On the streets of New York City, Ryan Stewart is a curious sight.
When he walks down the street, kids stop and stare. Drivers honk. Tourists follow him around like paparazzi, snapping photos.
But he doesn’t pay them much attention. He can’t afford to.
“Dog walking is not a job for someone with a wandering mind,” he tells The Hustle. “It requires every ounce of your attention.”
Stewart is one of America’s top-tier professional dog walkers.
In his territory of Long Island City, just across the river from Manhattan, he can often be seen wrangling up to 6 dogs at a time on nylon leashes. He’s an expert at tracking poop schedules, and he can spot a squirrel from 100 yards away.
A veteran of the trade with 15 years of experience under his doggy-bag-equipped belt, Stewart pulls in six figures from a job that many people perceive to be unglamorous and unlucrative.
But today’s urban dog walking landscape is cutthroat and rife with challenges — and it takes a special breed to succeed.
A bumpy path into the trade
Stewart’s kinship with dogs began at an early age.
Born in Taiwan in the Year of the Dog, he was adopted by an American family and spent his childhood shuffling around Asia, Europe, and various US states with his non-biological father, a military man.
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As a self-described “smallest runt of the litter,” he was beat up and picked on at school.
He felt like a “mutt” — an outsider who never fit in — but he found a friend in his family’s orange field spaniel, Casey.
Stewart in his early years (Ryan Stewart)
Stewart developed a love for dance and later landed a scholarship in New York City, where he pursued his dream. He was on a fast track to success and was set to transfer to Juilliard.
Then, life threw him another curveball: At just 19, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.
The illness hospitalized Stewart for 14 months and when he got out, his drive had waned. He made rent by waiting tables and selling magic mushrooms to college kids. For several years, he fell into a “dark place.”
Then, one day in 2006, he had a fortuitous encounter with a dog trainer who suggested he should get into the trade.
Stewart went all-in.
He shadowed trainers, read books on dog psychology, and spent hours at local parks “staring at dogs and watching for patterns in their behavior.”
Getting the business off the ground (Ryan Stewart)
After doing some research on grooming, sitting, training, and other canine trades, he realized he had the best shot at being his own boss in the walking business, which was largely underserved at the time.
So, he started handing out business cards to people on the street and slowly began to build trust and rapport in his local dog community.
Over the years, the business grew by word of mouth and quality of service. And soon, Stewart was the “alpha walker” on the block.
The economics of dog walking
Today, Stewart runs Ryan for Dogs, a boutique dog walking company in the Long Island City neighborhood of NYC.
His business is one of ~29k dog walking outfits in the US that collectively employ some 51k dog walkers.
And there’s no shortage of customers: By one count, there are now 89m pet dogs in America — and studies have found that ~40% of dog owners don’t personally walk their canine companions on a regular basis.
At large, dog walking is an estimated $979m industry — and that figure is only poised to grow, largely thanks to 2 big trends:
- Dog ownership is increasing: 53% of American households now own dogs — a 22% bump since 2000. Dog adoptions have skyrocketed even more during the pandemic.
- Pet owners are spending more on time-saving services like dog walking: Expenditures have increased 2x in the last decade.
This has led to something of a boom in recent years for individual dog walkers.
The average dog walking business pulls in ~$236k in revenue per year, per Census data. And on an individual level, salaries can be surprisingly robust.
Among a sampling of independent dog walkers surveyed by The Hustle, the average rate for a 30-minute walk was ~$22 per dog.
By amassing a few recurring customers and learning how to safely walk multiple dogs at a time, a skilled walker can multiply that number by 2-3x. And it’s an easy trade to break into because there is virtually no overhead, aside from a few 4-foot nylon leashes and doggie bags.
Zachary Crockett / The Hustle
“Any Joe Schmo can make $50k a year working for Rover,” says Stewart. “Someone who works for himself and can walk 2-3 dogs at once can make $100k. And if they’re really good, they can make $200k+.”
Hiring additional walkers can exponentially increase these figures: Stewart knows a few dog walkers with small operations who reel in $500k+ after expenses.
Though Stewart had opportunities to scale his business to greater heights, he has opted to cap his team at 2 additional dog walkers.
“I like to deal with dogs,” he says, “not people.”
His sweet spot is 70-80 walks per week — a workload that only requires ~25 hours of work and can bring in $100k+ per year.
But these enticing economics come with no shortage of weird and unique challenges.
Rivals, paranoid clients, and staircase deaths
For starters, there’s the competition.
When Stewart first started, he was one of the only service providers in the area. But the rise of apps like Rover (launched in 2011) and Wag (2015) have turned the streets into a “cutthroat” arena where walkers sometimes wage silent battles over turf.
Some newcomers bribe NYC doormen to get business, promising to pay them $100 referral fees for any new clients that come from their buildings.
Luckily, Stewart says he’s largely insulated from these antics.
“I’m the dominant walker in the neighborhood,” he says. “And I decided to set the tone and keep things friendly here.”
Stewart on a walk in the neighborhood (Ryan Stewart)
Stewart benefits from a loyal customer base: At least 50% of his clients request everyday walks; another 25% use him at least 1-2x per week.
Building trust is paramount in the dog business — and if it’s breached for any reason, customers will immediately jump ship.
“Dog people talk,” says Stewart. “If you mess up someone’s dog, word is going to get out real fast.”
A trend Stewart has had to contend with in recent years is what he calls “unhealthy levels of attachment” exhibited by some dog owners.
Per a survey run by Kelton Research:
- 81% of dog owners feel their pets are “on par with children in the family”
- 78% consider themselves to be pet “parents” (not “owners”)
- 58% refer to themselves as their dog’s “mommy” or “daddy”
As The Hustle reported in 2019, record numbers of dog owners are also setting up pet trusts, with some leaving millions of dollars to their pets.
“We’ve taken a turn toward the dark side in terms of dog owner behavior,” says Stewart. “And it’s gotten worse during the pandemic. People became a little crazier in the lockdowns, and their dogs did too.”
One way this has manifested is through extreme surveillance measures.
Most of Stewart’s walks start by picking up the dog at a client’s apartment. He says at least 50% of owners now have cameras in their homes and put devices on their dogs to live track the walks.
Then, there are the truly strange antics:
- Some owners have unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Stewart (“I don’t poop where I sleep,” he says).
- Many are also militant about their dogs’ poop (“They want detailed reports on every aspect of the poop,” he says: “consistency, volume, timing”).
Stewart used to accept all dogs; now, he’s more discerning about the canines (and owners) he agrees to work with.
“I sort of sniff out each dog, and if I sense he’s a biter I don’t take him,” he says. “Some dogs are super easy to walk; we call them ‘free money’ in the business. Others are — oh my God — just a real pain in the butt.”
This perceptiveness also helps him avoid potential conflicts, like dog squirmishes, before they happen.
“I can see a confrontation from a mile away,” he says. “It starts with a hard look. The look will escalate to a growl. Then it goes to barking. There are like 5-6 steps before they start fighting. You can catch it early if you’re alert.”
Unlike some other walkers, Stewart goes to extremes to stay hyper-alert:
- He doesn’t wear gloves, even when it’s freezing out, because his “fingertips need to feel the leashes.”
- He doesn’t wear sunglasses so dogs (and customers) can see his eyes.
- He has a strict no-phone policy while walking, which keeps him focused on any possible issues on the road, like chicken bones or squirrels.
Giving a pup some love (Ryan Stewart)
He also employs a grouping system to help mitigate the stress of simultaneously walking 6-8 dogs of varying breeds and sizes.
“You have to play quarterback and really think about it,” says Stewart. “I might keep dogs A, B, C, and D away from E — but F and G might be more agreeable to be paired with E.”
Once the dogs are partnered, he has to keep the leashes from tangling.
“You have to put the dogs in a certain order,” he says. “The troublemakers stay close, and the shy ones get a bit more slack. You also have to factor in things like poop frequency, age, and timidity.”
This level of attentiveness has paid off.
The big gig services have had numerous instances of dogs dying, or getting lost, at the hands of their walkers. A few years ago, a fellow walker in Brooklyn died after being yanked down a staircase by several leashed dogs.
Stewart’s worst incident to date has been shutting a door on a dog’s tail (the dog was okay).
The biggest struggle: Surviving the pandemic
With the great shift to work-from-home schedules, many white-collar professionals who once hired out services for their pets while at the office all day have gone back to walking their own dogs.
“The pandemic took out at least half of the walkers I know,” says Stewart. “Some of my primary rivals folded. Only the people with the strongest reputations survived.”
Stewart saw a dip in his own business for the first 6 months of the pandemic, but says he has since recovered to nearly full capacity.
Stewart at Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx, NY, where he does dog training volunteer work with teens (Ryan Stewart)
At times, he says he’s gotten down on himself about his chosen path.
“Sometimes it’s brutally cold, I’m tired, and I think, ‘I was supposed to be a famous dancer. Why am I out here picking up poop?’” says Stewart.
But he’s largely come to embrace the nature of his work.
He’s walked in 10°F weather, and in 110°F weather. He’s clocked 50k steps — more than 20 miles — in a shift. And for 15 years, he’s spent nearly every day outside, with animals he loves and nobody to answer to.
“My friend who works in construction once told me, ‘You might be picking up poop, but you’re not eating it,’” says Stewart. “I’m grateful for that.”
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