What I Learned Dogsitting for New York City’s Opulent Elite

In a city of yawning class inequality, some side hustles let you glimpse how the other half lives.

Holly Andres for The New York Times

By guest author Amy X. Wang from the New York Times

April 11, 2023

Atop a hulking Manhattan skyscraper, there’s this gorgeous, sterile apartment that costs upward of $20,000 a month in rent. The only real sign of life in the place is a prodigiously large stash of Hot Cheetos hidden in a pantry. I know all this because, first, I’ve been there, and second, because I am endlessly nosy. I was tasked with caring for one of its residents, a shiba inu, while its owner was away — an absence that created an intestinal disturbance in the poor dog, such that a third of my time in the apartment was spent soaping goopy excrement out from under my fingernails. But this seemed like a fair enough price to pay for the opportunity to rattle open a wealthy stranger’s kitchen cabinets and slip, for a little while, into a life foreign to mine.

Proust had his teaspoons and his madeleines; if I had to elect one sensory item by which to remember my youth, it would have to be a sculptural, ludicrously fragrant splatter of dog waste.

My career as a professional poo-scraper began about a decade ago. Fresh out of college and making USD 25000 a year in my entry-level media job, I desperately sought extra income — and found it in Rover, an app-based start-up that matches dogsitters with dog owners à la Uber. Sign me up! I thought, and submitted myself to a parade of corgis and miniature pinschers and King Charleses. Rover proffers a classic gig-economy arrangement, allowing workers to fine-tune their rates and cherry-pick their neighborhoods and clientele. I would be getting paid to cuddle with dogs — take that, parents who thwarted my childhood dreams of recreating “Lassie” in a condo — while snooping through the homes of rich people. Dogsitting, I thought, would unlock realms I’d never access otherwise. Did a better side hustle exist?

I twirled through hundreds of lives, learning how wealth speaks and travels and warps.

My first charge was a six-pound Chihuahua. The moment we were alone, the guiltless cherub mutated into Cerberus, screaming and scratching at me. Not food, not toys, nor any other conventional instigators of canine joy could tame his manic rage. By the end, though, when I delivered him, bleary-eyed, back into his owner’s arms, I had attained some formidable new skills, including my first of 12 techniques for scraping liquid diarrhea off a city sidewalk.

As it turns out, the rich are drawn to exorbitant prices like moths to a flame — and so it was after I bumped my rates up to three figures that the app started delivering me one bejeweled Bichon after another. I’d drag a suitcase onto the subway and, for weeks at a time, live in some stranger’s sprawling penthouse. I dogsat a schnauzer for a real estate tycoon who I was certain had CCTV cameras trained on me in the bedroom as I slept; a nervy, Xanax-needing French bulldog for a Hollywood bigwig; a trio of overweight dachshunds that had never stepped foot on the street below, having been trained, rather horrifically, to do their business on the balcony.

To everyone I knew, I was living some sort of magnificent fever dream — except my parents, who found my second job humiliating. My mother grew up in a sparse, cold town in China, and she had studied and worked all her life for me to avoid the kind of menial work that involved snatching dead rats out of Labradors’ jaws. My dad, when I talked about dogsitting, would simply go quiet. It was only years later that he told me a reason he’d been so reluctant to grant my childhood wish for a puppy: When he was much younger and poorer, he formed a bond with a stray pup that trailed him eagerly around his family’s home in the rural outskirts of Beijing. One day, austere government policy forced his family to kill the beloved mutt that, until then, had been his best friend. Per local custom, to honour its life, they ate it for dinner. He cried for days. The name he’d given the dog was Gou, or in English, Dog.

Here is a partial list of things I picked up from being a dogsitter for New York City’s opulent elite: various ethically murky stock tips; a Rolodex of niche glassware designers favored by chief executives; the exquisitely haughty expression that allows you to saunter through a white-glove lobby, barefoot, in pajamas, without drawing a single raised eyebrow. Over that decade I twirled through hundreds of lives, learning how wealth speaks and travels and warps, but I learned nothing about what it meant to care for — to raise — another living creature.

That didn’t happen until the pandemic hit, when an animal shelter I volunteered with asked if I could foster a frightened, deer-eared mutt who’d just had a front leg amputated. The veritable dingo was untrained. She kept peeing on the sofa. She was positively feral around strangers. Within weeks, I was filling out adoption paperwork.

Poca is deeply wary around other dogs, which is what finally brought my moonlighting as an on-call caretaker for New York City’s Fidos and Bellas and Discos to a close. By then, I no longer relied on Rover for grocery money. The constant transience was starting to grate on me, anyway. Now, when I travel, Poca goes to stay with a sitter she adores — a young woman I found on Rover — and then I come home, and she comes back to me.

A version of this article appears in print on April 16, 2023, Page 14 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: Dogsitting.