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North Texas Family's French Bulldog Drowns While In The Care Of Rover App Pet Sitter: 'She Was Our Baby'

COPPELL, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) - Multiple customers say a popular dog walking and dog sitting service failed to keep their pets safe.

Rover is a popular app that connects pet owners with dog walkers and sitters in their area.

When Amy and Sean Houston entrusted a Rover sitter to watch their beloved French Bulldog, Coco, it was the last time they would see her alive.

Coco the French bulldog
Coco the French bulldog (courtesy: Amy and Sean Houston)

"She was our baby," Amy Houston said. "She was the baby of the family."

Last April, the Houstons threw a graduation party for their daughter at their home in Coppell.

Afraid Coco would jump in the pool, Amy and Sean started looking for a dog sitter. The couple eventually chose a sitter through Rover who lived nearby.

"I chose Rover specifically because of the persona that they put out there to be safe," Amy said.

Amy and Sean Houston with family
Amy and Sean Houston with family (Courtesy: Houston family)

The Houstons expected to drop Coco off for a few hours. Then, right before they were supposed to retrieve Coco, Amy received a frantic text. Coco was missing.

"Omg she's gone," the sitter wrote in a message. "I just switched dogs from inside to out and she's gone. We are looking in the neighborhood. I don't know how. There is [sic] no marks under the fence."

The family rushed to the sitter's house only to find it was too late.

"The thing we were trying to protect Coco from is precisely what ended up happening to her," Sean said.

Coco had fallen into the sitter's pool and drowned.

"I screamed and I cried," Amy said. "I felt every possible emotion that I could."

Amy Houston and Coco
Amy Houston and Coco (courtesy: Amy Houston)

The Houstons are not alone.

CBS News spoke to fourteen families who say their dogs died while in the care of sitters found through apps. Twelve of those incidents involved Rover sitters.

Colleen Nolan hired Rover to watch her dog while she was on a work trip. Then, she received a text from the sitter saying her dog, Mushuu, had fallen.

"I'm like, 'How far did he fall?' And she said, 'Two stories,'" Nolan said.

On its website, Rover emphasizes "trust," stating all sitters must pass a background check before getting approved by a team of sitter specialists.

"Of course, you want to make sure they have a history of vetting," said Eric Cedillo, a consumer protection attorney.

Cedillo said the problem is when companies fall short of the promises they tout in their advertising.

So just how thorough is that vetting process?

When applying for Rover, the first prompt asks potential sitters and walkers about how much money they'd like to make.

"Their priority is making money and not the safety of these animals," Sean said.

Rover says applicants must provide testimonials, a profile photo and pass a safety quiz.

Extra certification is only required for dog walkers. The training involves learning how to use dog collars and harnesses.

The Houstons said at first, Rover denied responsibility for Coco's death.

But after contacting the media, the couple recouped the cost of Coco's cremation and veterinarian bills.

Rover also offered to pay for the cost of Coco if the Houstons agreed to never tell their story.

But the Houstons refused to sign a nondisclosure agreement because they want to warn others.

"If they choose to use Rover, they have to be aware that should anything go wrong, there is no guarantee," Amy said. "You have no idea what you're getting from them."

A Facebook group called, "My Dog Was Killed While In The Care of," consists of pet owners nationwide who experienced similar situations.

Rover would not disclose how many dogs have died in their care, only calling deaths extremely uncommon.

"We leverage data from every stay and walk to facilitate smarter, safer matches and ensure sitters continue to meet our standards," said Dave Rosenbaum, a spokesman for Rover.

In the Houston's case, the sitter was removed from the app.

Rosenbaum said in the event of a death, Rover pauses a sitter's profile while the company investigates the incident.

"They will investigate the specifics of the situation, including the health of the dog prior to the stay, as well as the sitter's previous services and interactions on the platform. Following the review, appropriate actions are taken, such as safety improvements or removing sitters or owners from our community," Rosenbaum wrote in an e-mail.

A lawsuit filed against Rover in Los Angeles claims a sitter remained on the platform even after a dog died in her care.

The owner's attorney argues "there is no system in place to vet sitters." Rover's lawyers called the allegations in the lawsuit "one sided" and "inaccurate."

Questions and answers with Rover spokesman Dave Rosenbaum:

Q: What safeguards are in place to ensure your dog sitters are qualified? Do you feel a short quiz, background check and testimonial can sufficiently vouch for someone's ability to care for a living creature?
A: We understand that the best person to select a care provider is the pet parent. We encourage pet owners and potential sitters to meet prior to stays to discuss care expectations, introduce pets to new faces, and determine if the dog is a good fit for the environment where care will be provided. To facilitate this, we provide a detailed checklist for discussion.

Q: After a sitter is approved with your company--are they subjected to any sort of rolling background check to ensure they have not committed any crimes?
A: The background check is completed at the initial approval stage, after which we continuously monitor activity on Rover (including public and private feedback from pet owners) to reevaluate whether sitters should or shouldn't be on our platform. Additionally, we leverage data from every stay and walk to facilitate smarter, safer matches and ensure sitters continue to meet our standards.

Q: How many dogs have died in the care of Rover sitters since the company's creation?
A: These types of occurrences are extremely uncommon on our platform, and we take them to heart. For context, close to 200,000 stays have been booked through our platform in the Dallas area, with almost every stay going exactly as expected by the pet parent.

Q: Why do you ask grieving pet owners to sign NDA agreements in exchange for covering the cost of their animal?
A: Because over 97% of reviews of services provided through the platform receive 5 stars, we hope users will share their experiences using the platform. The vast majority of reimbursements made under the Rover Guarantee do not require a settlement agreement of any kind. In some rare cases, Rover and another party have entered into settlement agreements, but this agreement does not prohibit the family from sharing their experience.

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