Horror stories of dogs abused, dead or missing while being looked after by Rover sitters

Originally published at: Horror stories of dogs abused, dead or missing while being looked after by Rover sitters | Boing Boing

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The “move fast and break things” ethos that informs gig economy startups (as it does social media companies) really doesn’t work well when it comes into contact with living things.

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Do companies actually sue if you break such an NDA? It would be a poster child for the Streissand effect.

One should also consider the size of the company when considering the risks to the pets: "More than 2 million “pet parents” have turned to Rover’s network of “trusted sitters and dog walkers”. Ask 2 million people who had neighbors and friends they trusted take care of their dogs and I think you’d find horror stories as well.

On the other hand, perhaps it is a good thing if companies that get too large accumulate bad news. Prevent monopolies.

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Maybe I am old fashioned and live in a different world but … isn’t this the kind of thing you ask a reliable teenager in your social circle to do? They always have something they are saving money up for…

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NDAs are very court-tested. A recent example that comes to mind is when Oculus Rift was sued over VR technology it supposedly swiped from a partner, the jury wasn’t particularly impressed by the central trade secrets claim, but the NDA was the NDA, and the NDA said $500,000,000, so the verdict was $500,000,000. Brutal!

On an everyday consumer level, it’s true that this kind of legal total war doesn’t much happen. But the threat is being forced into a lawsuit that will cost a fortune to fight and that you are much more likely to lose. Most people wouldn’t get a CNN story about their case even if it is egregious.

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My wife and I dog sit through Rover, we have for about 7 years (though we have only taken repeat clients for the past 3). It’s true that there is huge variation between people on the site. We’ve had clients come to us after not great past experiences, like a sitter who took ten dogs at a time and kept them in a separate building (illegal in many places, you usually need a kennel license to have that many dogs, and in any case not the kind of in-home setting people expect from the site), or one who locked their dog in a room for many hours while she was home and blamed the dog (and refused to take him again - awesome dog by the way) for chewing the door frame.

Rover is essentially Airbnb+care.com for pets, and you need to be careful who you leave your pets with. As a company they’re usually really great to work with. They charge minimal fees, they provide insurance and an on-call vet (which we’ve used several times), they make booking and messaging with sitters easy, and that’s really all their job is.

That said, there’s also risks and variation in licensed kennels, too. Nowadays you can find plenty of kennels where the dogs have large private runs, and there are 24/7 streaming webcams you can look at whenever you want, and that’s awesome. At the same time, ~3 years ago the doggie day care a half mile from my house got shut down after a dog died while boarding there. They were keeping him in a cage much too small for his size with no water overnight, and investigation turned up other issues and abuse charges against the owner. Remember that at many facilities like this the employees leave for the night and come back in the morning.

If you’re looking for any sitter, Rover or not, insist on meeting them in person first - we always insist on a meet-and-greet in a neutral location with our own dog before booking a new client. Ask where the dogs will be kept, where they will sleep, how they’ll be monitored, whether there is someone home for most of the day (aka not leaving for a full work day), what’s the most dogs they sit at once and how and when are those dogs separated from each other. Make sure the prospective sitter is asking you the questions they should want the answers to, like feeding schedule, allergies and medical history, level of comfort around other pets and people, activity level, and who their vet is. Make sure they are interacting well with your dog at the initial meeting. Ask how often they keep in touch during stays (my wife sends pictures and updates daily). Ask if they’re pet CPR and first aid certified.

That said, the average dog lifespan is around 40,000 days, and Rover claims there have been over 40 million stays booked through its site (I don’t know the average duration, but in our experience the average is probably around 3 days). Most people stop traveling when their dogs are very sick. But even so, it would be bizarre if no dogs had ever died during stays, including dogs with no prior medical problems. Statistically there would almost have to be hundreds of deaths and at least as many dogs getting loose. CNN gave six anecdotes and no other data - tragedies, and probably some misconduct and bad decisions by sitters, but not necessarily indicative of a systemic problem.

We’ve sat for a few dogs with serious medical conditions including blindness and diabetes (with insulin shots), and even in one case an inability to walk more than a few steps, but those were mainly recurring clients with aging pets. Twice we’ve had to ask pet parents to return early, once because the dog started having serious digestive problems, and once because a dog’s vet made a significant medical error, claiming a cancerous cyst was benign (it burst a few days into the stay) and not mentioning that prednisone can both increase incontinence and prevent proin from working properly (and it’s not easy to find doggy diapers for a 90 pound dog on short notice - we bought human Depends and used medical tape to hold them in place on a canine body). We’ve also refused stays we thought were too risky and advised prospective clients to either cancel their trip or board with a vet. Once a prospective client wanted to board a dog who was scheduled for a major (urgent) surgery during the stay, and Rover’s vet line had to back us up on refusing that one b/c the owner was not happy that we weren’t willing to take the dog (who was at risk of serious complications at any moment), take them to the surgery, and handle the after care (which would have included administering medication every hour for several days).

@Jeroen_Metselaa There is a lot of variation, regionally and over time, in how people care for their dogs. Some dogs would be perfectly content and reasonably safe with that kind of arrangement, assuming you have an actually-reliable teenager or neighbor around, which isn’t a given. Others need chronic medical care, or have a carefully controlled diet and feeding schedule, or just would be happier with a different setup. When we go away we leave our dog and cat with my in-laws, but when we got married we had someone come stay at the house with them, because our cat has recurring health problems and needs more frequent monitoring.

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Had similar experiences trying out pet sitting services for our cat. Everything from leaving the water running in the bathroom for two days to getting our keys and ghosting to literally fleeing the house in terror of our baby who “screamed and lunged” at them. Eventually, we found that some cat-owning friends of ours were willing to trade sitting duties and they handled everything without a blip. I can’t imagine trusting a sitting gig service again. We’re lucky our cat survived the attempts.

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Gave me the collywobbles, can not, will not watch someone abuse an helpless animal or human being.

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I had a great experience with Rover. I think the key is to use it as a matching service and vet (heh) the sitter personally. We spent about an hour with our dog and the prospective sitter, just hanging out and talking, before letting our dog stay with them.

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I’m thinking you meant 4,000 days (which strengthens your argument). Anyway, great post!

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adventure time table flip GIF

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Thanks! Wishful typing, I guess.

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That was definitely my thought. The 6 stories presented here are tragic, and zero is the ideal goal, but I’d want to see data on how their issues compare versus an aggregate of other dog-sitting services (including the “call the neighbor’s teenager who is saving money for a car” approach some here have advocated). At sufficient scale (which it sounds like Rover has), you’re virtually guaranteed to hit some issues where pets pass away of natural causes, or where a tiny number of the sitters turn out to be unreliable or worse. At 40 million “stays,” if the dogs come back happy and healthy 99.999% of the time, that would still leave 40 cases where something bad happened. The real life stats are likely much worse just given dog lifespans and actuarial stats, as you say.

It does sound like there is more Rover could do to investigate and follow up with cases where there might be some fault on the part of the pet-sitter. Even with that I think the precautions you suggest are a good idea.

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Sure, if you have healthy dogs without major hangups and you’re just going away for the weekend. We used Rover a lot when traveling for a week or more at a time while one of our dogs was towards the end of his life and was fully incontinent, needed medicine several times a day, and taking care of him was just generally a real job requiring training, lack of squeamishness and serious attention throughout the day, rather than a “just keep the food bowl filled and walk him a few times a day” kind of situation. We paid extra for sitters who had some level of elder dog and/or emergency training until we realized Rover wasn’t verifying those claims at all and it was mostly bs.

We stopped using the service after one of our other dogs was mauled by the Rover sitter’s dog, who she had claimed was going to be kept completely separate without possibility of interaction. Our little guy nearly died, required multiple surgeries and months of complex aftercare, and was left with a giant scar down his side. We finally got Rover to reimburse us for the vet bills, but it was a real fight, and the sitter is still listed on the site- partly because when Rover contacted her, she claimed our dogs had attacked each other, even though that was later disproven.

We had a couple of other, less dramatic negative experiences, too- mostly just situations where it was clear the dogs had been kenneled or otherwise just not given the care and attention we’d tried to seek out. I regret that it took so long to realize that the trustworthy Rover sitters are the ones who never have availability, making the whole system pointless and dangerous.

For those considering the service, the best test we found was how willing/eager the sitter was to share updates, photos, and/or livestreams. The ones who had nothing to hide were proud of their environment and efforts. The others made excuses.

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107 years?

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Dog years

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the company uses arbitration and NDAs to muzzle customers

“Muzzle”. I see what you did there.

Bad Rover! Bad!

I would agree with @AnthonyC and @hyouko that while the pet parents profiled in the CNN article clearly suffered tragic loss, they are not in themselves evidence of widespread malfeasance by Rover. My wife is a pet sitter, and has used Rover to find many of her clients. She insists on meet-and-greets, and is fastidious about sending picture updates. It’s an anecdote, I know, but most of her new clients give her horror stories about friends or family members that dropped the ball when asked to take care of pets.

The best you can do is to thoroughly vet your sitter, and don’t use a new sitter for a prolonged stay. Have a meet-and-greet, get a sense of whether your sitter is responsible, has good chemistry with your pet, and then do a check-in or two, maybe a single overnight, before booking anything long-term. Make sure the sitter understands exactly what your pet’s needs are. And insist on updates, including pictures taken during the actual sitting. Any sitter worth their salt won’t mind the trouble; that’s what they’re getting paid for. Finally, always be sure you understand a company’s terms of service before you sign on. If you don’t like how they handle disputes, don’t use them. Rover might be the most accessible name in sitting, but they’re far from the only ones.

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Best strategy is to leave the dog in the care of a neighbor who already knows the dog and has positive interactions with him/her. OK, so the same neighbor took care of our daughter when both of us were at work, so their reliability was well-proven.

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