checks on prospective walkers, whose walks can be tracked by GPS, and owners can receive updates on poop and pee activity. Walkers are paid by owners via third parties like PayPal.
But there are some basic differences. Rover sets up meet-and-greets between owners and potential walkers. On Wag!, once an owner posts a job request for a job, any nearby walker can spontaneously opt-in for the gig.
It was the meet-and-greet that prompted Matt Szajecki, 33, and his wife, Morgan, 36, to choose Rover. The Andorra couple both work busy schedules and wanted a regular walker for Gunner, their 1-year-old Norwegian Elkhound.
“Personally, I would not let someone in my house without meeting them first,” said Matt Szajecki. The couple would not have gotten a dog if they didn’t have regular walkers, and they wanted someone they trusted.
“We’ve only used Rover and a private sitter,” he said.
Like other gig jobs that rely on mutual trust to succeed, there have been occasional problems for owners and walkers, including lost or injured pets, shoddy service, and dog bites.
Both Rover and Wag! offer 24/7 emergency support, but there’s a limit to their help.
On its website, Rover lists the exclusions it will not cover, including property damage, injuries to walkers or owners, and certain medical costs. Wag! insurance does not cover walkers but does “cover pets, pet owners and their homes, and third parties,” according to a company spokesperson.
The two apps are not the only ones to capitalize on the need for pet owners to ensure their fur babies are cared for during the day. A number of “brick-and-mortar” pet service companies aim to do the same.
Autumn McVey, 25, of Roxborough, originally started using the apps in college but found stiff competition from other app users who snatched up the jobs that were close to her home. So she recently took over her aunt’s dog walking/sitting business.
“You have more consistency,” McVey said. And she can create close bonds with both owners and dogs that help a business thrive.
“The demand for pet sitting is huge,” said Penny Lyons, owner of Wiggles n Wags in New Britain, Bucks County. “There is so much work out there. The hardest part of the whole thing is finding employees.”
Lyons quit her job at a veterinarian’s office to take care of her aging father. To earn pocket money, she turned to dog walking. Ten years later, she has about a dozen part-time employees, and her business, which grows about 15% to 20% a year, shows no sign of slowing down.
Lyons does a 50-state criminal background check on prospective employees, provides them liability and workers’ compensation insurance, and offers them financial incentives for pet sitting during the holidays. She also gives her employees something the apps won’t: bottles of water for the summer heat, and a Christmas bonus.
Lyons said she prefers to hire young, active retirees who she has found to be very dependable and who understand the nuances of owning a home.
“Taking care of a client’s home is a big part of this whole thing,” she said. A dirty dog will mess up a cream carpet if not cleaned off after a walk.
Lyons provides each walker a starter kit that includes wipes, towels, cleaning supplies, flashlights, an extra leash, and plenty of poop bags.
“You’re going to be covered in hair, smell like a dog, and have to clean up poop and pee," she said. “If this doesn’t appeal to you, you are not a good fit.”