As city dog owners head back to their offices, sometimes their first separation from their pups, they are contributing to the recovery of many city dog-walking, training and day care businesses, which are still digging out from the drain of a terrible year.
But not all the businesses can recover just because of the impressive demand. Pandemic-related closures in the industry left some previous customers seeking new day cares and walkers. Most of all, there are more pets: Nationwide, pet ownership increased from 67% of households to 70% during 2020, according to a survey by the National Pet Products Association.
Much of the dog care industry collapsed during the panicked early days of Covid closures. Some dogs, like their owners, bounded off for the suburbs and the Hamptons.
“I went from doing 70-hour weeks of walking and training to nothing,” said Garrett Ross, owner of Village Dogworks.
Some in the industry say they noticed a slow comeback last summer and fall. Ruff Club had about 15 dogs per day at that time, down from a maximum of 50 pre-Covid.
Even owners who have not yet gone back to work are sometimes bringing in their poodles and doodles for half-days away from home.
“The puppies are now adolescents who are driving them crazy as they try to get work done from home,” she said.
She has cut her hours to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. prepandemic, when she needed to accommodate those who worked longer hours. Her employee count is still at four, same as it was before the pandemic.
At dog-walking company It’s A Dog’s Life NY, owner Elena Gretch has launched services to get at the training issue. She’s had success with Zoom training, helping dogs learn not to climb on the couch or fight with the kids even during long days when whole families were at home. Then she opened a walk-and-train service.
She has not had a problem recruiting workers, as she looks to increase her staff to 20 from a current count of eight, despite reported labor shortages around the city.
Her trained-in-training walkers can make far above minimum wage, she said. Skilled self-employed dog walkers might earn around $80,000 a year, Ross said.
But despite how many owners appear to be slobbering over their services, behind the scenes, pet care businesses are still working to get back to normal.
Ross said that the dog-walking business has not fully bounced back and won’t until owners are completely back to work. “Some people are trying to get their dogs ready,” he said. “They’re booking walkers once or twice a week.”
Frost of Ruff Club said that despite the long wait for an assessment for new dogs, her space is not quite full yet. She is also dealing with negotiations with her landlord over back rent.
Gretch said that she rejected several expansion opportunities last fall, such as purchasing training and grooming facilities that had shut down. Ultimately, the comeback in New York City did not seem quite assured enough to invest, she said.
Others in the industry did sniff out opportunities to grow, including a city-based firm called Houndry, which already operated New York Dog Spa & Hotel and MixyPaws, a dog-walking service. It picked up around six of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Retreats, day care, grooming and boarding facilities, which closed during the pandemic.
For Ruff Club, success looks like getting back to a maximum of 50 dogs. After that, Frost said, she could not grow any more without moving to a new location when her lease ends in a year. But, she said, “There is a lot that can happen in a year.”