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Atlanta dog’s death among complaints as online sitter service grows

Before leaving for a business trip, Colleen Nolan booked a sitter online to take care of her 12-year-old companion — a blind Japanese Chin named Mooshu.

Colleen Nolan booked a sitter online to take care of her beloved, 12-year-old dog Mooshu. Things went horribly wrong. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

She had booked with Rover.com in the past and everything went fine. The sitter she had used in the past was unavailable, so she found another one with Rover.com who said she specialized in senior dogs, and with dogs with special needs.

While Nolan was away, the sitter took Mooshu to her apartment without Nolan’s permission, according to Nolan. The dog somehow made his way to a two-story balcony at the apartment and fell two stories onto concrete. He died from internal injuries.

As Rover.com and other big online platforms grow, so do complaints and stories about things going wrong. Dog care experts say mistakes are inevitable with large platforms, and they urge people to carefully vet their dog sitter regardless of where and how they book the sitter.

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“I got e-mailed a condolence letter to me and my family from Rover … Mooshu was my family,” said Nolan, who works for Cox Automotive — a subsidiary of Cox Enterprises, which also owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In a statement, Rover said it joined Nolan in her grief.

“As dog parents ourselves, our hearts were shattered by this incident,” Rover said in the statement. “In order to be respectful of the privacy of the parties involved in this case, I cannot share too many specifics. However, I can tell you that in the rare event an accident occurs, our Trust and Safety Team conducts a prompt investigation and takes appropriate follow-up actions.”

Rover said Nolan’s sitter was deactivated from the platform.

After the death of Mooshu, Colleen Nolan says she feels as though Rover falsely advertises itself as a trusted source for dog sitters. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Founded in 2011, Rover.com, a Seattle-headquartered, online marketplace, connects dog owners and other “pet parents” with a range of care services including pet sitting, dog boarding and dog walking.

Along with Wag, these Uber-like operations are designed to make sure the dog walker or weekend pet sitter is just a few clicks away. Rover.com has over 200,000 searchable sitters on the platform.

Pet-care startups are looking to revolutionize an industry that has long relied on word-of-mouth referrals. But as the online platforms grow with easy-to-use apps, they’re facing some of the same issues that have plagued other gig economy players, including complaints about service and accountability.

In June, the Better Business Bureau recognized a pattern of complaints within customer reviews for Rover. Consumers alleged Rover does not properly vet their employees, hides negative ratings, does not reimburse consumers for issues regarding neglect, mistreatment, theft or destruction of property, according to the alert issued by BBB.

In its response, Rover says every sitter on Rover has passed a full background check. The company states it accepts less than 20 percent of potential sitters. Rover said it does not remove reviews but edits them for containing material that violates their terms of service, such as the use of profanity, slander, or threatening language. Rover also said its Rover Guarantee covers those “rare incidents where our community standards were not met.”

BBB said the organization and Rover, which formally incorporated under the name “A Place for Rover,” are working together to eliminate this pattern of complaints. There are currently 48 complaints with BBB. Of those, none of them from consumers in Georgia.

Dené Joubert, lead investigative consultant with the BBB Northwest + Pacific region, said in an email this week that it came to their attention that Rover.com was growing in popularity and therefore complaints were also increasing.

“This is one of those cases where it’s a new business model for this industry and there seems to be misunderstanding among consumers exactly what role Rover.com is playing and what they will assume in responsibility for the caregivers advertising on their website,” he said in the email.

Joubert said that, “as the company responds to all complaints and responded to the pattern developing, they are working with us and therefore we believe they are not in violation of our Code of Business Practices.”

LifeLine Animal Project spokesperson Karen Hirsch, who owned a pet sitting business for 10 years, believes pet sitters should be members of a pet sitting organization like the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters, which provides education and standards for pet sitters. Interview the sitter ahead of time, she said, and ask the pet sitter to share their policies and procedures such as stating they will not take pets anywhere without your permission, and they only give medication with written permission. To make sure she is hiring a pet sitter with plenty of experience, she only hires sitters who either worked or volunteered in animal rescue, or have veterinary care experience.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Victoria Stilwell, a well-known dog trainer and dog behavior expert who’s the host of Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog,” offers these suggestions when you’re looking for a dog sitter.

Ask other dog owners in your community for recommendations for a trusted dog sitter.

Talk to an animal care professional, such as your dog’s veterinarian or dog groomer, who can be another good resource.

Get references.

Seek a dog sitter who has special dog training and/or certification.

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