Since ride-sharing began changing how we get around, startup founders have aspired to create a business that’s the “Uber of [whatever industry doesn’t have an Uber yet].” Grocery delivery, women’s haircuts, massage, flowers, lawn care—for any given service, someone likely got venture capital funding by proposing to connect providers and customers, all from the convenience of their phones.
One such service is Wag!, a dog-walking app based out of Los Angeles that promises “trusted dog walkers in your area” with live GPS-based tracking. Through the app, you can hire a dog walker who will come into your house, take your pet out, and bring them back, all while you’re at work or otherwise unavailable. It’s an appealing setup—but not one that comes without risk.
Sara and Nick Moore of Houston learned that the hard way. According to CBS News, the dog walker they hired through the app told them that their wheaten terrier, Winnie, was home safe at the end of the walk. She wasn’t. Instead, they learned from a Wag! representative that their dog had been hit by a car while in the dog walker’s care.
The company’s response makes it seem like its public relations were handled by a legal team. Wag! offered the Moores a reimbursement of $188 for the costs of Winnie’s cremation—a standard part of the company’s “Trust and Safety Guarantee”—in exchange for the couple signing a non-disclosure agreement. They declined.
What happened to the Moores could happen to anyone, whether they use an app like Wag! or hire a more traditional dog-walking service that doesn’t appear in headlines alongside words like “disruption.” But “Uber-of-X” apps are constructed in such a way that it’s harder to ensure accountability. Wag! boasts of its “comprehensive background screenings” and the $1,000,000 in insurance it offers, but both of those things can be misleading. An insurance policy won’t bring a dog in the care of a reckless walker back to life. A background check can tell you if a person has been arrested for a crime, but it can’t tell you if a person is responsible enough to care for someone else’s pet. Wag! puts its walkers through a detailed online test, but that process can only assure that the approved dog walkers are capable of Googling answers to a quiz. For many walkers on the app, they never meet with anyone at Wag!, which means that a form of vetting that humans have used for centuries—assessing a person’s credibility and trustworthiness based on how they act in person—never happens. There’s no training process. The consequences for acting irresponsibly are limited to being removed from a part-time gig with an app that has competitors offering similar services. If you hire a conventional dog-walking service, you’re still trusting a stranger to look after your pet—but if that stranger is employed full-time and relies upon their job, that means an inherent accountability that app-based services don’t offer.
This isn’t an issue that’s limited to Wag!, of course. Most “Uber-of-X” businesses are built around putting slick marketing and convenience at the forefront in order to encourage people to trust a stranger in a situation that carries some risk. As of May 2018, more than 100 Uber drivers had been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing passengers. In 2016, more than 50 people in New York who were hired through Uber-for-chores app Handy were accused of property theft crimes. Airbnb users have been killed, sexually assaulted, secretly recorded by their hosts, and more. But what happened to the Moores with Wag! is a visceral reminder of the risks of entrusting our personal lives to startups whose business models discourage accountability.
It’s also not the first time Wag! has dealt with similar issues—or handled them poorly. According to a Bloomberg story from 2017, a dog on Long Island went missing while in the care of a Wag! dog walker. The dog’s owner said that the company offered her $2,500 to keep quiet and offered to pay for a planned vacation to Disney World. She shared text messages she received from the company with the New York Daily News in which she was encouraged to tell reporters “I don’t blame them for Buddy” and that Wag! had “gone to extraordinary lengths to help us bring Buddy home.” When she posted about her experience on social media, she received a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer for the company that read, “If your retraction and apology to Wag! are not publicly posted to each and every social media platform that you have used to libel Wag! within 24 hours of the time of this email, this office has been authorized to use all available means to bring as swift as possible an end to your lies.” (She did not; Buddy was eventually found by someone who saw a poster that the company put up in the neighborhood.) Earlier this year, a Wag! user in the Northern California town of Danville captured security footage of a walker kicking their dog in their home.
After the story of Winnie went public earlier this month, Wag! CEO Hilary Schneider posted an open letter on the company’s website acknowledging that “we have some work to do on our end” and promising an update to the policy that asked the Moores to sign a non-disclosure agreement before receiving a reimbursement for the expenses associated with Winnie’s death. She didn’t address the inherent lack of accountability in a business model that treats everyone who works for it as an independent contractor. For their part, the Moores told CBS News that “in the future, they plan to use qualified local services with full-time walkers” to care for their pets.
An earlier version of this article’s headline incorrectly stated that the couple was from Fort Worth, not Houston. Texas Monthly regrets this error.