This is a great story of the American Dream. The American Dream is the hearbeat of our collective ethos. For generations it has promised that through hard work (work smart instead) each of us has the opportunity for success and prosperity.
If you live in New York City, you probably don’t have a backyard that your dog can access through a pet door when he wants to go out and stretch his legs or use the “facilities.” And if you’re like many dog owners in the city, you want your dog to be able to go for a walk while you’re at work.
The late Jim Buck is considered to have started the first dog walking business in NYC. He started it on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s, when he saw an unmet need and capitalized on it. Today, the dog walking business is worth around $907 million, growing more than 3% a year, according to research firm IBISWorld.
Dog walkers are much more prevalent throughout New York City today, but “it’s still a niche market. Foreigners take pictures of us,” says Ryan Stewart, who has a dog walking business called Ryan for Dogs in Long Island City, Queens, which is just across the East River from midtown Manhattan.
Stewart, 45, was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved to the U.S. when he was 3. He moved to New York City when he was a teenager because he got a scholarship to be a dancer with Alvin Ailey. After getting lymphoma at 19, he went through chemotherapy and lost his passion and drive to continue pursuing dancing professionally. In his 20s, he acted in commercials and spent some time as a waiter. But he was always good with dogs — his family had dogs and cats when he was growing up — and after watching a trainer work with the dog that his girlfriend owned at the time, he had the confidence to train dogs himself.
The dog-owner relationship has evolved
In his early 30s he decided that dog walking would provide more steady income. He also realized that training was extra challenging because it was harder to train the dog owners than the dogs. When the training is over, it’s up to the owners to continue being disciplinarians. “Changing the behavior of the owners is extremely difficult,” he says.
When asked about how dog owners have changed, Stewart gets philosophical. Society, he says, is increasingly isolated. “So people get a dog and shower all their love on this dog because they’re not getting human interaction.” And the dog-owner relationship has also become much closer. In the 1960s, dogs stayed in a doghouse in the backyard. Now they sleep on the bed, he says.
And perhaps worst of all, he says many owners now have webcams in their apartments to monitor their pets. “It’s especially creepy when the owners talk to me through the webcams — ‘No, the leash is on the left!’” he says.
Yet Stewart says all this pampering doesn’t even make dogs happier. They’re treated like kings and they think they’re kings, but then they don’t get to call the shots. So he offers these tips:
5 ways to be a better dog owner
Don’t allow pets in your bed.
You eat first. “When you’re finished with your meal, then you feed your dogs. Believe me, that’s a clear sign to them,” he says.
Don’t make a big deal out of coming and going. “Just leave. No treats or carrying on. Then there’s less of a big difference between you being there and you being gone.”
Go out the door first when you’re walking with your dog to show who’s the boss.
Ask yourself: Would you let your child get away with this?
He says the overall theme when dealing with your dog is: Be the alpha, because “dogs are not democratic.”But of course owners who are prone to pamper their pets are often willing to pay someone to walk them during the day.
How much dog walkers can earn
Stewart says he could have grown his business into “a dog walking empire.” But he says “there’s a tipping point — where you manage people more and dogs less — and that’s not what I signed up for.”
He now has three employees who walk dogs for him, and he doesn’t plan to hire any more. He pays them a salary instead of an hourly wage and often works with them. He charges customers $15 per walk — the going rate in Long Island City — and walks between 40 and 50 dogs every Monday through Friday, mostly between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
He knows a solo dog walker in his neighborhood who makes $2,000 a week by working 35 to 40 hours a week. And he knows a dog walker with employees who makes $150,000 after paying his employees. And Stewart says he makes about $110,000 a year — after paying his expenses and employees — while working 25 hours a week. “It’s full-time time pay for part-time work. I think everyone would want that,” he says, adding, “I’m doing something that I love and I have time to go to school at night.”
He is taking writing classes at The New School and would like to write young adult novels, and he has an idea for a book called, “Advice from the dog pack,” which would cover things dogs have taught him that have helped him in life.
If any of his books make a lot of money, though, he says he would give it away. “Now you see why I’m good with dogs. I’m not all about the money,” he says.
What makes a good dog walker
Be present. “If you’re texting, you don’t know if a dog is eating a chicken
bone off the street,” he says.
Like dogs. “They know if you don’t.”
Pay attention to detail. “Know if a dog only likes to pee on grass,” for example.
How you arrange a group of dogs is important. “You want the shy dogs on the outside and the troublemakers close. Like in school, when troublemakers are put in the front row.”
In the end, Stewart says dogs are like professional poker players. “In high stakes poker, the other players know if you have a good hand. Dogs are like that too. They just look at you.