Tyler, with his dog Luna, says dog walking apps are convenient.

By Matthew Friedman

First, there was FreshDirect. Groceries delivered straight to the door – revolutionary.

Then there was Uber. Order a car service anywhere and track the driver’s progress – also revolutionary.

Now, another technology could revolutionize a crucial Upper West Side industry: dog walking apps like Rover, Swifto and Wag! have begun to get a toe-hold (or paw-hold?) in the neighborhood.

The apps offer on-demand dog walking and boarding services. They advertise convenience and modernity, emphasizing trust and safety just like traditional dog walkers while at the same time targeting those in need of a walk at any moment. A dog owner types in a location and a time, and as soon as a half hour later the dog is paired with a local walker.

A Wag lockbox outside an Upper West Side building allows walkers to punch in a code and access a clients’ keys.

Whereas with most traditional dog walking services owners are left in the dark as to the actual whereabouts of their dogs, the apps employ GPS technology to allow owners to track their dog’s progress, including the locations at which the dogs relieve themselves. (Yes, the pee and poop is plotted right on the app, like a treasure map where no one wants the treasure.) Owners, the companies say, can be sure that the dogs are getting the exercise promised.

The apps’ convenience seems to be their best selling point. “Wag! Is very easy to use and it works for my schedules,” said Tyler, walking his dog in Riverside Park on a recent weekday morning. Shira, a dog owner studying at New York University, said that she was a fan of Swifto. She used a traditional dog walking service for over a year, but after cancellations and generally poor service, she switched to Swifto. “The app is very reliable; they communicate well and are frankly the perfect company,” she said.

Many Upper West Siders have at least heard of Wag! or Rover and recall seeing Wag!’s walkers’ white shirts with bright green lettering or the telltale lockboxes located outside apartment buildings. While the apps have become favorites for some in the neighborhood, many are still suspicious. “There’s a personal touch from dog walking companies that you cannot get from an app like Wag! because you might never meet the person who is going to be walking your dog,” said Shaun, a dog walker for an established Upper West Side company.

Despite the apps’ offer of complimentary meet-and-greets prior to a first walk, the issue of companies’ image as impersonal is prevalent on the Upper West Side. Dog walkers and dog owners alike view the impersonality as a possible roadblock to the apps’ expansion. “My gut feeling is that a dog walker is different from an Uber driver since you want a trusting relationship with your dog walker,” said Simon Dyton, who was very hesitant when asked if he would ever consider using one of the apps for his dog, a Havanese named Rocket. Neighborhood dog owners said they relied on word of mouth to find a walker, and that friends’ referrals were much more trustworthy than a rating on an app.

Simon Dyton with his Havanese, Rocket.

“That doesn’t feel personal enough for me,” said Joshua, a dog owner, when asked if he would ever use one of the apps. “If they could guarantee the same person every day then I would look into it. I need a level of consistency,” he said.

Joshua with his two miniature poodles, Storm (left) and Remi (right).

The apps have not been taking much business from traditional companies, dog walkers say. “There is not an issue with the apps but instead one with the younger, more inexperienced dog walkers who undercut prices,” said Kate, the owner of Kate’s Happy Tails, a neighborhood dog training and care company. The apps charge as much or even more than typical Upper West Side dog walkers. Wag! charges 20 dollars for a 30 minute walk, while Swifto is 25 dollars for 30 minutes and Rover walkers can set their own prices. The going rate for a walk from a traditional service on the Upper West Side ranges from 10 to 20 dollars for 30 minutes.

“I haven’t lost any business to these apps,” said Victor, an independent walker who has worked with dogs in the neighborhood since the late 1990s. “My customers are very loyal,” he said.

One reason for the lack of competition between traditional dog walkers and the new apps is that the entities fight for different segments of the dog walking market. According to a Tech Crunch article, in 2015 Wag! reported that 95 percent of its customers had never previously employed dog walkers. “That metric implies, provided that it holds up as Wag’s user base itself grows, that the company is expanding the market for dog walking, not merely servicing the extant demand pool in a new fashion,” wrote author Alex Wilhelm.

“Right now these apps are different in that they do spot walks – if someone is in a bind they’ll get Wag! Any traditional dog walking service does more of a consistent, same walk every day, same walker every day kind of thing,” observed Ben Chaplin, the owner of Benterprise, a dog walking company he founded on the Upper West Side last fall. “Though companies like Wag! are trying to do more consistent walks, our core bases are totally different markets,” he said. The apps also might not appeal to potential walkers, Chaplin reasoned, because the number of walks in a day, and thus a walker’s income, can vary.

Ben Chaplin, owner of Benterprise Walks, with Jordy (left) and Bingley (right).

The apps face an issue going forward in regard to their boarding and pet-sitting services. As The New York Daily News and many other news outlets reported last month, boarding and pet-sitting for pay is illegal in New York City without a license. The contracted dog walkers and dog sitters for these apps may lack the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Small Animal Boarding Establishment Permit. The city has begun to crack down, in a move that could seriously harm the longevity of the apps’ boarding and sitting operations.

There are over 5,000 registered dogs on the Upper West Side, according to a recent dog density map cited by City Lab (and many more that are unregistered). With so many dogs, the on-demand apps and traditional dog walkers will likely continue to coexist. Or more fittingly: on the dog-loving Upper West Side, anyone who is caring for canines is barking up the right tree.

Photos by Matthew Friedman. Wag photo by Brennan Szabo.

NEWS | 21 comments | permalink
    1. Frank says:

      My biggest reservation of having my dog walked by one of these services is the ethics of it. I don’t doubt that they find good walkers who will take care of your dog. But my dog doesn’t know this.

      If a different person who is a stranger is coming into his domain and taking him for a walk, even if he can be persuaded to come out with treats, he still has to be scared I’d imagine. He doesn’t know this is a trusting person that I hired to let him out for awhile.

      At least with the dog walkers I use from time to time, he knows them and it is consistent. He knows their smell and that he is safe with them because I introduced him to them. Dogs love routine and they notice when things are different and they get very nervous. It’s bad for their wellbeing to be into a situation where they don’t feel safe and things are not predictable.

      And if these services can guarantee the same walker every time I use it, why not just stay in contact with the walker myself and cut out the middleman?

      • Shawn says:

        Frank of course Wag isn’t for everyone. It’s mostly meant for emergency situations, someone has the means to help your dog get some fresh air and attention. Wag has the built in option for a meet and greet with your dog if you want a consistent walker. You and your dog reserve the right to decline anyone. The middle man provides the background check and multi-million dollar insurance policy and acts as a mediator should any problems happen. The compensation although fair enough is not attractive enough to attract riff-raff. Only the truest of the true dog lovers work for this company.

    2. jay says:

      This whole article says advertisement to me.

      • West Sider says:

        It’s definitely not! We made sure to talk to people with various different business models, and people skeptical of the new services.

        • GG says:

          I’m not sure why everyone is attacking The West Side Rag lately.

          First, someone says that you only report crimes committed by African-Americans (sooo ridiculous!!!). And now this allegation that this is some kind of paid advertisement.

          What the heck is going on? Some of you people need to take a good look at yourselves and your expectations. This website provides us a great service and it is a private business by the way. One that nobody is forcing you to patronize.

          Personally, I say keep up the good work! Even though sometimes you don’t post some of my more spirited, political comments. Probably for the best sometimes.:)

    3. Justin says:

      Benterprise is excellent. My dog loves her walker. Was also able to provide a nice house-sitter for a weekend we were away and we couldn’t bring the dog. She stayed with our puppy and we received regular text pictures of them playing. They love dogs.

    4. Sean says:

      How does a GPS report on an app work when you have a dog who doesn’t want to walk especially in bad weather?

      • B.B. says:

        Walker can and should contact owner to explain the situation. From there see how things go.

        Many walkers are reluctant to do this because if owner then decides to cancel there maybe a dispute over the fee. Of course this should have all been spelled out/agreed upon contractually beforehand, but many dog walkers are doing the job as a side hustle; and not running a truly professional business.

        Bad weather or not, the pooch still has to go out if for nothing else than deal with nature’s call. The question then becomes should walker be paid for full hour or whatever booked time, when the dog only went far as two feet from building, did its business then because of weather wanted to go back indoors.

        • Diane says:

          I am a dog walker with Wags! If my doggy charge is too elderly or resistant to walk very far, I do other things for him to make the visit worth it for my client: I brush their coat, spend extra time petting and praising him/her for being such a good dog. I find a toy they like or just sit outside in a nice spot and let them experience sights and sounds they wouldn’t be able to enjoy indoors. With WAGS I can send a short video of my time with their pet… give a description of what we did during our time. I love it!

          • B.B says:

            Good for you! Keep up the positive work, your good ethics show and are a credit to yourself and WAGS.

    5. B.B. says:

      Don’t think apps will harm established dog walkers/sitters with good reputations.

      Many persons see their dogs as “family”, their “baby” if you will, and as such are very particular who they entrust to care for them in their absence.

      Just as a parent knows something is wrong when they collect their child from a sitter/come home, contentious dog owners pick up when something isn’t right.

      Just as there are child minders who have no business being in that line of work (and it shows), same can be said for dog walkers/sitters. The best truly themselves and or people their hire *LOVE* dogs; Dog Whisperers comes to mind.

      Now if an app links one up to those sort of persons/businesses; find and dandy. OTOH if not then that will be that. Customers will simply stay away.

    6. Nancy Fedder says:

      No way would I ever use these services. What ever happened to loyalty? Nilo and his crew have been there for us for over 20 years. Our dogs love their packs. Enough with the apps.

    7. kaylord says:

      I definitely wouldn’t use this service. I work from home and walk our dog myself so I’m familiar with all the local dog-walkers. There is a big difference between how the regular, well-known dog walkers treat the dogs they walk and the rotating dog walkers. The bond between dog and dog-walker matters and leads to much better care and kindness. towards the dog.

    8. UpwRoyalty says:

      And everyone’s building mngmnt and board is just going to agree to anyone off an app walking in and entering your building…public areas, your home…
      You give away a little of your “freedom” every day…
      How will the “walker” app be monitored?
      Is it on a time schedule? I’m sure there are a lot of q&a that needs to be done…
      Pretty soon, drones will take over….

    9. Priscilla says:

      I’ve used Rover to find a sitter, and it has been a great experience. I was able to look at numerous options in the area and select the one that was the best fit. Based on experience, credentials, location and price Have returned to the same sitter 3 times so far and my dog loves her. She sends lots of pics and updates. This sitter goes above and beyond all the time. Plus rover offers insurance, though not sure what it covers exactly.

    10. Sean says:

      There is an app for everything. You can now acccess a therapist through an app.

    11. Aaron says:

      I started and still use WAG when my wife and I cannot make it home in time to walk our dog. You get a bio and video of the person assigned for that walk so you get a general sense of their background. The GPS shows where the walker took them, and even where they did their business (tmi, but a good laugh none the less). They take a picture and write a report after the walk too. Can the local walker provide any of these? We used to have a “guy,” but they were never available when we needed them most. We also have no idea if he really only took our dog solo and not in pack. yes he came recommended from neighbors, but do you really know their background or history any more than a WAG walker?? He charged $15 and I need to pay in cash. If you buy the wag-credits in bulk, the price per is less than 20 bucks, and credit card is simpler than finding exact change.

      Its not about loyalty to a dog walker, its about loyalty to your dog that they will get the fresh air and exercise they need when life’s schedule fluctuates.

      People can be so resistant to something new (and better) – it boggles my mind.

      PS – Not an advertisement, just a neighborhood residents perspective.

    12. Kylee the Kattledog says:

      This idea is interesting (and it’s always fun to use the word Uber in a headline) but they do need to fix one thing.

      Unlike Uber, I’m not letting the driver into my apartment.

    13. Brandon says:

      Hey Guys,
      I am a wag walker that used to walk privately and there seems to be confusion on some things:

      You can have the same walker come at the same time every day. I have 3 walks Mon-Fri and usually pick up another 3-5.

      If you don’t do a regular schedule, you can still have a preferred walker. The 3-5 I pick up are usually dogs I’ve walked before and/or I am the preferred walker.

      If you have a dog that doesn’t like to walk or if the weather isn’t the best for your dog, you can request a shorter walk; however, most owners will still request a basic 30 min and I will spend some time with the dog just on some neighbor’s lawn or playing in the home.

      The screening process was more rigorous than when I walked for a small company, including a background check. Companies do little and no one is screening private walkers.

      As stated in the article, you can follow our walk on the app, but there I also a timer and mileage tracker.

      I was not paid to write this! I know much of the Upper West Side will be resistant, it’s a loyal and tight community, but I live in CA now and Wag is doing quite well with very little incident. Also, as a dog owner, it worked for my last dog, but my current dog is wary of strangers and it’s not for him. Do what is best for your dog. There has only been one dog I couldn’t walk, a fresh rescue, the rest warm up quickly, patience is key for any walker, but as an owner you know already if you dog could do it.

    14. Brittany says:

      I am a Wag!user, and have only positive things to say. We met our walker in advance, and choose to only have her for our daily afternoon walks. I even preferred that she keep our spare keys as opposed to using a Wag!lockbox, which she was happy to do. We have her personal phone number and she is always very responsive. She writes thoughtful notes on the app after each walk, and knows my dog’s quirks. For example, my dog refuses to walk in the rain. When this happens, our walker takes her as far as our dog will go, and uses the rest of the 30 minute time slot to play in the apartment.

      Happy to answer any questions for those thinking of using Wag!

    15. Nukleopatra says:

      Leaving keys in any kind of lockbox, outside, seems like a major liability.