Wag! dog walker charged with animal cruelty; customers concerned about industry background checks

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A Danville couple is questioning the vetting process of walkers hired through a popular dog-walking app after home video appears to capture a man kicking and whipping their family pet. 

What makes them worry even more is that the on-demand dog-walking service, Wag!, only conducts background checks on applicants once before they are hired and does not do continuous checks. The dog-walking app has no relation to Wag Hotels.

Annual background checks are not legally required of dog-walking services, but according to Bloomberg, the practice of periodically checking has been expanding into the healthcare, financial, manufacturing and retailing industries. 

VIDEO: A Wag! dog walker is seen kicking a family pet in Danville

The dog owners, Miranda Fulks and David Brown, feel the dog walking industry should follow suit. 

“These people are in your homes,” said Brown. “They’re walking your dog. They take care of a part of your family.” 

Fulks added: “I had no idea, when you read [Wag!’s] app, they say they vigorously background check their people. It does not say they only do that once.”

Like many dog owners, Brown and Fulks relied on the Los Angeles-based Wag, founded in 2014, to help walk their two dogs, Olly and Maggie. They say a few weeks went by without problems until the dog walker, Adam Vavrus, 37, called them about an incident during a walk. Shortly after the call, they also noticed that Olly was acting differently.

“He threw up blood twice and just laid there,” Fulks said. “[The vet] said the specks of blood were signs of severe stress.”

Read Wag's letter to the Danville couple

The couple checked their home surveillance video from Dec. 17, the date of the last walk. The video recorded Vavrus showing up to their home with four other dogs. Wag! policy clearly states that customers’ dogs are given “a one-on-one experience,” meaning Vavrus was already in violation of company policy. 

“There are just too many dogs for him to handle,” Brown said as he watched the video again with 2 Investigates.

A few minutes in, the video shows Vavrus approach Olly from behind, prompting the dog to snap and make contact with the Vavrus’ arm. 

In an e-mail, Vavrus told 2 Investigates that the dog bit him and he “needed to test Olly and make sure he understood who the pack leader was.” Over the course of about 12 minutes in the surveillance video, Vavrus is seen chasing Olly around the house, growling at the dog and kneeing the animal’s chest. Video appears to show Vavrus kick and whip Olly with a leash.

Fulks and Brown went to police. And on Jan. 2, the Contra Costa County District Attorney charged Vavrus with misdemeanor animal cruelty. According to the complaint, prosecutors determined Vaurus “inflicted unnecessary cruelty and abuse upon Olly.”

In the e-mail to 2 Investigates, Vavrus stood by his dog training methods. Still, he acknowledged that his frustrations got the better of him and his intention was “never to abuse or harm.” 

Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney Chris Sansoe told 2 Investigates a Danville police officer had encountered Vavrus three months before the incident with Olly. Several people at a dog park called police reporting Vavrus for being aggressive with animals there. No crime was determined and Vavrus disputes the incident, but the officer felt it was enough to incorporate into the current case. 

On-demand dog walkers get background checked once

2 Investigates checked the hiring vetting process for Wag! and a similar dog-walking service called Rover. Both companies require a single background check during the initial hiring process. The checks are done by third-party companies and filter for criminal records, sex offenders and people on global watch lists. Neither companies do continuous background checks. 

Brown and Fulks worry that if a walker commits a crime after being hired, there’s no way anyone would know. 

“That was news to me. I think everyone should know that,” Fulks said. “These are strangers who come into your home.”

Although continuous background checks aren’t uncommon in other older industries, they are unusual in the new on-demand, gig economy that consists of companies like Uber, Lyft and GrubHub. In July, background checking provider Checkr announced that Uber was its first client to request for continuous checks on drivers. The new program was meant for the company to see whether drivers are charged with new offenses. Checkr said Uber is still its only client publicly sharing it's using the program, although others have expressed interest. 

The exact number of how many companies nationwide conduct more than one background check, sometimes called continual screening, isn’t known. 

But the numbers appear to be growing. Some examples of companies that have adopted the continuous screening model include the airport in Atlanta, where employees are re-screened every two years, and Chicago public school teachers after a Tribune expose on sex abuse prompted the district to recheck its 45,000 employees, Bloomberg reported.

Wag cuts ties with dog walker

Wag offered Fulks a $369 refund and $100 of Wag! credit in what the couple believes was a letter meant to silence them.

“It is a hush letter. It absolute is. I was absolutely appalled at this letter,” said Brown. 

When 2 Investigates reached out, Wag! said Vavrus’ reported behavior was unacceptable and the company cut ties with him. In regards to questions about its vetting process, Wag said in a statement, “We do a robust vetting process that includes an application and verification process, a third-party background check, and two online tests covering dog safety and handling knowledge that each applicant must pass to be approved to work on our platform.”

Rover told 2 Investigates it makes its applicants undergo similar handling tests. It also allows customers to purchase an enhanced background check on their dog walkers and is considering possibly adopting continuous background checks. 

Candice Nguyen is an investigative reporter with KTVU Fox 2. Send story and investigation tips to her at candice.nguyen@foxtv.com.