The startup world’s cuddly, cutthroat battle to walk your dog

By Chavie Lieber

The signs for Norman first appeared on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in early March.

“REWARD. LOST DOG. 4 year old, microchipped, male, tan, Chihuahua. He is not wearing a collar. Missing since 03/02/2018. DO NOT CHASE.”

By mid-April, they were all across New York City. Norman the Chihuahua had gone missing during a walk facilitated by a pet care startup called Wag, and his owner Nicole DiCarlo was determined to get him home.

She says Wag was initially helpful in the search for Norman. It paid for flyers to be printed, and said it would cover a $5,000 reward for Norman’s return. It also hired a professional dog tracker. But things soon got weird, says DiCarlo. A Chihuahua in her neighborhood was hit by a car the day after Norman went missing, and Wag’s CEO Hilary Schneider tried to convince her the dead dog was Norman. A delivery man had taken photos, and once DiCarlo saw them, she disagreed.

“The other dog was bigger, and the fur coloring was wrong,” she says. “They had no real evidence that it was Norman, and yet the CEO tries to tell me he’s deceased. I’ve asked a few family members to look at the photos, and we all know it’s not him. They just wanted to get rid of us.”

DiCarlo is not the only person to lose a pet at the hands of a pet care startup. Elaine Conoly says her dachshund Wally was killed by another dog while in the care of a sitter she found through Wag’s main competitor, Rover. She has since started a GoFundMe to raise money to bring legal action against what she calls a “negligent business plastered with lies.”

Wag and Rover are two of the newest and largest players in the booming pet industry, each with more than $300 million in venture capital funding. Both companies are digital marketplaces where pet owners can find dog walkers, pet sitters, and boarders via an app, with most services ranging from about $20 to $50. Wag is often referred to as “Uber for dogs,” since it assigns on-demand walkers and sitters, similar to the way Uber’s algorithm assigns drivers, though pet owners ultimately approve or decline the worker they’re offered. Rover has earned the nickname “DogBnb,” as users can sift through hundreds of available workers who set their own prices.

Wag and Rover are fighting each other for dominance while simultaneously embroiled in a different, messier kind of feud — one with pet owners themselves. Plenty of users praise the startups for their convenience, but many are also speaking out with allegations of negligence and empty guarantees.

The companies are quickly learning that when it comes to people’s beloved animals, the potential for profits is high, but so are the stakes.

Pets are taking up more and more room in our lives. They dine right next to us at restaurants, panting happily at their owners’ feet. We travel with them on trains and on airplanes, where the number of emotional support animals on commercial flights jumped 56 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the trade association Airlines for America. They’re increasingly showing up at work too, with employers boasting pets in the workplace as an added perk.

Pet owners spend $86.7 billion on their animals, according to the research firm Mintel. This is a market that now includes farm-to-table cuisine, posh furniture, luxury collars, and spa services. A decade ago, the pet industry netted just $44.6 billion a year. Why the sudden surge in coddling and spending? Millennials, of course.

Chihuahua mix Valentina at her home in New York City.

While millennials may not own cars or homes, three-quarters of Americans in their 30s have dogs. A little more than half own cats. A 2017 survey found that 68 percent of US households now include a pet, a figure that’s increased 12 percent since the 1980s; millennials have surpassed baby boomers in pet ownership and are the country’s largest pet-owning age demographic.

With millennials having kids later in life, it’s perhaps not surprising so many see their pets as “starter children.” This has in turn inspired the much-maligned term “fur babies” — and the uptick in millennial spending on fur babies has led to a gold rush.

“Investor interest is always piqued when you have a large and growing market with enthusiast consumers that have rapidly changing needs and expectations,” says Eurie Kim, a partner at Forerunner Ventures, which has invested in several pet startups. “We’ve seen new businesses emerging to tackle on-demand vet services, televet services, marketplaces for buyers and sellers of pets, and, of course, dog-walking and -watching services, and food, treat, and supply companies.”

Rover was started in December 2011 by three dog lovers in Seattle’s tech scene. Greg Gottesman, who spent 20 years as a venture capitalist, came up with the idea after his Labrador was mauled at a local kennel. He recruited Microsoft’s former general manager Aaron Easterly to be Rover’s CEO, and Philip Kimmey, whom he met at Seattle Startup Weekend, to be the company’s director of software development.

Rover launched with overnight pet boarding, and within two years it had amassed nearly 80,000 workers across 4,300 US cities. In 2015, it expanded into book-ahead home day care, drop-in visits, and dog walking. These days, Rover has more than 200,000 workers in 14,000 cities (Rover would not share the number of pet owners who use its service with Vox).

Easterly considers Rover a genuine early market disruptor and the pet industry one that was truly ripe for disruption. Big-box retailers like Petco and Petsmart have typically dominated the massive pet market by focusing on two of its most lucrative sectors: food and accessories, which together make up 57 percent of spending, per Mintel’s data. But the pet services sector — which includes walking, sitting, and boarding — has traditionally been small and localized, without any companies offering pet care on a large scale.

“Greg was focused on fixing the kennel problem, because kennels are expensive, rigid, and most people don’t use them, while I was sick of having to ask my friends to take care of my Pomeranian,” Easterly says. “She had skin conditions, and when I’d take her to friends, I’d be like, ‘Here’s her ointment, it needs to be rubbed on her belly three times a day.’ They would stare at me with their jaw open, and then say, ‘Dude, I’m doing you a favor, so you’ll get her back alive, and that’s about all I’m gonna promise.’ We underestimated the dissatisfaction with hiring friends and family, and that there are aspects of a commercial relationship that could actually be very positive.”

Wag came a few years later, in January 2015, founded by Los Angeles-based brothers Jonathan and Joshua Viner. The Viners had been early Facebook game developers and built a social media network called ChirpMe. After ChirpMe got acquired, the brothers approached Jason Meltzer, who was running a thriving LA dog-walking business, about adapting his company to an on-demand Uber model. (The Viners are no longer with Wag; Meltzer, who was not made available for this story, still serves as its “chief dog officer,” working on select projects and acting as a brand ambassador.)

Wag is available in 110 cities and has 50,000 workers; like Rover, Wag would not share the number of pet owners who use its service with Vox. Schneider, the CEO, considers Wag’s biggest innovation to be the on-demand services it brings to pet care.

“Technology has enabled us to enjoy conveniences we never had before. Just look at how Uber has increased the demand for cabs,” Schneider says. “We invented the on-demand dog category and we’ve been improving on that experience over the last three-plus years.” (In 2017, Rover added on-demand dog walking to its product suite, a clear reaction to Wag’s offerings.)

Wag and Rover’s pricing is comparable. On-demand dog walking from both Rover and Wag costs $20 for a 30-minute walk or $30 for 60 minutes. Wag’s boarding and sitting services cost $26 a night, plus a $15 fee for pickup and drop-off; Rover workers set their own prices for boarding and sitting, but the average worker charges a total of $40 per night. The companies diverge greatly, however, when it comes to the cut they take from workers. When Rover launched, it took 15 percent of each transaction; that’s since increased to about 20 percent. Wag, on the other hand, takes 40 percent.

Although the companies have similar funding figures — Rover has $310.9 million in venture capital investment, Wag has $361.5 million — Rover is a much bigger business, with a valuation of $970 million to Wag’s $650 million. This is partially a result of Rover being in business for more than double the time Wag has been, and because Rover acquired the competing boarding startup DogVacay in 2017.

But Wag is aggressively encroaching on Rover’s territory. It expanded into sitting and boarding in 2016, and according to transactional data provided to Vox by the analytics company Earnest Research, Wag is growing far faster than Rover. As of June 2018, Rover’s sales were increasing at a rate of 30 percent year over year; Wag sales were increasing at a rate of 165 percent during that same time.

When it comes to user acquisition, Wag and Rover are both fishing in the same pond and using the same tools. They advertise heavily to millennials on Facebook and Instagram and employ identical promotional marketing tactics, giving new users free walks and texting existing users with discount codes during off-peak hours. Their branding is pretty similar too: Both companies have green logos that feature a paw print, and both sell green branded bandanas.

The startups’ CEOs are cordial and vague when addressing their competition. Schneider says Wag is better equipped to “understand the needs of pet parents,” while Easterly says Rover offers “richer” services.

Pet owners are left to choose sides for themselves. Uri Fintzy, pet parent to cats Lanna and Tommy, is a Rover evangelist.

“The app is easy and a great way to vet caregivers,” he says. “We use the same two to three sitters, and they have no problem fulfilling our silly requests, like sending us cat selfies.”

Wag user Gaby Clingman disagrees. She adopted her 60-pound Northern Inuit Luna as a puppy while working a hectic job in television production, and she hated having to find a walker on her own through Rover. Though Rover has since launched on-demand walking that locates a walker for you, she’s remained loyal to Wag: “It’s the most convenient thing ever. You literally press two buttons, and your dog is being walked.”

Clingman and Fintzy both say they have few friends they trust with their pets and so Wag and Rover have become integral to their pet care routines. Still, both admit these services cost them considerable cash. During busy times, Clingman says she’s spent $200 a month on Wag. When Fintzy travels with his fiancée, they spend about $300 per trip on Rover’s cat sitters. Is it worth it?

“Absolutely,” Fintzy says.

Zach Berger downloaded Rover on the recommendation of a friend, after coming home from a New York City animal shelter with Reggie, a wide-grinning pibble (the strategically rebranded name for a pit bull). He scrolled through various walkers that Saturday in February before settling on Juan Rosario, a 34-year-old Lower East Side resident with tons of five-star reviews. Rosario now walks Reggie every weekday.

“He loves to eat stuff off the floor, so I have to constantly be scanning the ground,” Rosario says one recent summer morning while walking Reggie through Tompkins Square Park.

Rosario began working for Rover in 2014. He used to teach citizenship classes, and worked as a supervisor for a dog-walking company in Harlem before moving to Rover full time. He says he’s heard of Wag but hasn’t investigated the platform since he’s happy with his current work situation.

“I realized I just wanted to be responsible for myself,” Rosario says. “Rover helps me feel independent.”

Rover worker Juan Rosario takes smooth fox terrier Rudy for a walk.
Rosario walks pibble Reggie every weekday.
Drogo with Rosario.

He completes around seven Rover walks a day and rarely has to travel far from his apartment to get to his appointments. He receives a key to Berger’s apartment from the building’s doorman, though the rest of his clients’ apartments are accessible via Rover lockboxes placed on apartment doors and window bars or attached to nearby bike racks.

“I do have some non-Rover dog-walking clients, but I like the technology of the app because it eliminates the, ‘Hey, did you get my dog yet?’ texts,” he says. “Plus, there’s insurance coverage for their apartments, so if Reggie breaks out of his kennel and ruins Zach’s place, I’m covered.”

Reggie suddenly stops dead in his tracks, his eyes glued to a dog park. Two shaggy Lakeland terriers are wrestling while a goofy-looking boxer sunbathes belly-up on a park bench. Reggie whimpers, pulling hard on his leash.

“He really wants to go inside, but I don’t do dog parks,” Rosario says, tugging Reggie away. “It’s way too much of a liability. Dogs can get injured quickly.” He pats Reggie’s head: “I know it looks fun, but there’s diseases in there, and I’d rather be safe than sorry. Sorry!”

At the end of every walk, Rosario opens the Rover app and fills out a Rover Card, which is not unlike a school report card. It shows Berger a map of Reggie’s walk, as well as the number of times he peed and pooped. (Wag has a similar feature, except it one-ups Rover by allowing walkers to place poop and pee emojis along the route so owners know exactly where the business gets done.) Rosario will also add a short written report of their rendezvous.

Rosario leaves Zach Berger’s apartment with Reggie.

Walking dogs with Rover can be lucrative if you’re aggressive, Rosario says. He earns $12 for every 30-minute walk and $18 for every 60-minute walk; this summer, he’s averaging a monthly Rover income of $1,700. The average part-time salary of a Rover worker is said to be about $1,000 a month, while those who treat it like a full-time job can, according to some accounts, earn about $3,300 a month. Rosario typically starts his workday around noon, but like his clients, he sometimes spends his evenings working late. He is someone who could benefit from an on-demand service like Rover, so does he hire anyone to walk his own dogs?

“Absolutely not,” he says with a chuckle. “I do not have that luxury.”

Rosario says he feels comfortable handling all types of animals; he has experience walking big dogs and also owns a pibble like Reggie. As a Rover worker, though, he is still put at risk daily. While the company offers insurance coverage for damages to Rover users’ homes and for pet injuries, it doesn’t offer coverage to its workers, who operate as independent contractors. This lack of worker coverage is common for companies in the gig economy; Uber and Lyft have come under fire for similar policies.

A Harlem-based Wag walker named Lexi says that during her onboarding with Wag last year, she inquired about accident coverage for workers. Dogs bite, cats scratch, shit happens. Would Wag help her if she got injured? Lexi says her question was met with disbelief.

“I understand they can’t give us health insurance,” she says, “but it didn’t feel good that not only would the company not protect the walkers on the job, I was actually laughed at for asking.”

John Lapham, Rover’s general counsel, is blunt about how he sees his company’s 200,000-plus contractors. He explains Rover’s worker liability this way: “If you walk into a store and you trip and get hurt, versus you walk into a store and you trip and get hurt while walking a Rover dog, it’s the same thing. What happens to an individual on a half-hour walk with a Rover dog can’t be different than what happens during the other 23 and a half hours a day.”

The bottom line is that Rover isn’t about to start offering health coverage to its huge network of contractors. As Lapham puts it, that’s because the startup is first and foremost for pets. This is why it covers vet bills but won’t help pay for a worker’s trip to the hospital.

“The thing we’re most focused on,” he says, “is how do we continue to let people find each other through the platform — that is, facilitate dog boarding and dog walking.”

These kinds of dismissals of worker safety, as well as the economics of the businesses, have turned off some contractors.

“I got bit pretty bad by a dog and it made me question this whole model,” says Sammy, an aspiring model who consistently earned five-star reviews during the two years he walked dogs for Wag and Rover. After he realized these companies wouldn’t cover his medical costs, he decided to take matters into his own hands, using the apps to build his own roster of clients, who now pay him on Venmo.

“They take a huge cut from us but then don’t really have our interests at heart,” he says, “so I don’t mind taking their customers.”

In July, Wag told Nicole DiCarlo it was going to stop looking for Norman the Chihuahua. It said it would continue to monitor its tip hotline, just in case, and offered to make a donation to a dog charity of DiCarlo’s choice.

Wag told Vox that “based on a forensic analysis of evidence we collected during the search, we sadly believe that Norman likely was struck and killed by a vehicle shortly after he went missing. His parents asked us to continue the search, which we did through the end of July and then scaled it back after our CEO met with one of Norman’s parents to let her know. We are leaving the tip hotline and reward active to support his owners as they continue to look for him, and we will follow up on any leads received.”

Nicole DiCarlo and her boyfriend Cody Hunt have plastered New York City with signs for their missing Chihuahua.

DiCarlo and her boyfriend Cody Hunt have written off services like Wag. Ever since Norman’s story was published by the New York Post, several pet owners have reached out to DiCarlo to share how their pets were lost by Wag and Rover. Following its Norman coverage, the Post has continued to diligently cover dogs gone missing with Wag: a Chihuahua named Sweets, a goldendoodle named Simba, a Chihuahua-dachshund mix named Freddie, a black Jindo mix named Teddy.

It turns out that plenty of dogs have been lost, hurt, or killed while in Wag and Rover’s care. Pet horror stories involving the startups span the country, with cases in Georgia, New Jersey, California, Florida, Colorado, and Illinois, among many other states. Last year, a dog in Las Vegas drowned while being watched by a Rover sitter. In 2015, a pug-Chihuahua mix from Brooklyn named Duckie was hit by a car and killed while out with a Wag walker. That same year, a Los Angeles poodle was fatally mauled while with a Rover boarder.

Both Wag and Rover say they work hard to prevent these situations, and point to their 24-hour live support hotlines as proof. They say the hotlines are manned around the clock to offer help in all conceivable situations, from an owner not satisfied with a service to a worker who has lost a dog. Rover’s hotline team initiates search efforts and hires people to posts flyers for missing animals. Wag’s does the same, and the company has spent as much as $30,000 and even deployed drones to look for a lost dog.

But these PR nightmares don’t match up with the startups’ shiny promises, so the companies do what they can to keep these stories out of the public eye. In 2017, Wag slapped a family with a cease-and-desist letter demanding they take down angry Facebook posts about the company losing their Long Island Lab-beagle mix; Wag also reportedly offered the family $2,500 to stop talking to the press. Additionally, both Wag and Rover have paid upset pet owners settlements in exchange for signing nondisclosure agreements.

Elaine Conoly, whose dachshund was killed by another dog present at her Rover sitter’s home, is a member of a Facebook group for former Rover users who say their pets were killed while in the startup’s care. Some of the members have gotten settlements from the company. Though Conoly wasn’t offered a settlement, she says she wouldn’t have taken one. She prefers to be able to speak out against the company publicly.

“What is the 100 percent Rover Guarantee?” she asks. “It simply means if they kill your dog, it’s good for business because they don’t have to pay for vet bills. I’m seeking damages so people actually see what they were getting, which is no guarantee that your dog won’t be returned in a cooler or an envelope.”

Conoly says that since her story got out, about a dozen pet owners have contacted her with similar stories. All are shocked that the company hasn’t reached out to them.

“The ‘Our Condolences’ automated email I got is the same one all of the other victims had gotten and is Rover’s one and only communication,” she says. “This is not the response of people who love dogs. While nothing will ever bring Wally back to me, they could have offered grieving services, reimbursed me for the vacation they destroyed, sent a care package to my other dog — a simple ‘I’m sorry’ is not good enough.”

A spokesperson for Rover says the company is “devastated over Ms. Conoly’s situation.”

“The safety of pets on our platform is our top priority,” the spokesperson continued. “In the extremely rare event that a pet passes during a stay, our focus is on supporting their owner. We ensure that the service has been refunded and cover all veterinary expenses, including aftercare.”

Angry comments all over Wag and Rover’s social media accounts further underscore users’ dissatisfaction with the companies’ policies and workers. Angry pet owners gripe that they can’t get in touch with Wag over the phone to take care of issues like reimbursement, while others criticize Rover for not kicking irresponsible dog sitters off the platform, even after official complaints have been filed. “The only decent people in the walking business are the dogs,” reads a comment on Wag’s Facebook page. Complaints litter the Better Business Bureau’s site too.

When asked about dogs that have gone missing or been killed under their care, both Wag and Rover maintain such incidents are rare.

“We do millions of walks a year and we’re fortunate to have very few incidents relative to the volume of walks we complete,” says Schneider of Wag. “But we do take any incident very seriously, and we’re a learning organization.”

“When you start doing a million bookings a month, you need to be prepared for everything,” says Rover’s Easterly. “This is why we’re here 24/7 and have overinvested in our trust and safety team and emergency teams. We have the best practices for this, similar to Uber or Airbnb.”

In July, Wag hired Uber’s director of trust and safety research Heather Rothenberg. Under her leadership, Wag’s Trust and Safety team is now restructuring into a “case management system rather than a customer service one, so owners have one person they’re in touch with,” she says. “I’m also really excited to start teaming up with experts to develop training and information videos for our walkers.”

Rosario fastens Reggie’s harness.

Videos are likely not enough. The current Wag and Rover onboarding processes involve a background check, a quiz about basic dog care, an online video lesson on the app’s interface, and a harness test (Wag’s harness test is in person, while Rover’s is done online). Neither company requires prior pet experience, and neither makes first aid or CPR certifications mandatory — accreditations that are standard in pet care, according to Lynda Mortensen, who owns the pet services company Bay Area Pet Pals and has been in the industry for 10 years.

“It’s really not like anyone can or should be taking care of dogs,” says Mortensen. “I think anyone without CPR or first aid shouldn’t call themselves trained in pet care.”

Even current Rover and Wag walkers say the training isn’t adequate.

“It was really basic, bare-bones training,” Lexi says of Wag. “I felt like more time was spent on the functionality of the app and less on how to actually interact with dogs, and or making sure you know what you’re doing once you’re in the field. As a dog owner and someone who, in general, is comfortable with dogs, I felt really nervous and unprepared for my first walk.”

Sandra Roosa recently left a review on Trustpilot calling Rover’s training “a complete joke.”

“There should be a written test about dog safety for all sitters signed up for the app where you emphasize using backup collars and leashes and at least an hour-long basic CPR course,” Roosa wrote. “[Rover’s test] is incredibly unsafe and idiotic. Rover is clearly not at all dedicated to making sure safety comes first — you choose to test a walker’s knowledge on Rover Cards over how to handle a lost or injured dog situation, or how to prevent these incidents to begin with. Priorities?”

Wag and Rover’s meteoric rise in the face of so much controversy is yet another example of the remarkable resilience of tech companies that make our lives easier. The growth of both startups has been seemingly unencumbered by reports of dead dogs, uninsured workers, and unhappy customers. The convenience factor — Wag and Rover’s true, if not wholly original, innovation — is winning out.

It’s a familiar story in Silicon Valley. Take Uber, which became the subject of public outrage and a #DeleteUber campaign after it appeared to be in support of President Trump’s 2017 executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country. Just weeks later, allegations of sexual harassment at the company were published. Nevertheless, today the company is experiencing rapid user growth, with bookings up 41 percent in the last quarter. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal has made the company the least trusted in tech, but a recent poll found that three-quarters of Facebook users still use the social media network as much as or more than they did before the scandal.

It isn’t just the public’s willingness to forgive and forget that indicates Wag and Rover are destined for further success. They’ve both got big money on their side. T. Rowe Price, the global asset management firm that was an early investor in both Uber and Facebook, led Rover’s most recent $125 million funding round. Wag has Softbank’s landmark $100 billion fund to thank for its latest $300 million.

Still, both companies must innovate in order to keep their investors’ tails wagging. Rover plans to expand into other on-demand pet services like grooming. Before that, though, it’s working out its global ambitions, having recently expanded to London and opening for business in Germany later this year.

Wag is looking into ways it can further differentiate its walking service. Among the new features it’s piloting is one that allows users to request how far they want their pet walked. This is in response to owners becoming obsessed with their pet’s fitness, Schneider says, “while there are others who just want their dog to get outside and smell the roses but not be pushed one bit further.” Wag is also testing food (fresh-cooked, no less), which is where the big margins in the pet industry come from.

The never-ending parade of products and services pet parents are willing to splurge on are sure to provide growth opportunities for quite a while.

Schneider says Wag has been thinking about the full life cycle of a dog, from purchasing and adoption through puppy life up to the very end. “All the services that you use today that don’t come to you ultimately could come to you,” she says. She added that she recently had to put down her own dog. “It’s an example of a service that can be much better than taking a dog to a vet.”

On-demand doggy euthanasia? Now that would be something.

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