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The Uber and Lyft of dog-walking fight state oversight

Elaine S. Povich
Stateline.org

All Connecticut state Rep. Kim Rose wanted was to make sure home-based “doggie day cares” followed the same health and safety rules as commercial kennels. It sounded deceptively simple.

But as soon as the Democrat introduced her bill in January, web-based pet care services such as Rover and Wag worked to exempt their business model from the bill. They feared that making their contractors subject to the same licensing and taxes as commercial kennels would undermine their business.

Often referred to as the Uber and Lyft of the pet care industry, Rover and Wag contract with freelance dog walkers, pet sitters and in-home pet care workers. Those workers are linked up via the companies’ apps and sent to clients’ houses on demand. Very often, the workers keep pets in their own homes, sometimes during the day, sometimes overnight.

The gig-economy model for pet care has disrupted the industry like ride-hailing services upended the taxi industry.

The gig-economy model for pet care has disrupted a standing industry in somewhat the same way that ride-hailing services upended the taxi industry. And just like in those cases, cities and states are scrambling to make their regulations fit.

In addition to Connecticut, many other states and cities, including Colorado, Massachusetts and California, are grappling with overseeing the pet care platforms, whether by implementing new statutes or considering legislation that specifically addresses how they do business.

Yet Rover and Wag have successfully fended off regulations in state after state in recent years, earning exemptions that relieve their gig workers from the oversight required of kennels and pet care professionals.

As a result, millions of pets are being walked, boarded and cared for by people with no formal training or licensing, whom consumers often don’t know personally and whose homes haven’t been inspected. Traditional kennels say the exemptions aren’t fair and put animals at risk.

But critics of more regulation say the lax oversight makes sense for gig pet sitters, calling some state lawmakers’ efforts to license dog walkers government overreach and pointing out that unlicensed babysitters routinely care for children.

The app-based model works well for on-call pet sitters, like college students picking up a little extra cash, but it threatens professional pet care operations, said Erin Hatton, a sociology professor at the University of Buffalo who has studied the gig economy.

“For those other businesses that are subject to regulations and licensure, it could disrupt them very much — and, one could argue, unfairly,” she said in a phone interview. For example, kennels pay taxes, obtain businesses licenses and are subject to inspections — none of which applies to freelance dog walkers and pet sitters.

The online companies argue a house or apartment shouldn’t be regulated the same as a kennel. John Lapham, general counsel at Rover, said the company has lobbied to shape the bills in at least seven states with legislation either passed or pending.

“Connecticut was not looking to regulate only the kinds of things Rover does, they were looking to regulate things that folks in Connecticut have been doing forever, walking dogs, watching pets,” Lapham said. “The notion that you might watch a dog for a week, and they give you 50 bucks, and you need a $400 kennel license is absurd.”

In addition to dog walking and pet sitting, Rover workers can housesit or do “drop in” visits with animals to feed them, let them out for a few minutes or administer medicine.

After lobbying by the pet sitting platforms, Connecticut this year passed a different bill that exempted homes, apartments or facilities where three or fewer dogs are boarded from laws regulating kennels. That’s exactly what the pet sitting platforms were seeking.

Rose said she felt overwhelmed by the lobbying and the eventual result, especially because it came on a day she was absent. “Rover hired a bunch of high-paid lobbyists. They sent out emails to their customers saying we were trying to shut down the biz entirely,” she sighed, insisting that wasn’t true.

Bob Mickolyzck, owner of Snowflake Pet Center in Milford, Connecticut, which has been operating since 1969, said he has seen a drop in business since the pet care platforms came along. “I could hold up to 180 dogs out there,” he said in a telephone interview from his establishment. “Right now, I might have 10 dogs out there. It has hurt all the kennels in the state.”

Mickolyzck said he went to Hartford to lobby on behalf of established kennels but was overwhelmed by the app-based companies’ lobbyists. “It’s a big thorn in my side because it takes away from all the commercial kennels,” he said. “We have all our insurances and licensing and our upkeep.”

In Los Angeles, plaintiff Valerie Saryan filed a lawsuit in February against Seattle-based Rover, maintaining that the company failed to rigorously vet its pet sitters, resulting in the death of the woman’s dog, a papillon named Snoopy. The lawsuit named the pet sitter as actress Angelica Bridges, star of the TV series “Baywatch.” Six months later, Saryan asked that the case be dismissed.

“We feel terrible about this incident, and this is a very rare experience on the platform,” Rover spokesman Dave Rosenbaum said in an email. “For context, over 500K services in the Los Angeles area have been booked by pet owners this year, with virtually every stay going exactly as planned.”