The concept seems like a great innovation — until you read the horror stories. When you hire dog walkers, you would expect them to not only take your pooch for a spin around the park, but to also keep him or her alive and well. But several dogs — a Wheaten terrier named Winnie in Houston, a Seattle mutt named Bandit — have been killed while on Wag! walks. And according to a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles, Snoopy, a papillon dog, died after wandering out of the yard of a Rover contract worker. All were hit by cars.
The marketing pitches on these companies’ websites are designed to make you feel as comfortable as a yellow lab napping in the sun. They promise to carry insurance to reimburse you for damage to your property by employees and cover the costs of some veterinary care in case your pooch is injured while on a walk.
But do they carefully select and screen their workers? Wag!, Rover and PetBacker all say they conduct background checks and vet their walkers, but they provide few details on how they do so. “I’m not a dog lover, but I can’t imagine the randomness of using these services,” says Edgar Dworsky, a consumer lawyer and the force behind consumerworld.org, a noncommercial website devoted to consumer issues. “You don’t quite know who you’re going to get, and it’s not like you can use a resource like the Better Business Bureau to check out these individuals.”
Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of local dog-walking services will help you find competent care for your pet. Through special arrangement with The Washington Post, you can access all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice (including reports on veterinarians, kennels, groomers, pet sitters and more) until March 31 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/pets.
Checkbook reviewed the application process for these companies, and the process of getting a gig walking pooches seemed pretty easy to its researchers. Yes, potential walkers must correctly answer some questions on pet safety and agree to have their references contacted. Although this may screen out possible dognappers or complete idiots, Checkbook found it does little to ascertain whether applicants have any experience or expertise with animals — or whether they will be careful with your furry family members.
So how should you hire help? One resource is the customer reviews available at checkbook.org. Also ask other pet parents or your vet for recommendations.
In general, Checkbook recommends going with an individual you find on your own or with a service that employs walkers, as opposed to using the apps. Says Marny Nofi, an animal behavior expert at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: “Many caregivers identify themselves as ‘pet lovers.’ There is a large difference between someone who has owned pets and someone who works professionally with animals. If you have a pet who is well-socialized and can adapt to change easily, this might not be an issue. However, if your dog or cat has any underlying behavioral issues, then having a ‘pet lover’ versus an experienced pet handler may result in some unexpected issues.”
But don’t entirely rule out these apps, either. “Using an app to initially locate a care provider can be a great way to expand your support system,” Nofi says, “but it would be in your pet’s best interests to narrow the field to one or two consistent caregivers.”
No matter whom you consider, do the following:
●Ask to see documentation that the service carries liability insurance.
●Check references from other pet owners — not the walker’s friends or mom.
●Ask how the team or individual will deal with your pet. In addition to getting your contact information and other basic facts, some services compile detailed profiles of your pet and his or her habits. (“High-energy puppy that needs a daily run.” “Elderly terrier that’s bushed after a short walk.”) You could even create your own doggy dossier and update it as your pet’s needs change.
●Whether you are using an individual or a service, have the specific walker over to see if that person gets along with Scruffy, asks detailed questions and seems attentive to your pet.
●Ask for pricing. Rates can range from $10 to $30 per walk, depending on time spent and what company or person you use. Ask if booking regular walks can net you a discounted rate.
●Find out how the walker will get into your home to pick up your pup. Some of the apps recommend getting a lockbox; with a company or individual you use repeatedly, you’ll probably give the person a key. It’s easier to feel secure doing this if the person comes from an established company or is someone you use regularly.
●Ask pointed questions: How long will you spend walking my dog? What will you do to make sure he or she doesn’t eat something bad, get off the leash or tangle with other critters? What’s your training and experience?
●Find out what happens if the walker gets sick or can’t show up because of an emergency.
●Ask if the walker will take your pet to your veterinarian if he or she gets sick or injured.
●Find out what special services the walker or walking company offers. Most will refill the dog’s water bowl, some will send pictures of your dog romping in the park. Most offer a “key hold” arrangement where they have a copy of your house key so they can get in if you have to work late.
Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s ratings of local dog walkers, along with all of Checkbook’s ratings and advice, free of charge until March 31 at checkbook.org/washingtonpost/pets.
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