Longtime San Francisco dog-walker Bill Peacock now faces steep competition from apps like Wag! and Rover. (Sam Harnett/KQED)
In the Bay Area, dog walking can be good money. And tech companies are, not surprisingly, trying to enter the pack.
The success of on-demand services like Uber and DoorDash has investors pouring millions of dollars into pet apps like Wag! and Rover. Just this year, Saudi Arabian investors poured $300 million into Wag!
But most longtime independent dog walkers here are still just scraping by.
"It's enough to survive," said Bill Peacock, a well-known veteran in the San Francisco dog-walking world. "You know in this city, it's hard to tread water."
To his clients, Peacock is a man known by many names.
“I am William Peacock. Wild Bill Peacock, AKA, The Dog Wrangler, AKA, The Cowboy Poop Fairy Princess,” Peacock explained from behind the wheel of his dog-filled pickup truck.
Peacock's eclectic style never fails to draw attention. His truck has steer horns bolted through the roof and a painted bull on the hood. It also has a novelty horn that sends his canine passengers into a frenzy.
For more than a decade, Peacock has built a robust business of loyal customers who trust him to walk their dogs. Now he has competition from the tech industry. For the last year he’s noticed more folks out walking dogs, and said he can spot one of the “app” dog walkers from a mile way.
“I see them walking around the block with their cell phones, taking video of their leash walk around the block,” he said.
Both Wag! and Rover run the typical gig model. They hire contractors who are paid per walk and scheduled through phone apps. The contractors take single dogs for 30- to 60-minute on-leash walks around the neighborhood or nearby parks.
The contractor usually wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the company they're working for. They use their phones to take videos or pictures of their canine charges so owners can rest assured their pups are having a good time.
Peacock charges around $25 per dog, walks up to a dozen at a time, and does two runs a day. And he does not send his human clients videos of their dogs.
He does, however, take pride in knowing the ages, names, and breeds of his pack. He also knows their favorite toys, which ones prefers to play fetch or to dig, who the alpha dogs are, and who has a particular penchant for rolling in dead whale carcasses. He also assigns each dog an individual theme song.
Peacock considers his operation to be entirely different from the services offered by the apps. But a few years ago — after marrying another dog walker with a business degree — he said the couple did try to grow their business using a similar contract worker model.
“We sort of exploded,” Peacock says, “We had six vehicles with steer horns on the roof.”
It went well, Peacock said, until some of his workers demanded to become employees instead of contractors, and become eligible to receive paid overtime and paid breaks, as well as protections like workers compensation. When Peacock told them he couldn’t afford to do that, the workers filed complaints with the state's main labor agency, and ultimately won.
Peacock and his wife were fined $18,000 and had to stop using contract workers. They briefly hired full-time employees, he said, but had to let them go after failing to turn a profit.
“We got hammered and it folded,” he said. “We were the kind of business America supposedly wants, husband-and-wife.”
It's unlikely that contract workers with Wag! and Rover will file similar complaints with state. That's because of the mandatory arbitration agreements they sign, which obligates them to handle issues with the company behind closed doors.
As for Peacock, he said he's trying to get by and differentiate himself from the apps by offering a more personal dog-walking experience, things like taking a pack of dogs on an off-leash jaunt on the coast (hence the whale carcass concern).
These are the kinds of walks dogs really need, Peacock said, not just a quick cruise around the block.
And as on-demand dog-walking companies continue to grow and expand into new markets, he hopes his longtime customers continue to see that value in that as well.