Bethany Hoogenakker’s dog Belle recently had her first birthday party — at a local brewery. The miniature goldendoodle sleeps on the bed, stars in her own Instagram page, and is a source of delight for Hoogenakker, an ad agency media buyer, and her fiancée, an accountant.
So it’s no wonder that Belle has a dog walker.
Actually, several of them.`
“Most days, one of us can get home to let her out, but when we can’t, I go on the app and book a walk,” said Hoogenakker, 26, of Plymouth.
Hoogenakker uses Wag, a dog-walking app called the Uber for dogs. Wag lets pet owners book on-demand or dog walks (or shorter potty breaks) by approved walkers who are nearby. Rover, another dog-walking app, also offers dog boarding, sitting and day care.
Using an app to find someone to leash up your pup is just the latest feature in the long-established business of dog walking. While it can lack the regularity — and personal connection — of traditional dog-walking businesses, it offers spur-of-the-moment convenience.
“It’s great for when you get in a bind,” said Hoogenakker, “although it’s weird that someone you’ve never laid eyes on is in your house and with your dog.”
Owners pay a flat fee of $20 for a 30-minute walk, and no cash changes hands. The transactions occur online, where owners can tip their walkers, if they like. In the Twin Cities, and across the country, the apps are taking off like a dog after a squirrel.
“This is successful because today people are focused on their pets but they’re busy. They’re willing to spend more resources than ever to keep them healthy and happy,” said Jason Meltzer, Chief Dog Officer for Los Angeles-based Wag. “We can almost always have a dog walker at the door in 30 minutes or less.”
Here’s how it works: Wag provides dog owners with a lockbox to store keys, providing them with changeable codes that can be sent to a walker, when one accepts a job. The app gives owners an alert when the walker picks up and drops off their dog. The platform even lets owners watch the route the walker takes, complete with pin drops at the location of every squat or leg lift.
“With our technology, the system gets smarter as a pet owner uses it. Walkers leave recommendations about the dog for the next walker, and owners rate the walkers. Both sides are accountable,” said Meltzer. “We want a good experience for the pet parent, the walker and the dog.”
Holding the leash
On a typical day as a Wag walker, Claire Barczak logs 10 miles on her Fitbit. On her biggest day yet, she hit 16 miles.
Barcrzak, 21, started answering Wag requests last year during her final year in college. She set aside those earnings for a graduation gift to herself — a trip to San Francisco with her University of Minnesota roommates.
She now holds down a three-day-a-week job as an assistant at a production company, and dog walks on the other days.
“It’s super flexible, I work when I want, as much as I want. I get to meet dogs, be outdoors and get exercise,” said Barczak.
While she does have repeat customers, most of Barczak’s walks are “one-time deals.”
Still, she finds on-demand dog walking lucrative.
“On a good day, when I can do seven or eight walks, I can make $180 to $200,” said Barczak, who has done 200 walks since December.
As with other on-demand services, such as Uber and Lyft, the dog-walking apps consider their providers to be independent contractors. They’re required to track their earnings and pay taxes on them, but they accumulate no health, retirement or unemployment benefits.
Wag is more focused on walks while the biggest part of Rover’s business is pet services — boarding (the animal stays at the boarder’s home) and sitting (the sitter stays at the owner’s home). Seattle-based Rover also offers doggie day care, for owners who want their pets to spend the day at a sitter’s house.
Rover allows its contractors to set their own rates, with overnight stays averaging $35 per night.
“Pet parents can schedule a meet-and-greet with a boarder, or a few of them, to pick the one they like best and explain the unique quirks of their dog,” said Brandie Gonzales, pet lifestyle expert for Rover, who says Rover has 3,000 pet sitters and walkers in the Twin Cities area.
“Our goal is to give pet parents peace of mind when they’re away,” she said.
Last year, Carrie Deans earned about $7,000 boarding dogs at her Minneapolis home through clients she connected with on the Rover app.
“I was looking to make extra money from home,” said Deans, 35, who works remotely as an agriculture researcher for a Texas university. “Especially in the summer, I almost always have a dog staying here.”
She figures that about a third of her canine clients are repeat visitors; their owners are comfortable bringing them back after a positive experience at Dean’s home.
“Some dogs don’t do well in kennels or need medication and the owners like the idea of a home environment. I try to keep it mellow for the dogs and follow their day-to-day patterns,” she said.
Rover takes a 20 percent cut of Deans’ earnings, which she calls fair.
“I could never reach this wide range of people on my own. The payment is transferred to me two days after the stay ends; it’s a good system that’s all up front,” she said.
Pet owners continue to lavish more money on food, treats and grooming for their animals. This year, that amount is predicted to reach an all-time high of $72 billion, double the amount spent 20 years ago, according to statistics compiled by the American Pet Products Association.
On-demand walking gives them a new way to spend and spoil.
Hoogenakker, who calls the Wag app “super slick,” plans to continue to call on Wag walkers to get her button-eyed Belle outside.
“When you factor in the cost plus the tip, it adds up pretty quick,” she said. “But I’m OK saying that I am a doting dog owner.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.