A Dog Walker’s Life: Inside a Growing Service IndustryHow a Brooklyn-born company grew step-by-step into a pet care business with 2,000 customers
“The thing you have to look out for when you’re walking dogs is … there’s just garbage all over the place,” says Jen Bernstein, one of the dog walkers employed by ProspectBArk!, a pet-care service spawned nine years ago in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “Chicken bones, broken glass, you gotta watch out for that so they don’t hurt themselves.”
To the many people who tell Bernstein her job must be easy, she says, “What are you, nuts?”
Regardless of occupational hazards—bites, bruises, falls on ice—and other challenges, Bernstein and her colleagues have prospered. Founded by Chun-Soon Li, a 43-year-old single mom from South Korea, ProspectBArk! has a five-star Yelp! rating, with more than 100 reviews, and now touts about 2,000 clients across outposts in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Jersey City.
During a recent sweltering, late-summer afternoon on the job in Park Slope, Bernstein busts out a huge, densely populated keychain—like that of a high-school custodian, but with a collapsible plastic water bowl attached to it. Proceeding inside the home of a customer, she says, “This is actually my favorite part of the day, watching this dog come down the stairs and greet me.”
The dog who dwells here is an 8-year-old beagle named Butterscotch. “I grew up with beagles, so I have a special spot in my heart for her,” Bernstein says. After some callouts and air kisses, Butterscotch races to Bernstein at full speed, huffing, and then hopping at her feet.
Bernstein, 44, a Syracuse transplant now living with two cats in Bay Ridge, started dog walking a year ago after being “in an office setting for 25 years,” she says, most recently managing three commercial properties in Manhattan. Along with the excited face licks, happy tail wags, and barks of love that Bernstein receives from the 12 to 16 canines she walks on a busy day, she appreciates the flexible hours and physical benefits that come with all the exercise involved. Bernstein says that she has lost 15 lbs. since her first dog walk. Though she’s making 40 percent less money than she used to, overall, she says, “It’s a good trade off.”
ProspectBArk!’s success is emblematic of an industry that has literally grown step by step, with revenues now reaching an estimated $900 million or more and a workforce of 23,000. With an estimated 600,000 dogs in New York City, the pet-care business has a potentially huge client base.
Chun-Soon Li was working as a waitress and searching for a career when she founded ProspectBArk! in 2009. Born in Seoul, Li was adopted when she was a year old by a couple in Rochester, New York. As a child, Li was a straight-A student, she says, but “never bought into” the religious practices of her devout parents, which caused a rift. By the time she was a high-school senior, she was a runaway, but managed to finish school and won a scholarship to study art at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). “I was supporting myself from 17 on, and I think that was really good for me,” Li says.
Li was living in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, pregnant with their daughter, Hannah, when an idea popped into her head while she was lying in bed one night. She had seen a dog-walker’s poster in the neighborhood, offering the service for $10 per walk. “I’d been waiting tables and was starting to really hate it,” Li says. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea.’” When discussing the prospective business with her then-partner, he was less than supportive, asking, “You’re going to pick up poop for a living?”
Ignoring him, Li launched the business anyway, she says, because she was broke and loved animals. She named the company ProspectBArk!, capitalizing the two letters in “bark” to help people discern internet search results from those of Prospect Park, she says.
What differentiates her company from some others is that her walkers generally handle only one dog at a time, giving the service more of a “childcare approach,” she says. Li says the popular image of a dog walker gripping the leashes of a half-dozen or more dogs is a recipe for danger, for both the animals and walkers. She calls her workers “caretakers.” They’re extensively vetted across multiple interviews—which include test walks with some of the more challenging dogs, or “pullers”—and are provided a thick employee manual.
Accordingly, ProspectBArk! rates are higher than those of other dog-walking companies. Walks last 20, 30 or 60 minutes and cost $16, $20 and $30, respectively. The company also provides pet-sitting services. Li says that among the many dogs and cats her workers regularly watch, they also count some rabbits and one chinchilla among their clients.
Today, ProspectBArk! employs more than 40 caretakers, and Li is wait-listing new clients into 2019 because she doesn’t have the staff numbers to service them at the moment. “It takes a lot for you to get in—whether you’re a caretaker or a client,” Li says, “but once you’re in, you’re happy.”
As Butterscotch embarks on her very deliberate walk in Park Slope, seemingly sniffing every inch of the pavement, as is a beagle’s wont, caretaker Bernstein recounts being lured into the ProspectBArk! organization. While still employed as a property manager, she enrolled in a dog training school, but couldn’t devote enough time to the studies required for licensure. Desperate to abandon her day job, she came across an online recruitment ad for ProspectBArk! that said “Escape the Cubicle.”
“Angels started singing,” Bernstein says. “I was like, ‘That’s it! That’s what I need!’”
As it turned out, she was going away on vacation shortly after seeing the ad, so she hired a ProspectBArk! cat sitter and talked with her about working for the company. The sitter suggested Bernstein work weekends to see how she liked it, but before Bernstein got the chance to follow up, Li reached out to her first and began the hiring process.
Bernstein is paid per walk, which she says “sets us a step above many of the dog-walking companies because a lot of them pay hourly, which sucks because I wouldn’t want to get paid the same amount for walking four dogs [and] for walking 16 dogs.”
Li says she treats her employees as staff, not freelancers, with protections that come with that distinction: workers’ compensation, disability insurance, paid leave. (ProspectBArk! doesn’t offer health insurance because, Li says, the company isn’t big enough yet.) Depending on the season—there’s more sitting and fewer walks with people away on vacation in the summer—and the workload an employee wishes to take on, Li says her caretakers can make between $2,000 and $3,500 a month. Among Li’s costs are a $2 million liability-insurance policy.
Bernstein spends her Sunday nights crafting a schedule and plotting out pickup routes. By then, most clients have informed her which days of the week she’ll be needed, which walk lengths they want, and three-hour time windows in which to pick up their canines. (Exceptions to the one-dog-per-walk rule can be made for a multi-dog household, or if the owners of two furry neighborhood friends agree to have them go out together.)
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Bernstein observes. “You have to figure out who lives near each other, who has the same [time] window, who gets along, who has to be walked solo, who has medication, who melts in the heat…” Illnesses and injuries can also alter her plans on any given day.
In summer 2010, Li moved to Sunset Park for a fresh start, leaving her boyfriend behind, incorporating her new company, and giving birth to her daughter. Since then, she has expanded the company considerably beyond Brooklyn, purchasing other pet-care services and absorbing their clients and employees. In certain areas, including Northern Brooklyn and the Upper West Side, Li’s business operates under different names, like McCarrenBArk! and RiversideBArk!, respectively.
She now delegates much of the fieldwork to her half-dozen area managers, but she didn’t always have that luxury. “The first two years were very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants,” she says. “My pants were very well-worn in the backside.” She has streamlined the logistics of the business in part by automating it. Clients use the mobile app Pet Sitter Plus to schedule walks and make payments, while walkers use the app to report the completion of each job, which gets fed into payroll. Li’s caretakers also set up text chats with clients through WhatsApp, snapping pictures of their pets during walks and sitting sessions.
Even with all that efficiency, Li says the life of a proprietor is still hard work, requiring 60 to 85 hours a week and the help of a nanny for her daughter. They now live in the upstate town of Newburgh in Orange County.
As our tag-along trip with Bernstein nears a close, she’s walking Zeppelin, a three-year-old black lab mix, to the home of Greta, a greyhound mix who’s the same age. Zeppelin and Greta are two of the rare ProspectBArk! dogs who go for walks as a couple when their schedules allow. “They love each other … they literally make out,” Bernstein says of the two. She was the one who initially paired them up, and instead of sending “normal text updates” to the owners about bodily functions and the like, Bernstein says she will type out: “Zep and Greta walked through the park discussing wedding plans today.”
As Greta emerges, she giddily claws the glass-paned front door of a brownstone. When she’s released by her owner, Greta licks Zeppelin’s face and hops all around the stoop before making time to greet Bernstein.
For a moment, the two dogs sit together on the sidewalk, and Bernstein, who’s still working toward her dog-training license, observes: “They look so good together.”
Contemplating her career shift from Manhattan commercial-property manager to that of a ProspectBArk! dog walker, Bernstein says, “This job has definitely helped me with the happiness factor.”