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Dog Walkers, Pet Sitters Try To Hold On With Minimal Business During Pandemic

Dog-walking companies are struggling but hope warmer weather, more vaccinations and the dog adoption boom can bring back normalcy to the industry.

(Left) Stephanie Fumanelli, owner of Chicago Urban Pets, cuddles with a dog Downtown. (Right) Carla Pastorelli, who owns Northwest Side dog walking company Snappy Paws, walks a dog in Portage Park.
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NORTH SIDE — The coronavirus pandemic led to thousands of people adopting and fostering dogs and cats — but dog walkers and pet sitters have actually seen business go down.

Since many people with pets are able to work from home or facing financial setbacks due to the pandemic, North Side dog walking and pet sitting companies are struggling. Some pet services — with no obvious way to pivot — are operating at 25-50 percent of the work they did pre-COVID.

Carla Pastorelli, who owns dog walking company Snappy Paws and works on the far Northwest Side, said the company’s business has been down about 50 percent since July — better than during the stay at home order at the beginning of the pandemic, but not by much, she said.

“The first few months of 2020, business was at 25 percent of what it normally was,” said Pastorelli, who lives in Portage Park. “It’s devastating, it’s like your worst nightmare. Even up to now, operating at 50 percent is tough.”

Pastorelli, a single mother of three, enjoyed the flexibility of her work and the close relationship she’d built with clients. But now she’s lost a third of her customers; of those left, she only interacts with them minimally due to the pandemic.

Pastorelli’s 11 dog walkers went from walking about 12 dogs a day to about two, give or take a few routes that still need walks.

“Every one of our dog walkers saw a massive hit to what they were used to making,” she said.

‘It Knocked My Little Sand Castle Down’

Joe Killeen, an independent dog walker who works in Roscoe Village, Lincoln Park, Lakeview and Rogers Park, said he walked seven to 12 dogs a day before the pandemic. Now, he walks five at most due to people being home and walking their own dogs.

Even before coronavirus, life as an independent dog walker was rocky, Killeen said, but he made consistent money and established regular clients.

“If not for the pandemic, I would be doing a dozen walks per day,” said Killeen, who lives in Rogers Park and has been dog walking independently since 2019. “It has slowed the rate of progress … . It knocked my little sand castle down.”

For about four months last year, Killeen relied on Lakeview Pantry for meals and groceries because he was not making enough money to “close the gap” with all his bills. He said his income has been “touch and go” since summer.

But Killeen is thankful to a few clients who use him every day, even though they are home, he said. They sometimes send him off with a warm meal and extra money.

“It’s little things like that that have been total godsends,” he said. “As far as any job I’ve done, I’ve felt more accounted for and cared for by the people who provide me [needed resources] than corporate people.”

Killeen said he has two clients starting in spring and hopes the pandemic dog adoption trend will help him and the industry make a comeback, even though remote work continues.

Tony Schreck, a certified dog trainer who founded Windy City Dog Walkers in 2007, said his company is operating at about 40 percent and went from 450 daily clients to about 250. He used to have 46 dog walkers and now has about 38, but most employees have only one to three walks a day. He said a Paycheck Protection Program loan helped the business, but there isn’t enough work to go around.

“The pandemic has affected us extremely. It’s been tough,” said Schreck, who lives in Lincoln Square. “We’re still deemed an essential business to serve our health care worker [customers], but there’s not much to pivot to … . No one [in the industry] has come up with a magic sauce.”

Chicago Urban Pets, which works in the Downtown area, got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, as well. But owner Stephanie Fumanelli — who is also a professor at the School of the Art Institute — said financial loss was only one of the problems brought on by the pandemic.

Juggling mom duties for her toddler, teaching virtual classes and balancing employee safety with a sharp drop in business, the Lakeview resident decided to temporarily close Chicago Urban Pets in November.

“So many factors were stacked up against me that it didn’t seem like it made sense” to stay open, said Fumanelli, who started the company in 2013. “Besides the [Paycheck Protection Program] money, once we shut, we were barely breaking even. The last payroll I put in money from my own paycheck from school.”

Fumanelli decided to reopen in April and hopes her seven pet sitters and manager will come back to work for the company, but there’s no guarantees.

Closing “was scary because you want to retain these employees, but you know you might lose everyone and have to start from scratch,” she said.

Forging Ahead

Parents who are working and helping children with virtual learning and don’t have time to take the dog out, as well as essential workers who still need pet care, have helped Windy City Dog Walkers and Snappy Paws keep up a smaller but steady trickle of business.

Pastorelli said she is grateful to clients who have supported her with donations and tips, including those who canceled walks but still pay for visits.

Pet service owners are hopeful that as warmer weather comes around, and with more people getting vaccinated, the pet care industry can get back to some sort of normalcy.

“The dog-walking industry isn’t going away,” Schreck said. “The training business is booming right now [because of new adoptions]. I’m hopeful things will get better with more vacation care. We used to have a wait list in every single neighborhood, and now I’m doing training assessments for free.”

Another silver lining Fumanelli is hopeful about is the tight-knit pet service community. She’s received guidance from Schreck and others on business practices and plans to launch a marketing blog featuring tips and hacks for owning a pet in a city.

“Pet-sitting companies are coming together to support and help each other move forward,” she said. “The closer relationships I’m building now that we are all struggling have been beneficial, even for the future of the pet-sitting industry in Chicago.”

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