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Want a Job as a Dog Walker? It’s Just Like Getting into Harvard

Alec Gracia, a 23-year-old Starbucks barista looking for a fun, easy way to supplement his income, applied for a part-time job as a dog walker.

He was rejected.

The bad news was delivered via email from Wag!, a San Diego-based on-demand dog-walking app. The company said he could reapply in 30 days but, meantime, urged Mr. Gracia to “brush up on proper pet safety techniques by volunteering at a local animal shelter or rescue.”

When Mr. Gracia’s co-workers in Seattle heard he couldn’t cut the mustard as a dog walker, they showed no mercy in their teasing. “It felt a little ridiculous,” he says. “I never thought this was something I needed experience for.”

In many American cities, though, landing a job as a dog walker is tougher than earning entrance to an elite university. Rover, a Seattle-based pet-care app with more than 120,000 walkers, accepts only 15% of applicants. At Wag!, which serves 298 U.S. cities, the acceptance rate is 5%. In New York’s Manhattan, which employs more dog walkers than the rest of America combined, the acceptance rate is slimmer still.

Ethan Judelson, 21, a film student at Emerson College, applied to walk for Wag! in New York City last year. He passed the initial screening questionnaire, but he was abruptly dismissed during a phone interview.

A Wag! representative asked Mr. Judelson whether he would look a dog in the eye if the animal was hesitant to leave for the walk. “I said, ‘Yes,’ and they said, ‘We can no longer go on with this process,’” he says. “They never gave me the right answer.”

Turns out a dog may perceive looking into its eyes as a threat, according to Yuruani Olguin, a certified professional dog trainer in New York. Even so, she says, the question asked Mr. Judelson during the interview was “so general, it would be hard to give a one-size-fits-all response.”

A spokeswoman for Wag! says, “If an applicant fails a question on our test, he or she does not make the cut.”

By one measure, there is no better time to be a dog walker. U.S. pet ownership is at an all-time high, with pets residing in 65% of homes across the country, according to IBISWorld, a market research firm based in California. That includes about 160 million pet cats and dogs.

The uptick has buoyed the dog-walking industry, which has seen its annual revenue grow 3.7% over the past five years to $1 billion, the report says. It has become so competitive in places like New York City that firms offer specialized services. Fido has never had it so good.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Canine Running Co., one of the Big Apple’s 312 brick-and-mortar dog-walking companies listed on Yellow Pages, offers one-on-one runs—not walks—for its furry clients.

To give anxious owners real-time updates, several dog-walking services boast live GPS tracking. Wag! and Rover’s walkers flag the exact location of potty breaks and send post-walk photos.

Swifto, which operates only in New York City, promises the same services as its national competitors, but with the refined expertise of local New Yorkers.

Proving expertise isn’t easy. Wag! receives “many tens of thousands of applications” a month, says chief executive and co-founder, Joshua Viner. When weeding out applicants, some executives say their companies give an edge to applicants who say their love of dogs outweighs their need for money.

Seattle resident Natalie Lockwood, 40, spent a little over a week in May applying to walk for Rover. She filled out a biographical questionnaire and agreed to a background check. Next, she recorded herself for an automated video interview. She took an online safety course that included such quiz questions as what to do when confronted by an aggressive dog on the walk.

Ms. Lockwood was hired after a successful training session with a Rover instructor.

Wag!’s initial application steps are similar to Rover’s, but aspiring walkers also must get a perfect score on the company’s safety test, which is a doozy. Applicants must identify several types of harnesses, as well as say what they would do in such worst-case scenarios as a dog that slips its leash and runs.

Meg Oliphant, 22, moved to Brooklyn for a part-time internship in September and applied at Wag! She fits the typical profile of an aspiring dog walker, who are usually canine-loving students or part-time workers who miss their family dogs or can’t afford a four-legged pet of their own.

Most dog walking gigs provide a supplementary income. For some, including Ms. Oliphant, “It’s like getting paid for therapy,” she says.

Getting hired isn’t easy but neither is navigating on-demand apps. They operate like Uber, with dog walkers filling requests. Dog owners can request specific walkers, but usually the matches are random

“A lot of the time it’s not very much advance notice,” says 20-year-old Willow Quillen, a student at the Brooklyn-based Pratt Institute. She says playing with dogs for money is “amazing,” but most of her clients are 3 to 4 miles away and she must arrive within 30 minutes. That is tough without a car.

Other walkers say such commutes make it hard to justify the $15-to-$25 pay for a 30-minute walk. “By and large you are often beholden to a schedule that neither pays a living wage nor is particularly manageable,” says Los Angeles resident Andrew Gerngross, 56, who started walking dogs for Wag! in June while between writing gigs.

For each candidate elated to learn of their approved application, there are thousands more coping with rejection.

Jack Lyons, 20, a dog lover and UCLA student, took to Twitter after getting rejected by Wag! over the summer. “I was shocked,” he says.

Mr. Lyons says he was derailed by the multiple-choice safety test, despite consulting Google for answers.

“I’m still going to reapply,” he says, “because, obviously, I want the money.”

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