Thinking of Hiring or Becoming a Pet Sitter? Read This Please

Thinking of Hiring or Becoming a Pet Sitter? Read This Please
photo: Laura Young

This is Part 1 of a two part post.

In this age of 'everything can be freelanced' from car rides, to shipping, to pet sitting, a lot of people are looking for ways to turn their hobbies and interests into ways to make money. That entrepreneurial spirit is part of what makes this country great, after all, (we're still great, right?) so no surprise that this trend is taking off. On one hand, it's wonderful to have so many options to do freelance work and to obtain services from good people in our communities. On the other? It's Buyer Beware like never before as the heartbreaking case of the still missing KD illustrates.

Today, let's talk pet sitting.  First, it is important to get very clear that companies like Rover and DogVacay are set up as cousins of dating sites, essentially, just as uShip is in the KD story. They simply supply the platform which hosts directories of service providers to make it easy for those in need to locate pet sitters in their area and generally take 15% of the pet sitting fee in return. They may provide basic insurance, online tips for dog sitters, and basic screening but they are not in the business of training dog sitters and they aren't ever going to do things like home checks and onsite verification of pet sitter skills.

You may not expect them to do home checks, of course, but we would all like to believe that sitter profiles are accurate. Not so fast, Kowalski. Unfortunately, this is marketing in the same way that online matchmaking sites are. Everyone wants your eyes (and money, in this case) and will do what they can to stand out from the rest.  Say, for example, you have watched your sister's dog off and on for 7 years...does that count as 7 years of pet sitting experience? Some will convince themselves it does and how are you to know? Does posting pics of all the dogs you have ever owned give the impression that some of those dogs were clients? Maybe.

To help get everyone thinking this through in a more savvy way, I'm going to highlight a few things to consider here on BOTH sides of the pet sitting transaction.

First, potential Pet Sitters...this is not as easy a job as you might think no matter how much you have always loved dogs.

Let's assume you really do have a dream in your heart to be a good, reliable and beloved dog sitter. Let's help get you set up for success.

Think like a dog. A very confused dog. Dogs come in all shapes, sizes and temperaments and until they learn English, they are going to be very confused about why they are at your house (at least the first time you sit them).  The dog MUST be your focus and they WILL be needy and stressed. In fact, they may be a lot more stressed than you realize.

Do you know that some dogs show stress by yawning? It's true. They do. They might also lick their lips. And if you don't know that, you probably need to make a point to learn more about what stress in dogs looks like because it is your JOB to help Sparky settle in to your home.

Why do you need to learn about stress signs?

Stressed dogs who aren't getting their message across and given the help they need to feel safe will find ways to communicate their distress that are a lot easier to read if they feel like they have to...namely they can become bite risks or flight risks.

There is an excellent dog bite prevention video embedded at the end of this post.

Meet the dog in your home BEFORE you agree to pet sit. And plan to have the owner there for a cup of tea and some nice conversation. Talk hockey. Talk fashion. Talk weather. Talk about the pet!! You could probably get all the info you need in a short, favorite treat, how they ask to go potty, etc., BUT you want the dog to experience you and the owner having a nice time together. (Pet owners, more on this in the next post.)

The home visit is an important foundation piece in helping the dog understand that visiting you for a few days isn't the end of the world.

Have your dog meet everyone in the family. And PLEASE, if your spouse is at work and hasn't met the dog, do NOT have them just walk in from work at the end of the day unannounced. Some dogs can be nervous around men. So, even if your canine guest is doing just fine with you, it's not a bad idea until you are sure that they are comfortable with any male family members, to meet him outside when they get home from work (dogs can become protective of homes very quickly) and have them have a couple treats ready, let them be sniffed and walk in together so Fido can put their scent in the house together with this guy walking in.

Same with any friends your family might have over. I have not allowed some friends to visit during certain pet sitting gigs (eg. when I had a male sensitive dog). Remember, if you are pet sitting, you are working. Your friends can't always visit you at work. It's that simple. Even if you are sitting a social butterfly, pay attention to how and where you introduce them. Better safe than sorry. You can always turn away business if you don't want to sit for a dog with certain concerns.

Even if all the meetings have taken place and the home visit was wonderful, every dog will need your support to deal with being at your house once they realize that mommy and daddy have driven off and left them. (Talking first time being boarded at your house here.) Your job (and it cannot be emphasized enough that this is a job and you are working when the dog is in your care) is to be aware of how your environment is helping or hurting the situation.  The good news is that there ARE ways to help calm a dog.  A little forethought and investment in setting the dog up for success in your home will pay dividends in return business and enjoyment for everyone. If it sounds like too much of a big deal to hassle with, dog sitting is not for you.

All they know is the car is driving away.

All they know is the car is driving away.

Do you hear what I hear?  From the moment Fido hears that door click and realizes their owners left without them, they are going to be listening HARD to everything. Pay attention to what is on your tv and your stereo. Don't have Animal Planet on if the show is about catching dogs because hearing distressed barking coming out of your tv is not going to build confidence. You want as many cues as possible to communicate, "We are a peaceful people here and we mean you no no attention to those cheating housewives in a catfight on tv."

I've come to realize that dogs don't hear ambient music like they used to since people don't use stereos as much as they do iPods now so stereos may confuse some dogs at first. However, if you do have a stereo, you can absolutely use it to your advantage. I'd recommend you check out the A Sound Beginning program for their dog calming piano music (and excellent book). I use it whenever I have shelter dogs or pet sitting dogs here and it really does help.

This calming effect is NOT true of all classical music (be careful about radio stations for this reason) and music with nature sounds can also be stressful. I have never had a dog here that didn't freak out (as in growl at the stereo speaker or sit trembling in my lap) when hearing loons accompany Pachelbel's Canon (a song by itself that is very soothing and used often by biofeedback trainers). I actually had to remove that from my stereo. I did have an Australian Shepherd here once that did a call-and-response with a wolf chorus once that was pretty adorable (it laid down and slept right after) but I realized that the sounds I had become used to like loons and wolves needed to be combed out of my collection.

Some old jazz, like Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald can be really nice and seems to work well but if you get a jazz drum solo that sounds like someone knocking at the door you are going to hear about it from Spot.

Have kids? Encourage inside voices. Watching sports? Be careful about sudden yelling and hand clapping. Not saying you have to walk on eggshells but remember the dog is trying to figure you out and if you seem unpredictably loud or emotional (like when you get scored on in OT), it just keeps the pup on alert that much longer. (Maybe don't pet sit while hosting a Super Bowl party.)

This cat is not to be trusted.

This cat is not to be trusted.

The EYES have it. Be aware that your guest will be on alert visually. I have a bronze cat statue that nearly always has to be taken down for a sniff because the cat shape is one that dogs instantly recognize and a large un-moving one is one that many dogs perceive as a threat. I even had a dog get upset at a poster with a cat shape. Took us a bit to figure out why it was barking and growling at the wall while we were sitting in the dim tv room watching a movie. Point is, EVERYTHING in your home is novel and it isn't up to you what the dog will find strange or upsetting, but it is up to you to try to understand what the dog is feeling and reacting to, as goofy as you may think it is, and help them feel safe.

The NOSE knows. There are some nice pet aromatherapy products out that help induce a relaxation response. Happily they contain things like lavender and not 'eau de dog butt' or we might have to skip this section. In fact, I have noticed that over time, because I have taken many deliberate steps to help dogs feel happy here, I have the scents of 40 happy dogs (in this past year) embedded in every room (on a level that dogs can detect if their sniffing is any indication). THAT is THEIR Yelp, basically. The reviews of all the prior guests. The better you are at developing calm, happy guest relations, the more their little chemical signatures help the next pup in line.

Touch me, Touch me not.  Petting isn't always welcome, even though we instinctively want to do it to help calm pets down and reassure them. In fact, petting a dog by reaching over its head could scare it and make them get nippy. I know this may seem like a bit much to some of you, but really, if you are inviting a strange dog into your home, you (and everyone in your family) needs to know things like how to pet a dog. Not YOUR dog, who may be a total lover, but an unsure dog who needs to figure out who you are and if they can trust you.

Yummy Yummy Upset Tummy. Be careful about giving too many rich treats (lots of pea sized treats will serve the same function as lots of large cookies) because you may have an upset tummy on your hands later (like 2 a.m. later). If you have a dog that isn't eating because they are too worried about their humans, having a supply of bone broth in the freezer will help IMMENSELY. (You can do chicken or beef...check with the owner in case of poultry allergies.). It's super easy to make and one chicken will give you broth for several days (possibly several different dogs). Works like a charm. And be sure to avoid these foods.

TRUST BUILDING IS KEY. All these little things together will help you get to the fun part of pet sitting a lot sooner.

Beyond the basics...

Walk this way. Do you have to have a fenced yard to pet sit? No. However, if you have kids, I highly recommend you do because kids and doors are a tricky combination. DO ask about the dogs normal walk routine and leash system. If the dog is used to having the run of a yard and you don't have a fence, you should be prepared for some nice walks and don't assume dogs with yards have good leash skills. You may want to talk to the owner about a harness system, particularly if the dog has a prey drive (squirrel!!!), is strong or spooks easily.

You are your guest's protector and advocate. It doesn't matter if someone rushes up to you with "Oh! My dog is friendly!" (Please, don't be that person. That's so not good.) If the dog you are sitting ends up not liking the random dog you meet on the street, or vice versa, that is not a problem for Susie Clueless, that is a problem for you. Unless you are very dog savvy, can read dog body language and would have a clue of what to do if your guest got in a tangle with another dog out on a walk, it's best to respectfully decline letting your charge mingle with the locals.

And that reminds did do a dog to dog meeting with your own dogs, right? 

Let me entertain you!  Trust building is step one but then what is the dog supposed to DO with you? If you have a busy bee on your hands, consider having a supply of feeding toys. I use them all the time. They are great for enrichment and they also occupy the dog so that they can start to focus on fun rather than wondering where you are going next and what are you doing now and now and now. They help you replace all that worry with puzzles and mental work for the dog. And they are fun! Here's a video so you can see what it looks like in action.

Kids are great playmates but you need to supervise them with new dogs. Again, please watch the excellent video at the end.

Are you Santa?! Have some toys on hand but don't give them all at once. Rotating them will give the dogs novel things to engage with. WATCH for things like shredding and squeaky parts coming out because you don't want Fluffy to choke. Inspect all toys regularly. Be careful about rawhides. There are safer alternatives. 

Best vacation ever!! Also, if you have an energetic pup on your hands, designate where in the house play is okay if you also want the dog to be able to relax with you. If you make it too much like Disneyland, some dogs will act like it is. We have a room that is just for snuggling while we settle in and watch tv at the end of the day. Dogs learn fast and when you have some predictability and order in your home, that helps them feel safe and that makes transitioning to bedtime easier when you need to ease a dog into lights out.

Earn money while you sleep. Or not. And, finally for part one, pet sitter, your job is 24/7. Do not plan to sleep through your first night with a dog new to you. The dog will need reassurance at least once because it has no idea if it is now living with you or what the deal is. Every sound in your house is new and the dog will be on alert. Your water treatment system may terrify the dog when it kicks in.  The dog may have an upset tummy and need to go out in the middle of the night. They may not be able to settle down unless they sleep in bed with you like they do at home and they might hog all the blankets (like they do at home).  That last part is always funny...but we are all creatures of habit. If you stay in a hotel or a friends house, you probably still fall asleep in the same position, regardless of the bed. Some dogs just don't feel right unless they fall asleep on top of someone's left foot. It's just a dog thing.

And be prepared for surprises. Kevin, it turns out, loves shower time. He jumped in the tub as soon as I turned the bathroom fan on.

And be prepared for surprises. Kevin, it turns out, loves shower time. He jumped in the tub as soon as I turned the bathroom fan on.

Okay, that was a LOT, I know, but if you have a dog with you for a week or ten days, believe me, you'll appreciate all the effort you put in at the outset. Hope these tips and ideas help get your mind thinking about ways to succeed and thrive in your new venture.

Having a business takes work to build. The dogs are your customers just as the owners are, they just pay you with wiggles and kisses. (Best. Tips. Ever.) And be prepared for a few laughs along the way!  So, do what you can to serve your customers well and let word of mouth and repeat business be your reward.

Next up: Part Two will focus on what pet sitters can ask and look for to help make the best decision for their pet.

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