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Dog Walking App Attracts $300 Million Investment From Saudi Arabia

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Americans have nearly 90 million pet dogs. And that number has grown lately, which means more opportunity for dog walkers. In many places, this is a cottage industry. Now, tech companies are getting into the market with on-demand apps.

KQED's Sam Harnett has this report on how that could affect small dog walking businesses. And a friendly warning - the sounds in this story could get your dog a bit wound up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

SAM HARNETT, BYLINE: Bill Peacock built his San Francisco dog walking business through a series of branding shticks, most of them cowboy-themed.

BILL PEACOCK: Hi there. I'm William Peacock, Wild Bill Peacock, The Dog Wrangler, aka The Cowboy Poop Fairy Princess.

HARNETT: Bill has deer horns bolted to the top of his truck and a musical car horn to excite his canine companions.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

HARNETT: He charges around $25 per dog, walks up to a dozen at a time and does two runs a day. He knows each and every one of his dogs by name.

PEACOCK: Sue, Mullbery, Caley, Barney, Trucks, Howdie, Daisy, McDuff, Leila, and then the two ends are Maybell and Montana.

HARNETT: Each one even has a theme song.

PEACOCK: (Singing) McDuff, McDuff, McDuff.

HARNETT: After more than 15 years in the business, Bill now has competition from on-demand walking services.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is your dog. He needs a walk while you're at work today. That's where Wag! comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: At rover.com, we're the dog-care-second-only-to-you dog people.

HARNETT: The success of on-demand services like Uber and Lyft has investors pouring millions of dollars into these pet apps. Wag! alone recently got $300 million from Saudi Arabian investors. These companies run the typical gig model - hiring contractors who are paid per walk and ordered on a phone. They take single dogs for 30- to 60-minute on-leash walks.

PEACOCK: I see them walking around the block with their cellphones out, taking video of their leash walk around the block.

HARNETT: Bill does not send his human clients videos of their dogs. But a few years ago, he tried to grow his business with the same kind of contractor model that the app companies use.

PEACOCK: We've sort of exploded. I had six vehicles with deer horns on the roof.

HARNETT: Then, he says some of his workers complained to California's labor department. Like many gig workers, they felt they were employees, not contractors, which means they should get overtime, paid breaks and protections like workers' comp. Bill says he couldn't provide that.

PEACOCK: They fined us $18,000, and we got hammered, and it folded the business. And we were, you know, the kind of business America supposedly wants - husband and wife.

HARNETT: While the independent contractor model backfired on Bill, it's helping Wag! and Rover expand into cities around the country. They've been able to shield themselves from the kind of problems Bill ran into by making their workers sign mandatory arbitration agreements, standard practice in the gig world. These obligate the employees to handle complaints behind closed doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

HARNETT: Meanwhile, Bill's trying to survive by offering something different, a more personal dog walking experience.

PEACOCK: Mulberry, come on. These are good hills. We got to show them how we play fetch on the hill. Come here.

HARNETT: Bill takes his dogs in a pack for an off-leash romp on the coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

PEACOCK: Oh, Howdy, you're paying attention? OK, we're going to go up there.

HARNETT: These are the kinds of walks dogs really need, Bill says, not just a cruise around the block or neighborhood. He hopes pet owners will see the value in an independent walker like him as the on-demand dog care companies continue to grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

HARNETT: For NPR News, I'm Sam Harnett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.