Professional NYC dog walkers have been around for decades. New York’s most famous dog walker, Jim Buck – who died in 2013 – was considered the first person to professionalize the service. From the early 60’s onwards, Jim and his team of assistants chaperoned packs of pooches around the city under the name of “Jim Buck’s School For Dogs.” Mr Buck was a lifelong dog owner who knew them intimately, understood their behavior and was more than qualified to run a business of this kind. His walkers were selected by him on the basis of their ability to handle difficult dogs – indeed for years, a particularly obstinate otterhound nicknamed “Oliver The Awful” was used to screen prospective employees. Jim was no doubt acutely aware that dog walking is not for everyone. It takes a particular kind of person.
You have to know how to cope with dogs of all breeds and temperaments. You have to possess a special kind of patience and understanding. You have to have lightning reactions and be able to cope with a wide range of difficult and sometimes dangerous situations. An immunity to all extremes of weather is essential. It takes dedication and commitment. In short, it’s a hell of a lot more than just clipping a leash on a collar, saying “hey ho” and hitting the streets with a cheery whistle. Unfortunately, this is exactly how a lot of people perceive the job, and any responsible dog walking company owner will tell you that the hiring process is the most challenging part of the business.
Since then, dog walking has exploded as a profession in New York. It’s almost become a quintessential New York job. But with so many dog walkers to choose from, how have New York dog owners been separating the wheat from the chaff?
Sorting The Good From The Bad
There are two main categories of dog walker – those who work for a dog walking company, and those who work for themselves. Traditionally, both kinds have always been in high demand in New York. Given how precious our pets are to us, the most important issue is how to separate the professionals from the amateurs. What makes a professional dog walker? A few things spring to mind:
- Are they dedicated to the job, i.e. not just looking to make a few dollars ‘in between jobs’?
- Are they reliable, and do they guarantee their ongoing availability?
- Are they caring, affectionate and patient with animals?
- Are they properly trained and do they have extensive experience?
- Do they have an intimate understanding of dog behavior and body language?
- Do they react well in potentially dangerous situations?
- Do they have safety measures in place to ensure that dogs cannot get away from them outside?
- Do they take an active interest in the dogs they walk?
- Are they looking to bond with the dogs they walk on a long term basis?
- Are they honest in communicating problems and issues with dogs to their owners?
- Do they conduct themselves in a respectful and responsible manner in the client’s apartments?
These factors, along with a whole host of others, are instrumental in making sure that your dog won’t come into any harm when they’re with their walker. And as true dog lovers, we go to great lengths to make sure walkers are a good fit.
In the case of independent dog walkers, this is something which is usually ascertained by word of mouth – a neighborhood dog walker will, over the years, build a good reputation for themselves. They become a regular fixture on neighborhood streets and in dog parks. A dog walker who mistreats dogs, or who clearly cannot handle the dogs they walk properly, or who conducts themselves in a dishonest manner, won’t last five minutes.
In the case of walkers who work for local dog walking companies, the situation is even better. Companies like King Pup have traditionally been founded by genuine animal lovers who cut their teeth for years walking dogs independently. Along the way, they’ve experienced virtually every situation a dog walker can find themselves in, from everyday problems to one-off situations which are downright terrifying. They bring that experience with them when they start fully fledged dog walking companies and start hiring.
Hiring – The Most Important Part Of Running A Dog Walking Business
Hiring genuinely good dog walkers is the hardest part of the industry. Not everyone takes the job seriously. Not everyone is reliable, or dedicated, or has the patience to work with animals. That’s why we’re so fastidious and persnickety when we hire. You can get a sense of what goes into the hiring of a King Pup dog walker here. As someone who has worked in the pet care business for almost 15 years, the thought of hiring dog walkers on a casual basis, or through an online questionnaire or by simply asking them to fit a harness to a dummy dog terrifies me.
Along Comes Wag
Over the last couple of years, a new kind of dog walking company has emerged. Wag is not a local grassroots company managed by experienced animal professionals, it’s a tech startup financed by millions of dollars of investment. A quick browse of their LinkedIn connections is enough to tell you that this is not a company which surrounds itself with dog handlers and animal fanciers – it’s a network of tech pros, digital strategists, professional managers, data scientists and sales experts. It was founded by Jason Meltzer, a tech entrepreneur. Their marketing blurb states that the goal of Wag is to “make it easier for people to own dogs.” Which is odd, because I always figured the goal of companies with millions of dollars of investment in them was to make even more millions of dollars. Still, it’s a compelling enough marketing angle. On the other hand, couldn’t every dog walking company in existence claim that it’s goal was to make it easier for people to own dogs? So what exactly is Wag doing that’s new?
An “Uber For Dog Walkers”
Given that virtually every newspaper write-up of Wag included the phrase “Uber for dog walkers” in some fashion, one can only assume that it was part of Wag’s official press release. So that’s what they tout themselves as. And it was a clever marketing move, given what a hot-topic Uber is. Any article about an Uber for dog walkers was bound to get shared and go viral. Basically, Wag’s model is this: they recruit hundreds if not thousands of wannabe dog walkers across the country and register them to a consumer app which dog owners can use to order a dog walker on demand. Question for dog lovers: does this immediately ring any alarm bells?
Wag’s Hiring Process
Of course Wag doesn’t post their full hiring process online, but it’s easy to get a sense of what goes on by reading employee reviews written on Glassdoor. From what we can ascertain from those reviews, it seems that the hiring process consists of filling out a multiple choice questionnaire, answering some more questions over the phone, watching a video, and attending an “in person” exam in which the object is to fit three kinds of harnesses to a dummy dog. And, of course, anyone wishing to “prep” for the the process can pretty much just watch a couple of YouTube videos to show them how to fit various harnesses, and they can even head to Glassdoor to find out some of the questions they’re likely to be asked along with the answers. As for the harness fitting test, one Glassdoor reviewer had this to say:
“I was among at least 15 other people. The woman went over the instructions about putting the collars on and if you failed to put them on in under 3 minutes you would be told to leave (ouch?). However, MANY people had problems with the collars and had trouble for wayyy longer than 3 minutes. And the woman didn’t seem to care. In fact, every single person was hired that day. She said she did this 3 times a week…”
If what that person wrote is accurate, then it horrifies us beyond belief. What stands out most about Wag’s hiring process is that there doesn’t seem to be any attempt to get to know their walkers – to get a sense of who they are, what their experience is, what their personality is like, what their long term goals are or how they see their relationship with dogs.
When we hire someone, we initially spend a long time chatting with them over the phone to get a basic idea of where they’re coming from, and then we meet them in person for a formal interview which lasts at least an hour. During this time we get as much information as possible about their prior experience with animals, give them the opportunity to show us photos of them with their pets, chat about their other interests and life in general. We also talk about the other things they have going on in their lives, and find out how dedicated and reliable they’re likely to be. If all goes well, we spend at least a week with them out on the job to see how they relate to animals, how naturally affectionate and caring they are, and how they respond to any number of potential hazards on the job. It’s not enough to get this information from multiple choice questions – you have to see them in action to be 100% sure.
And then of course there are references. Everyone asks for references, right? However, two separate reviews on Glassdoor stated that Wag sent those references offers to try the service – what a great way to build up an email list!
“…all the people I listed as references started getting spam emails from them, not cool.”
“They ask for 3-6 “references” at the end, but they really just use it to send them a free week to try to the service.”
Of its hiring process, Wag makes a decidedly dubious claim on its site that it only accepts 5% of applicants. However, in an article about a dog that was lost by a Wag walker and subsequently killed, Wag co-founder Joshua Viner told the Daily News that they accept less than 1% of applicants. So which dubious figure is it guys? In another article, Wag said that their goal in NYC was to be walking 10,000 dogs daily within a year. That was back in 2015. If they met that goal, then let’s for the sake of argument presume that each walker walks 10 dogs per day (a very ambitious estimate given the statements that Wag walkers are making on Glassdoor, but we’ll get to that in a bit). That alone would require 1000 dog walkers. If Joshua Viner was serious about Wag accepting less than 1% of applicants, that would mean that they’d have to get through at least 100,000 dog walker applications in New York alone. Ha! Come on guys…..
So What’s It Like Walking Dogs For Wag?
Again, Glassdoor’s Wag employee reviews are enlightening and offer some excellent insight into the reasons why the Uber model is not, and will never be, suitable for the pet care industry. Let’s take a few examples:
“Online support, no one to speak with if you have a situation. I called support number and they had changed it and not notified walkers.”
“Walker support is always busy and you can never get a live person on the phone”
“Company is not so personable with employees, unless you have an extreme emergency you will never hear an actual voice giving support to any questions over the phone, all question are via text or email . Email responses take over a week if not more”
“Customer service is amateur so you better hope you never have a problem, and when you do have a problem they will treat you like dog poop”
“Wag’s helpline isn’t very helpful, they’re rude, and clearly understaffed”
These comments should worry any dog owner looking to hire a walker. A truly responsible dog walking service maintains a constant, on-demand communication channel with its dog walkers. They have to be there to offer support and advice in an emergency, and you cannot possibly hope to maintain a reliable service unless you’re there to help employees with some of the things which might prevent them from getting dogs out on time – problems with keys and locks, problems with building management and a whole host of other situations which require real-time guidance from company admin.
But that’s not the worst of it:
“you can’t see dog notes before accepting a walk and I have gotten into some hairy situations with some dogs that (had I) been able to read their notes before hand I wouldn’t have and shouldn’t have taken on”
“You don’t have much transparency when it comes information about the dog’s temperament before picking up a walk. When you pick up a walk and it’s been approved, that’s when you get to read notes and find out if the dog needs a strong walker or not”
“No info on the dog before you accept the walk”
“As a walker I am not 100% sure how safe I am walking into someone else’s home”
“Most of the dogs I walk have inappropriate collars/harnesses. It’s so dangerous”
And here we get into the nitty gritty of why on-demand Uber-style dog walking is just downright irresponsible. If these comments are accurate then as a long time dog walker and company owner they boil my blood. No info on the dog before accepting the walk? If this is the case then it’s horrifying. The only safe and responsible way to pair a walker with a dog is to arrange a meet and greet beforehand so that not only is the client comfortable with whomever is coming into their home to walk their dog, but also that the walker is comfortable with the dog (and vice versa). This is exactly how we do things at King Pup. I personally attend meet and greets with the client – we have a nice long chat and get to know each other, and we get to see first hand how the walker and the dog get along with each other. If the dog is very aggressive and the walker is uncomfortable, then we do not take that client on. If the client is uncomfortable with the walker or feels that they’re not a good match for their dog, then we part ways amicably.
Not only that, but the app our walkers use gives them full access to the dog’s profile and gives them all of the information they need to do their job safely and responsibly. If the client wants to bring our attention to some sensitive areas their pet has – anything from being aggressive in elevators to being afraid of skateboards or anything else, not only do we talk about that during the meet and greet but we also add that info to the pet profile in the app so that they always have access to it (and the client can update it in the future if anything changes).
Animal Welfare And The Uber Model
Taking dogs out on the streets of a city like New York is a big responsibility. There are so many potential hazards for a dog should they somehow manage to get away from their handler. If a dog breaks free and darts across a busy avenue in Manhattan, for instance, all bets are off. As a dog walking company owner it’s something that you think about every day, and it’s one of the main reasons why we shadow our walkers for at least a week before allowing them to walk dogs unsupervised. It’s also why we have all of our walkers use mountaineering carabiners to clip dog leashes to themselves before stepping outside of the apartment.
We don’t use these clips to walk dogs “hands free,” in fact that is strictly forbidden. The walker will still wrap the leash two or three times around their hand as usual. But what it does mean is that if something were to happen out of the walker’s control which made them let go of the leash, the dog cannot bolt. It’s also an extra level of security when passing a leash from one hand to the other, or when doing something like picking up dog poop.
Using clips like this isn’t just a policy on paper, it’s something that we actively enforce by way of spot checks on walkers. And that’s another thing that’s wrong with the “Uber for dogs” model. There is no way in the world they are conducting spot checks on their thousands of walkers like this. I will observe King Pup walkers from a distance on a regular basis to make sure that they’re following the correct safety procedures at all times. And these include another of King Pup’s policies – no chatting on phones, no browsing social media on smartphones while walking, and no headphones. This last policy is particularly important because in a city like New York, you have to be 100% aware of what’s going on around you at all times so that you can anticipate potential danger. Crossing the street with a distraction like a smartphone or headphones is bad enough at the best of times, but completely inexcusable when you have a dog in tow. Does Wag have a no-headphone policy, and if it does, is it carrying spot checks on its hundreds or thousands of employees? We very much doubt it.
Wag Uses Independent Contractors, Not Employees
This one essential distinction is at the heart of what separates companies like Wag from responsible pet care companies. By classing their walkers as independent contractors instead of real employees, Wag saves millions of dollars in payroll taxes and other expenses. They avoid paying unemployment insurance, disability and worker’s comp. But if you want to use independent contractors, the IRS has some pretty stringent requirements and limitations. Most importantly, you cannot train independent contractors. If you were to spend time with them on the job offering guidance and instruction, or so much as give them an employee manual, in the eyes of the IRS they would be employees. In short, the degree of oversight is severely limited with independent contractors as compared to real employees. So in saving millions of dollars (shareholders: yay!), Wag has consciously agreed not to train the dog walkers and pet sitters they sign up to their app (dogs: boo!) This is something that everyone should understand before ordering an à la carte dog walker from an Uber style app.
Do Wag Walkers Earn Enough To Live On?
One of the first things we’re asked by prospective clients is “will I get the same walker every day?” It’s hardly surprising, as most caring pet owners recognize the fact that their dogs will feel more secure with someone they’re familiar with, someone who has bonded with them over time. Having the same person stop by every time gives them the chance to get to know your dog’s personality, their body language and quirks. Things like: what triggers anxiety in them? Are there breeds of dog they don’t get along with? How do they react to people approaching them in the street and trying to pet them?
And a familiar face isn’t just for the dog’s benefit. Clients generally feel a lot more secure letting someone have access to their apartment if it’s the same person every day – a person they’ve come to trust through experience. With this in mind, it’s important to make sure that walkers stick the job out. A revolving door of casual employees who quit after a few weeks because they find they aren’t earning enough, is bad news for everyone. So are Wag walkers earning a decent living? Again, many of the comments on Glassdoor are enlightening (we’ve also spoken to ex-Wag walkers who reported similar things):
Listen, we get it. Everyone likes using an app to get things done these days, and the idea of dog walkers on call at the tap of a screen is certainly attractive at first – especially to a younger generation to whom smartphones are essentially extensions of their bodies. Uber has been such a runaway success that it’s only natural that other industries would try to ride that same wave. Wag has certainly done a sterling job in marketing their service along these lines. But to those of us who run local, grassroots dog walking companies which have been built slowly on the ground up on solid principles of animal safety and welfare, it’s a very worrying trend indeed. It’s not just about competition – after all, competition has always been huge among dog walkers in New York. But we have on the whole always respected each other’s businesses and have had no qualms about referring clients to each other when we couldn’t accommodate their dog walking requirements. From speaking to other dog professionals in New York over the last year, however, it’s clear that not many of us will be referring clients to Wag or any other Uber-style, app-driven dog walking agency. And we don’t think Jim Buck would approve one bit.
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