The Dog-Walking Economy

What I learned from a decade in the profession

Luke MacGregor / Reuters

My first few years as a professional dog walker, I was treated to pretty much the same curiosity each time I disclosed what I did for a living: Everyone wanted to know if I had sex with my clients. I never quite got my head around why this question occurred to anyone. Best I could deduce, dog walkers figured for many people much as pool boys have in literary and cinematic tropes. The key distinction between the two, much to the disappointment of anyone convinced of this unwieldy conflation, is that the work pool boys perform occurs at the home. My primary obligation was to get out of it—ideally with one or more dogs in tow.

Dog walkers have steadily become more and more visible in the developed world; an urban scene for a film or TV show can scarcely be staged without an extra cast as one, passing in the background. They signify—correctly or not—various features of urban (and, more and more, suburban) life: conspicuous consumption, or the quaint priorities of aging Gen Xers who’ve graduated to professional life and have begun to hire Millennials, who themselves are scraping by amid the diminishing returns of artistic pursuits. These angles aren’t wrong, exactly, but the authentic aspect of the trade they tend to capture is superficial at best.

As adult professionals increasingly postpone having families, dogs have become “starter children,” and thus dog walkers feature in everyday life much as babysitters have for generations. But their status as figures in the background conceals two rich narratives. The first: the (often ethically questionable) antics one can get up to when one has unfettered access to the lives of others, combined with relative anonymity; the second: just how many of our secrets and stories are known by these relatively anonymous figures.

Professional dog walkers have been around for at least 80 years. On January 5, 1935, The New York Times published an article, headlined “Walking the Dog Big Business,” that reported on the plans of James Daley, a 34-year-old building super who was days away from opening the offices of Daily Dogwalking Service on Broadway, north of Columbus Circle. Daley had observed clearly annoyed husbands sent out by their wives, who’d have “rather read the last chapter of a detective story late at night than act as a nurse for a frolicsome canine.” So he dispatched “porters, chambermaids, elevator operators, even his own wife” to perform the task in their stead. Daily walks cost $5 a month.

While Daley had taken a decidedly professional approach to the trade—devising plans for liability insurance to cover death, injury, or the loss of a dog in the care of his walkers—the origins of the service go further back, still. That is, at least according to yet another story in the paper of record. The previous year, the Times apparently ruled newsworthy that the dean of Barnard College, Virginia C. Gildersleeve, had decreed that the students she’d been paying 50 cents an hour for the last three years to look after her Cairn terrier, Culag, would be subject to new regulations to accommodate the dog’s advanced age. The updated rules stipulated that Culag should not be forced into “violent exercise,” or dragged “against his inclination.”

Most contemporary articles on the subject trace (incorrectly) the first professional dog-walking outfit to Jim Buck, the son of a well-to-do family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In his adolescence, he’d shown dogs, and later spent a good deal of time training horses on his family’s Connecticut farm. In the ‘60s, he wound up an executive at an electronics firm, married, with dogs of his own. “I discovered soon enough that I preferred walking them and the neighbors’ dogs in Central Park to putting on my tie and getting downtown to the office,” he told The New Yorker.

So was born Jim Buck’s School for Dogs, in 1964, which would cater to the dogs of Manhattan’s well-heeled for the next four decades, until Buck’s retirement. Along the way, he hired as many as two dozen “assistants,” mostly recruited by word of mouth at Upper East Side cocktail parties, mostly former equestriennes who’d landed in the city chasing careers in modeling, nursing, or as flight attendants. When Buck died in 2013, obituary writers revealed their preference for his life story—a well-off young man forsakes, Buddha-like, a successful career in favor of a life wearing through his soles every two weeks—to James Daley’s. But the professionalization of dog walking had its roots not with wealthy individuals repurposing their equestrian lifestyles, but, more likely, with working-class people who cleaved it off from various jobs into which it had been traditionally folded.

Decades later, as the demand for dog walking has grown in particularly dense, gentrifying urban centers, many an entrepreneur has seized upon it as a scalable service enterprise like any other. Much to eager MBAs’ dismay, it isn’t.

First, there is an open presumption of expendability when it comes to workers. Large-scale pet daycare and dog-walking agencies in New York City advertise weekly open interviews with candidates for whom they’ve seen not so much as a resume, signaling to workers their own precariousness and to clients an evidently epic turnover rate. The former is an extreme version of a longstanding and common tactic in retail industries: Management continues to advertise openings or accept applications even when fully staffed, so as to discipline their workers through a constant, enforced vulnerability. The latter reflects an utter lack of self-awareness and an obliviousness about the service they’re offering or how to market it. Setting aside the risks this sloppy vetting poses—both for the safety of living things, and the security of clients’ homes—dogs are incredibly sensitive beings, with often complex needs and interests. Stability in their relationships is of a premium. The only reason a service provider wouldn’t advertise their sensitivity to these considerations is that they simply don’t understand them.

The lack of barriers to entry in the trade tends to attract some very questionable entrepreneurs. Often, these businesses are acquired through purchase. No qualifications are required; one needn’t even have ever so much as looked at a dog. I’ve had agency interviews where owners courted me with the delusional “genius” of their expansion into online pet-supply retail or nebulous pet-care certification credentialing services, with negligibly little explanation or sense of why any of what they were selling was even desirable (much less competitive with existing models). Another feigned to contract me as a consultant when she discovered her underpaid, overworked staff was skipping walks. I asked if she’d considered paying them more, and she countered with the suggestion I cover her existing labor gap, at the same lousy pay the rest of her staff apparently resented.

A recurrent and rarely understood feature of commercial dogwalking outfits is the noncompete clause as a standard, baseline condition of employment. In effect, in exchange for any hope of being hired, an applicant is compelled to sign a document that enables their would-be employer to sue them for continuing to work as a dog walker after ceasing to work for the company in question. This cuts against the most classic models of work-experience acquisition, effectively giving a single employer outright ownership of their workforce’s relevant skill set. It also applies a de facto downward pressure on wages: One cannot translate one’s skills into a better opportunity, and one’s knowledge and ability of a given trade effectively dissolve when not generating revenue for a specific employer.

Noncompetes also ensure, in perpetuity, an unskilled labor pool. If one cannot take one’s skills elsewhere, only those with no skills will apply to work. And on the flip side, businesses will only hire those with no experience, for fear of being sued under a noncompete. Conventional logic would dictate this is a terrible marketing strategy, but employers are increasingly confident that their customers are too ignorant to ferret this out.

According to The New York Times, noncompete clauses are steadily proliferating to unlikely trades. Editors, landscapers, yoga teachers, personal trainers, hair stylists—even interns are being slapped with and bound to bans on working in the field for which they’re apprenticing. Which means that you can be enticed to provide free labor for a period of time, in anticipation of and as an investment toward future employment, and if an employer simply decides they’d rather just not pay a new someone for the same period of time, they can even bar you from being paid for that same labor elsewhere. Typically, these clauses have expiration dates or geographic limits. But it ultimately doesn’t matter. With innovation in so many fields moving at such a rapid pace, returning to work from which you’ve been barred for six months to two years means you might as well move on.

This article has been adapted from Joshua Stephens's book, The Dog Walker: An Anarchist’s Encounters With the Good, the Bad, and the Canine.