A Cautionary Tale About Dog Walking Apps

Wag and Rover, two dog walking and boarding apps, promise to make getting someone else to take care of your pet easier than ever. And it looks like they’ve tapped into a need—they’re valued at $ 650 million and $ 970 million, respectively. But as their popularity soars, I figured it might be important to remind everyone that turning your dog’s well-being over to a total stranger isn’t always a good idea.

Here’s how they work: The startups connect dog owners with individuals who are paid to either walk or board your dog. Wag and Rover say their contract workers undergo an extensive vetting process, but with 50,000 and 80,000 care providers, respectively, it’s really up to user reviews to determine the merits of individual walkers or sitters. The innovation is convenient on-demand service, not a higher level of care than what was already available.

Back in Los Angeles, where my fiancée and I lived until this past June, finding a friend to look after our mutt Wiley was never a problem. In fact, because it’s hard to own a large, active dog in a city, and because Wiley is just so damn likable, my friends would actually fight over who got to take him when we needed to travel. Then we adopted Bowie, who’s also wonderful, but walking a large, energetic puppy alongside another big dog is hard, and his age dictates a little more exercise than people who work during the day can typically provide. So we started booking hour-long walks for them on Wag during the day when we traveled without them.

That helped a lot. That extra daily hour of walking helped the dogs calm down and made them easier for our friends to care for. Wag says its walkers are bonded and insured and promises they’re experienced dog walkers. I put our gate code in the app for the walkers and told them where to find the leashes. They’d come to the house, grab the dogs, and text us photo updates.

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Wiley and Bowie’s Wag profile. (Wag)

Now a note on our two pups’ personalities: Both are big, active, independent-minded dogs who grew up walking around Hollywood. They’re neutered and typically friendly but, like many dogs, tend to be a little overdefensive of their personal space when they’re on their leashes. We’ve never had a problem with them but figured that was worth noting right up front to potential walkers so they could opt out if they felt they weren’t strong or experienced enough to handle them. I put that in the dogs’ profile, along with advice to avoid crowded areas and to keep them on short leashes around other people and dogs. I also noted their weights: 70 and 85 pounds.

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All our Wag walks went well, until one didn’t. (Wag)

That seemed to work pretty well. Every walker we used reported that it was a novel experience getting to walk two big dogs, instead of their usual schedule of cockapoos and bichon frises, and said the dogs behaved really well. We favorited a few walkers who seemed to particularly connect with the dogs (judging by the texts and photos they sent us) and tried to use them regularly. One woman we used a few times would record a video every time the dogs would pee or poop, complete with audio narrations describing the act in minute detail. Odd, sure, but we appreciated the care she showed.

Then there was the time we flew up to Palo Alto for my future brother-in-law’s graduation from Stanford. Mid-ceremony, my phone buzzed; it was a Wag walker asking me to call him. I stepped outside. He picked up right away and sounded panicked. The dogs were pulling him all over the place and jumping on people. He did not sound like someone who had any experience with big dogs, so I told him to take them straight home. After I hung up, I looked at the app and saw that he was on Hollywood Boulevard, in the heart of the crowded tourist center. My phone rang again just a couple minutes later; it was the walker informing me in an even more panicked tone that Wiley had just bitten someone. I told him to drop everything, go straight home, and put the dogs back in our yard. Then I called a friend to go over and make sure he did it.

I guess the walker gave my phone number to a stranger, because I started getting phone calls, voicemails, and texts threatening to sue me and to have Wiley put down. At some point, the walker entered a misspelled and badly written incident report into the app, which didn’t seem to indicate that any bite had taken place at all. Judging by his story, Wiley had simply snapped at someone and scared them. There were no photos, no police report, no hospital bill, and no evidence of any kind. Someone at Wag left me a voicemail about wanting Wiley’s vaccination records, but I was in the middle of moving us up to Montana, so I just ignored the whole thing. Eventually the threatening messages stopped.

Was this a case of an inexperienced walker getting in over his head with our dogs, taking them to an overcrowded street and getting scared when someone started to claim that Wiley had bitten them, and then making even worse decisions? Was it some kind of racket the walker had cooked up with a friend to shake me down for money? Did someone actually get my normally calm dog so riled up on a walk that he legitimately did bite someone? I don’t know which of those things it was, but I know I never want our dogs to be put in that situation again. In a best-case scenario, they were being walked by someone who didn’t have any control over them and whose behavior seemed to be scaring the dogs. That was enough, I thought. I’ll never use an app that sends a stranger to walk my dogs again.

A month after the move to Montana, we’d planned a vacation with friends in Door County, Wisconsin. We don’t know many people up here in Bozeman yet, so I started looking for sitters on Rover. I’d never had to put either dog in a kennel before, and the idea of them staying in a home instead of doggie prison sounded like a better idea. We found a really nice couple on the app, who had dozens of five-star reviews and a bunch of dogs of their own. We arranged a meet and greet, watched all the dogs play together, and decided we felt good about the whole thing. I paid in advance for five nights of care via the Rover website.

Almost as soon as we landed in Wisconsin, the Rover sitter called to tell me the dogs had caused a bunch of damage in her house, then escaped. I called Delta, told them I had a family emergency, and had a friend rush me back to the airport while another friend’s parents grabbed my bag from their house and rushed it to the airport to meet me. When I got to the airport in Appleton, I was informed at the check-in counter that my new flight to Minneapolis was delayed, that I’d miss my connection, and that there was no way they could get me home that night, no matter how much money I was prepared to spend. I broke down in tears and began to map out the 1,264-mile route home while booking a rental car. The ticket agent saw me crying, saw the family emergency note on my change fee, went into the back room, and came back with an airline employee who said he’d give me a ride to Green Bay, where a flight was departing in 45 minutes that I just might be able to get on. Halfway through the ride, I told him the nature of the “family emergency,” and he started driving faster.

I got home late that night to find the dogs waiting in our driveway with the sitter. The dogs and I fell asleep on the couch together. The Wisconsin trip was for the birthday of my fiancée’s best friend, and it was important to her that I be there, so the next morning I drove around to a few kennels, found one that seemed a) secure and b) like a pretty decent place, checked the dogs in, then drove back to the airport. The whole episode probably cost us $ 2,500.

A few days later, the sitters from Rover asked me to pay for the damage the dogs had done in their house. They told me the bill was $ 1,200. In all the excitement, I’d forgotten to ask for a reimbursement for the nights we didn’t end up using, so I just told them to keep that $ 400 and that I expected that made us square. They didn’t argue. (Full disclosure: When I reached out to Rover for comment, they offered to refund that amount. In the interest of impartiality, I declined.)

So, again, my dogs were in the care of a stranger (albeit one we’d at least met in person) and put at risk. And again, someone wanted me to be on the hook for money.

Are my experiences typical? I reached out to both businesses for comment. Wag assured me that it has a policy against giving out the contact details of its users and says that it vets its walkers carefully. “We have a robust vetting process that includes an application and verification process, an extensive third-party background screening, and two online tests covering dog safety and care knowledge which the applicant must pass to be approved to work on the Wag! platform,” says Jeff Davis, the company’s director of communications. “Many Wag! walkers and sitters have previously worked with pets as dog walkers, vet techs, shelter volunteers, and animal-welfare advocates. Only a small percentage (approximately 10 percent) of applicants successfully pass the application process.”

Davis didn’t provide a lot of reassurance around the Wag walker’s handling of the “dog bite” incident, simply telling me that dog owners are liable, even if the walk is being conducted by his company, and even if the walker isn’t able to fully control the dogs. Davis did explain that Wag employs a safety team, which investigates incidents in which pets are put in danger and recommends appropriate action, whatever that means.

My conversation with Dave Rosenbaum, Rover’s public relations manager, was a lot more reassuring. He explained that its policy for sitters to contact the company first, rather than the dog owners, so that the company can work with owners to resolve any issues with minimal disruption and without jeopardizing the safety of their pets. In my case, Rosenbaum says that had the sitters followed policy, Rover would have found alternative care for my dogs and even arranged transportation for them, all free of charge, and that any damage my dogs caused in the sitters’ home should never have come back on me. “The trust of owners and the safety of their dogs is always our first priority,” he assured me.

“Sitters complete a profile with details about their pet care experience, upload photos, request testimonials, and pass a background check as well as a safety quiz,” Rosenbaum says. “Rover manually reviews every profile prior to listing, and only 20 percent of those who start their profiles are approved.” But, as with Wag, care is ultimately provided by an independent contractor, and Rover is able to provide supervision or step in only if the company is notified that something has gone wrong.

I’m definitely never putting my dogs in the care of a Wag walker again, and I’d be extremely reluctant to use Rover, despite that company’s reassurances. Both Wag and Rover may offer convenience, but in my experience, that convenience comes at the price of potentially incompetent care that may jeopardize the lives of my best friends. I hope my experience serves as a cautionary tale for other dog owners.

So what do I do now, while we’re still making friends in a new city? I use a kennel. I may not be able to summon it through a smartphone app, but at least it’s managed by professionals and is capable of keeping my dogs safe, exercised, and happy. Heck, they even did a great job giving the two mutts a sorely needed bath. It’s important that, even in this modern age, we don’t mistake the shiny newness of tech startups for good old-fashioned reliability of experienced professionals. Especially when the lives of our dogs are at stake.

Outside Magazine: All

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