Sunday, September 18, 2011

Dogged by a pet's death

A woman in the Northeast owned two dogs. After deciding to take a short trip, she arranged to have a caretaker tend to the dogs she planned to leave at home. A neighbor agreed to do the job, and the owner intended to pay her for providing this service.

The owner wanted the dogs to remain in her house while she was away. She left very specific instructions for the dogs' caretaker.

Twice a day, she was to take the dogs outside, on leashes, so they could "do their business." Once a day, they were also to get a walk, again while on leash. The leashes "were a must" because the woman and her dogs lived on a very busy road.

While she was still on her trip, the owner received the devastating news that one of her dogs had been killed by a car on the busy road outside of her house.

It seems the caretaker had decided to take the dogs to her own house, on the opposite side of the busy road. So the dogs wouldn't run away, she had tied the collars of two rather large dogs with ropes to a lawn chair and then went inside. The larger of the two dogs broke loose and ran toward home and into the street and was struck by a car. The smaller dog was trying to run home, too, but didn't get far because she was pulling the lawn chair behind her.

Another neighbor found the critically injured dog and informed the caretaker.

The caretaker then took the dying animal to an animal hospital and permitted the veterinarian to try to save the dog's life to no avail. As a result of the veterinarian's work, a sizable bill was run up.

A friend of the owner who learned of the incident wrote to me to provide me with the details. She asks: "Should the owner pay the caretaker back for the vet bill?"

There are at least two reasons I believe that the owner bears no responsibility in repaying the caretaker for the bill.

The first reason is that the caretaker did not contact the owner to let her know that her dog had been hit by the car. If she had, she could have told the owner about the efforts the veterinarian was willing to make and the owner could have agreed to those efforts.

The second reason is that the caretaker clearly violated the agreement she had with the owner to care for her dogs. The deal was never to tie the dogs to a lawn chair in her own backyard. The owner explicitly asked the caretaker to agree to care for the dogs in their own home and to keep them on leashes whenever she took them out. Her violation of this agreement resulted in the dog's death.

It would have been right for the caretaker to honor her agreement with the owner. It also would have been right for her to seek permission from the owner to take extraordinary efforts in reviving the dog after it was struck by the car. It's too late for either.

Now, the right thing is for the owner to be allowed to mourn the loss of her pet without the added burden of worrying about whether she owes the caretaker anything for her haphazard behavior.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing:Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


yawningdog said...

This post hits close to home. I run a dog boarding kennel.

In the past, I did call the owners about an injury to their dog that I felt needed a vet attention. The point of the call was 1) let them know what happened and 2) get their permission to take the dog to the vet. On the phone, they seemed a okay with my call about the vet visit. When they picked up the dog, they complained that they could not afford the extra expensive of a vet visit. If they had only said something on the phone, I would not have had the dog treated. My point, communication is key. The sitter definitely should have let the owner know AS SOON AS the accident happened.

Other than that, the sitter is what I like to call "an extra-special kind of stupid" if she thought a lawn chair would stop any size dog determined to leave. The sitter should not only eat the vet bill she should profusely apologize and should offer to pay for a replacement puppy whenever the owner feels up to getting a new dog.

And final advice, don't ask people who don't have dogs of their own to babysit your dogs. They really don't know what dogs are capable of.

dave said...

Horrible horrible..If this were my pet the sitter would have alot more to worry about than reimbursement of a vet bill-if I sound like Tony Soprano here so be it! On the other hand I do think the owner may have some moral responsibility here; the owner must have had some idea of what a complete moron the sitter was either that or the vettibng process was very very weak

Anonymous said...

I think yawningdog has it right. In this day of lawsuits, it wouldn't surprise me if this careless caretaker got hit with one, but let's let it go at paying the vet bill and apologizing profusely.

Charlie Seng

ECS said...

If the careless keeper is asking for reimbursement she has a lot of "CHOOTzpah... She caused the hear and the death of the dog. ALL BY HERSELF!!

Bill Jacobson said...

Agreements between neighbors are rarely in writing so establishing terms can be difficult but when you take responsibility to care for an animal (or any property, for that matter) , you are required to provide a reasonable level of care for that property while it is in your care. Taking the animals home, when they required such regular care, may very well have been reasonable but leaving the animals improperly chained in front of a busy street very likely was not. As such, the neighbor is likely responsible for the reasonable value for the dog... which honestly probably isn't much.

On the vet bill, if the animal was taken for veterinary treatment before the owner had even been notified then it would be an uphill battle to stick the owner with the bill, especially since the animal died and the owner saw no benefit from the treatment. The fact that the caretaker would also have had to accept responsibility for the bill when he checked the animal in, also weighs against him.

The question which has not been addressed is one of tact. The owner will still be living next to the caretaker after this is resolved. Does he really want to start a feud with a neighbor? The caretaker was almost assuredly not a professional caretaker and may well have been young (animal caretakers often are). Regardless, good luck getting anyone to watch your animals again if you stick it to this caretaker. Neighbors talk.

The status quo is the best resolution. The caretaker is already required to pay the vet bill. Although the owner is entitled to damages for the animal, the value is likely nominal and will be offset by the reasonable value of the services performed (which at two visits per day could add up quickly on a reasonable hourly rate despite what the owner was intending to pay). For good neighborly relations though it is probably best to forget the value of the animal and come to an agreement on splitting the vet bill.

Proceed as you wish but you shall likely reap what you sow...

Bill Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Wow, this hits really close to home. A very similar thing happened to my dog, except the caretaker was not negligent and my dog escaped and was hit by a car anyway. In my case I think the caretaker (who was, and still is, also a friend) paid for part of the vet bill and I paid for the rest when I picked up my dog's remains (the caretaker kindly offered to pay for the whole thing, but I didn't want to deal with negotiating about it). I honestly couldn't even tell you how much it cost, probably a few hundred bucks for both of us. It is a bit of a blow to have to pay money on top of everything else, but the bill was really the last of my concerns when I lost my dog.

I absolutely agree that the owner bears no financial responsibility and that the caretaker bears the responsibility of a major apology to the owner, as well as the commitment to take future animal caretaking duties much more seriously, or perhaps not even engage in them at all.

Henery said...

Its so Horrible horrible..If this were my pet the sitter would have alot more to worry about than reimbursement of a vet bill-if I sound like Tony Soprano here so be