Nicholas Rodriguez was a doorman concierge before starting Doors & Dawgs in 2014. After seeing local dog walkers pick up countless furry clients at his building, Rodriguez decided to start his own business based in Tribeca and Battery Park City. Initially his ideal way to pay for school, the dogs made him so happy that he made it a full-time profession.
Once Gov. Cuomo announced the NY on Pause order in mid-March, Rodriguez’s business was suddenly “nonexistent,” he said. A typical schedule of around 50 walks a day and over 200 each week turned into virtually zero walks for weeks at a time. As the city enters phase two of reopening and Rodriguez resumes normal services this week, he says he is still only doing about four walks a day.
Rodriguez’s experience has been a common reality for dog walkers during the four-month-long coronavirus pandemic. As people began staying at home with their pets or fleeing the city, Whistle & Wag’s business plummeted about 75% practically overnight on March 12. Normally handling approximately 25 to 30 walks a day in the West Village and Tribeca, the business’s owner, Bethany Lane, now finds herself walking the same two to four dogs a day for a few loyal clients.
Although still a niche service, the market size of the dog walking industry in the U.S. is currently $1.1 billion, according to IBISWorld. And the salaries for dog walkers in New York City are often surprising, with some making up to six figures annually.
Now, the owners of prominent NYC dog walking businesses are trying to cope with not only a loss of customers, but also a lack of employees. Lane, who normally employs four to six people at a time, is currently walking dogs on her own. Fortunately, like many dog walkers in the city, her workers are receiving unemployment benefits.
“As far as my employees are concerned – sure, I have a few small clients left and a client will get maybe one half hour walk a day. That’s not enough money for me to employ anyone,” says Lane.
While pet services were deemed essential businesses in late March, several dog walkers say that the loss of customers – especially those who have permanently left the city – has made it extremely difficult to even envision a semblance of normalcy again. Several dog walkers that I spoke to said that they took advantage of the SBA loan provided by the city to keep their business afloat in hard times. But that still wasn’t enough for some dog-centered businesses, which had to permanently close their doors. The owner of a popular Lower Manhattan dog walking and training business (who wishes to remain anonymous) says that she was given hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, but chose to return them after burn out in the business.
“My clients have either gone to their summer homes, moved out of the city completely, gave their pets up or have been working from home,” she says. “To give you perspective, we were doing between $38,000 and $41,000 a month and it’s been $0 up until June 1st and now it’s maybe $1,500 a month.”
Paula Pahnke, who owns Prodigy Puppy and services the Upper East Side and Long Island City, explains that summers are typically slow for dog walkers in the city, which could delay the sense of normalcy that they’re desperately looking for as the city slowly opens back up.
“After Covid, we’re never going to work the same way again. Our clients are trying to figure out how they’re going to work moving forward and we depend on their schedules. And they don’t even know,” says Pahnke.
Pahnke was expecting to add two new people in February and March to her team of five, but obviously couldn’t go through with the process once the pandemic hit. She says that although she is assessing the situation moving forward, getting rid of her team members – who are currently on unemployment – is a last resort. But she remains hopeful that, with her solid reputation and the overwhelming support and endorsement for her business as a woman of color, it simply won’t come to that.
Erin Donahue, who owns E-Walks and services Battery Park City and Boerum Hill where she lives, is optimistic that, with the record spike in dog adoptions in NYC over the past few months, the dog walking business could see a huge uptick infuture customers. Anna Lai, the marketing director at Muddy Paws Rescue, says that they saw a 54% increase in dog adoptions at the beginning of the pandemic in NYC. Several other local pet rescues and shelters, like Social Tees Animal Rescue in the East Village, have also noticed a significant increase in adoption interest and website page views.
“I mean, at one point, I was getting a little bit panicked about it.I was like, ‘Oh my god, how am I going to even handle… like, what if the demand is so high?’” says Donahue.
E-Walks has certainly been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis, but Donahue says that, once the panic subsides, people may start gravitating towards local dog walkers that will satisfy a more flexible schedule compared to larger dog walking companies. She says she has already noticed the phenomenon in a luxury residential building next to her home.
So, what changes in business practices will dog walkers undergo once the city fully reopens? Most say that consistently wearing masks, using their own leashes, and avoiding human contact as much as possible is the key to the industry’s survival during the Covid-19 crisis.
Ryan Stewart, who owns Ryan for Dogs in Long Island City, says everything will run as usual while employing necessary precautions. He and his team usually go into their customers’ homes while picking up dogs. Now, Stewart has a new set of rules: if the owner is home, the dog should wait outside by the door and if the owner is not home, the walkers will quickly go in, call the dog and leave without touching anything.
“It’s mostly like, I would never want to bring it into their house,” says Stewart. “Rather than catch it from them, I would not want to give it to someone else.”
To limit interactions, Rodriguez adjusted the hours of operation for Doors & Dawgs and no longer hosts weekend walks. He also implemented new regulations, like ensuring collars and harnesses are already on the dog before they are picked up and using a special whistle to call dogs over that he teaches to the owners prior to doing business with them. And although Rodriguez is discontinuing group walks and trips to the dog park as a social distancing precaution, he still leaves it up to the client’s discretion.
“I think socialization for dogs is paramount. They’re pack animals by nature, they thrive on it, a lot of our pups are accustomed to it. So if our clients feel comfortable, then we would assemble a play date based on those who are comfortable with it,” says Rodriguez. “But for the time being, we’ve adjusted our clients’ windows and coordinated with those who wanted services so that everybody would have the opportunity to be walked separately.”
Some walkers, however, are considering ways in which demand as a whole might change the framework of their business. For Pahnke and Prodigy Puppy, it means accommodating her practices based on the needs of her customers.
“I’m more conscious of the fact that it may be a luxury item; just something that you do for your dog and not as much of a necessity,” she says. “I’m not confident where it’s going yet. Like, what do we offer in this new world where people may not need bathroom breaks with their dog? What kind of services will they gravitate towards more that will keep them coming or keep having their dog do their business with us?”
The pandemic has certainly given many people time to reflect and focus on things outside of their day-to-day schedule. After losing a beloved staff member and friend in April, Rodriguez took the time for inner soul-searching and began reconsidering his goals. Trying to make the best of the situation at hand, he started a new business venture focused on creating treats and recipes for dogs. He says that the decision stems from a desire to continuously grow and “do more as far as dog wellness goes.”
Gwynne and Glyness Puentevella, a sister duo who run Canine Fit Club, emphasize that although they don’t have set plans on when they’ll restart their business (which has been practically shut down since the start of lockdown), they are able to invest more time in themselves while recognizing that they really haveno control over the situation. Gwynne says that they will likely send a notice in July to customers about resuming business, which includes dog walks and pet sitting. But for the time being, the Puentevella sisters and their staff have managed to stay in touch through virtual chats and workout routines. They haveeven considered working on new business ventures for their families.
“We know that nothing stays the same. Life will eventually get back to normal. For now, we do our best to stay positive and grateful for our health, family and loyal clients for years.”