Long before the term “gig economy” became common lingo, pet owners were slipping neighbor kids a few bucks to walk their dogs. Years before apps, they were calling the local, mom-and-pop doggy day care to watch their pooches during the family vacation.
These days, those services are just as likely to be provided by national companies with names like Rover or Wag — Uber-like operations headquartered in the tech-forward West and now ensconced in a blossoming canine commerce designed to make sure the dog-walker or weekend pet-sitter is but a few clicks away.
But that hardly means the services are remote. The kid down the street or the mom-and-pop shop might well be at the other end of that click. As independent contractors under the banner of the big boys, some local providers are now supplementing their incomes while boosting the bottom lines of the companies, which take a cut of dog-walkers’ fees.
Emily Pickup was hired by Rover earlier this year. The Tampa resident was already doing some work for a local pet-care company, and handling a few dog walking gigs on her own, while holding down a full-time job at a property management company. After completing a background check and creating a personal profile, she was ready to book gigs. As all Rover hirees do, she set her own prices — $12 for a 30-minute walk, plus $5 for each additional dog — and paid Rover its 20 percent commission.
Soon Pickup, 30, was taking three to six appointments and pocketing $30 to $50 a week.
“It’s a great side job to make some extra cash pretty easily,” she said. “And since I love animals, it’s just something fun to do that I get paid for.”
Neither Wag nor Rover, both private companies, discloses their earnings. But dogs are big business, and apps for them have attracted big start-up funds. The Seattle-based Rover says it made $100 million in bookings last year and has more than 200 employees, not including the sprawling network of walkers and sitters. After debuting in Los Angeles, Wag expanded into San Francisco and New York and has rolled out 25 more markets in the summer. A Canadian company, GoFetch, sees the potential and is looking at “aggressive expansion plans,” into the United States, said its chief executive Willson Cross.
Longtime observers of the pet market say demand for such services was all but inevitable.
“That’s just the world we live in now,” said Marty Becker, a veterinarian and prolific pet book author known for appearances on “Good Morning America.” “People are used to using apps in their daily lives. This includes everything to do with our pets, from finding a pet sitter to managing their pet’s health records.”
Both Wag and Rover started, perhaps not surprisingly, with a dog story. Wag co-founder Jason Meltzer was running a popular — and very conventional — dog-walking outfit when a bonkers-busy tech entrepreneur named Joshua Viner contacted him in 2014 with a tale of pining for his childhood dog, Brittany, and also realizing he was too busy for a pooch. But that gave him an idea.
“Uber had had a lot of success, and the on-demand marketplace was growing in popularity,” Meltzer recalled. “And he thought, ‘If I have something like this, I could have a dog, too.’”
Viner figured there must be other super-swamped people who also wanted a canine companion. Not long after, the Wag app went live.
Rover’s genesis was similar. Co-founder Greg Gottesman’s family dog, Ruby, came back with kennel cough after being boarded. That bad experience and the coincidental success of Airbnb convinced him and fellow co-founder Philip Kimmey that the on-demand market for doggy services was out there, barking to be heard. Rover has since acquired companies including the dog-walking app Zingy and home-boarding business Dog Vacay, helping build a network that Kimmey says exceeds 100,000 sitters.
But this rapidly changing pet care landscape is drawing scrutiny from veterans in the field, such as Patti Moran, who in 1993 founded Pet Sitters International, a North Carolina-based educational association that offers a certification for professional pet sitters. Moran said the advent of Wag and Rover reminds her of that era, when professionals monitored “hobbyists” who would sometimes post fliers in neighborhoods, raising concerns about the newcomers’ proficiency.
“When a ‘pet-sitter’ or ‘dog-walker’ can be found in one click, it’s vital that pet owners understand that not everyone that has an online profile is a reputable qualified pet-care professional,” Moran said in an email. “It’s essential that convenience not override quality and technology not undermine professionalism.”
Last month, a South Florida CBS television affiliate reported that a Yorkshire terrier was killed by another dog, a chocolate Lab, in the home of a Boca Raton sitter — a Rover location. The sitter did not have a county-required permit to board animals. County officials shut down the boarding business and fined the sitter.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. A poodle was fatally mauled in North Hollywood, in 2015, and a dog drowned while in a pet sitter’s care in Las Vegas earlier this year. Both dogs were in those homes as Rover bookings. Also in 20115, a Brooklyn Chihuahua named Duckie slipped away from the Wag walker, went missing for several days and was subsequently run over and killed.
Spokesmen for both companies say sitters are carefully vetted before hiring, and they described the incidents as isolated tragedies. Rover has booked “millions of services,” spokeswoman Brandie Gonzales said, adding “while situations like [these deaths] are extremely rare, we take them very seriously.”
The unfavorable publicity so far appears to have done little damage to services that target both a growing pet population and an increasingly busy human one. Many Rover customers have turned to the service after their traditional solution fell through — and then they “develop this relationship with [the Rover sitter] they wouldn’t otherwise have met,” Kimmey said.
That’s how it worked for Cathryn Michon, a screenwriter and director in Venice, Calif. She and her husband were planning to bring their dog, Tucker, to an event, but decided at the 11th hour to leave him home. They went on the Rover app, booked a sitter on short notice for the night and became instant converts, she said.
“We have loved it, and used it a few times since, when we know we’re going to some big, long event and don’t want to leave him alone that long,” Michon, 46, said. “They would text and send photos or videos of how Tucker’s doing throughout the evening. We still use them. It’s a great resource.”
Duncan Strauss is a longtime journalist and host of WMNF Tampa’s weekly radio program “Talking Animals.”