Hiring a Pet Sitter? Tips for Reading Online Pet Sitting Profiles

Hiring a Pet Sitter? Tips for Reading Online Pet Sitting Profiles
Mom? Where are you going? Wait! Is that a squirrel!? Wait, Mom?

I lied. I said this was a two part post. I'm making it a three-parter because narrowing down sitters from profiles is a topic all by itself.

If you haven't read yesterday's post, please do, as it contains important information for both pet sitters and those who are looking to hire them.

Today, let's talk pet sitter profiles, such as you might find on Rover or DogVacay. This is an in-depth post. Be sure to read to the end for my additional recommendations.

I'm going to approach this post both as a pet sitter and as a business person so I can help you pick up on subtle things you may miss if you don't know what to look for and ask. And I do this for a VERY important reason. I watched a horrific situation unfold this weekend in which a dog went missing from a sitter that appears to have over-stated her qualifications. Anyone can be duped by a misrepresentation but I am certain there are a few things consumers can do to help minimize the likelihood of this happening to themselves. (Happily the dog was recovered after several days loose, and no, the sitter was not helpful in the recovery effort. So, let's not mess around. Your protections are not nearly as strong as you think they are, consumer. Not by a long shot.)

Now, let's walk through a profile reading. First, go to a site and select your region. I'm at Rover, looking for in-house boarding in my region and see 20 sites pop up.  Do the same and shadow the process along with me if you like.

You will see profile pics, a snappy headine and a price.

A note about price. DON'T let that be your only criterion. Keep in mind that pet sitting is a 24 hour job. If you are paying $25 that is basically a buck an hour. And yes, theoretically that does include sleeping time for the pet sitter but then again, I can tell you from personal experience, you don't sleep well that first night, and maybe not the second, because you'll have a confused, nervous dog wondering if you are its new mommy. Pets do NOT understand babysitting (at least the first time they visit you). All they know is mommy and daddy put them in a strangers house and drove away.

Cheaper than buying a new couch but still cuts into a pet sitter's profit.

Cheaper than buying a new couch but still cuts into a pet sitter's profit.

And rest assured, a good pet sitter is spending money on your pet and has had to invest in things like safe toys, healthy treats, maybe a spare leash and a harness or two, dog beds, you name it. None of that stuff is cheap. It doesn't matter to me, as a pet sitter, if you buy easily shredded toys for your pet. I don't want your pet choking at my house so I'm going high end and any safety conscious sitter is going to do the same.

And, remember, 15% of that pet sitting fee is going to the listing site. A pet sitter just starting out is doing good to break even as they stock up on supplies (and laundry soap, and maybe a little Nature's Miracle). It's more expensive than a kennel to hire a sitter but do consider what you get for that money.

Icons and stickers and stars, oh my! You will see those posted next to profiles. Think about sites like ebay, where you get stars from happy customers. Sitters can earn badges for taking online quizzes about being a good pet sitter, passing background checks (that is not a home check), and whether they have opted to carry insurance. This will tell you at a glance a few of those things which are good to know.

Headlines. Meh. Some are cute, some are good, some will catch your eye. I'd cut the sitters some slack and not weigh those too heavily. They just want to pet sit, not make a study of how to write Headlines that Sell! This is an important decision you are making so dig past the tag lines and read the actual profiles. The extra time spent will be worth it.

Profile pics. Most won't tell you anything but, personally, if I see a profile pic with a cutie doing that pouty mouth selfie thing I know she is going to be texting while walking my dog and that just is not okay.

(Side note: Please, everyone, I beg of you, don't text and walk dogs. Not your own and definitely not anyone else's. In fact, don't talk on the phone and walk. Just don't. If you only saw how many dangerous situations present themselves when dog walkers are caught up in their phones you would faint.)

If you want to call yourself a professional anything, including a pet sitter, do give a little thought to your picture.

Next you click on the names to see their profiles.

Photo Galleries. I just randomly clicked on a profile and up popped a stunning photo of her air conditioner.  I guess the caption should read, "For dogs that can't stand the heat..."

Um, it's supposed to show me her yard, I get that. These are pet sitters, not photographers. Be prepared for bad photos and a lot of dogs with glowing eyes. Look at the photos anyway. And then let me tell you why you need to be careful about what you read into them.

Many photos do not contain captions. And even if they do, you still may not know what you are looking at.

Why is this important? Because you can't tell who is a pet sitting client and who is the owner's childhood dog.  The caption "Me and Spot enjoying some cuddle time" doesn't tell you whether Spot belongs to the owner, was a pet sitting client, or their sister's dog during a family visit.

KEEP IN MIND: Pet sitting sites are akin to dating sites and people want your eyes (and money, in this case) and like any other site, people may try to pad their resume.

People don't pad because they are ill-intended (necessarily). Being a business owner is hard! It's tough to establish oneself. It's intimidating to be a newbie on a site where you are trying to look like you know what you are doing when everyone else looks like they have a lot more experience.

One way to look like you belong in the pack is to have a bunch of photos like other people do.

But what if you've only started pet sitting and have just two photos? Is that bad? Maybe you have personally owned five dogs in your life. Should you include them? Maybe you decide you should. Now you have seven dogs. That looks better, right?

This is the best photo of me with a dog that isn't mine, She was at my house several times and I worked with her extensively while she was at a shelter but she was never a pet sitting client. She gave me a TON of experience but not paid sitting experience. So, okay to use the pic? I think so, with that explanation given for it.

This is the best photo of me with a dog that isn't mine, She was at my house several times and I worked with her extensively while she was at a shelter but she was never a pet sitting client. She gave me a TON of experience but not paid sitting experience. So, okay to use the pic? I think so, with that explanation given for it.

And you want to show you love dogs, too. So, what about that super cute photo with your neighbor's new dog? It's a great photo of you. Sure, not your dog, or a dog you were  paid to sit, but a great profile shot. Is there anything wrong with it being there? Not really, but what are you to do as a person looking to hire a pet sitter when you see twenty different dogs on a profile with no captions?

Make a note to ask about those photos when you talk to the sitter, is what you do. "Now tell me about that photo of you with that shepherd puppy. Is that your dog?" You don't have to grill people or ask about every photo but you do deserve to know what you are looking at. Make note of what you THINK you are seeing, what impression you are getting and be sure to confirm your theory in the sitter interview.

As for newbies: Hey, we all have to start somewhere, so let the sitter know that you understand if they are just getting started. You don't want to make them feel like they have to lie or inflate their experience to work with you. All you want is honesty so you can make a good decision for your pet. Encourage open communication on both parts and if you know your dog is a bigger handful than a newbie can handle, just say so and wish them luck in their new venture.

YES, the section on Rover that says "Canine Clients" IS a gallery of actual clients. That area is the one place that you can't fudge as a sitter. Those are photos that are shared between the sitter and the client via chat and then harvested by a Rover app to be added to the sitter site.

Ask this question:

How long have you been pet sitting for strangers? 

Yes! Pet sitting for friends and relatives is experience but 15 years of that isn't the same as 15 years of pet sitting dogs you didn't know before.

Have a conversation about what it was when the sitter had their first actual pet sitting experience with a dog new to them. What was that like? What did they learn from the experience? Did they make any adjustments along the way? Be curious and encourage honesty. It's normal to have a learning curve. Any sitter who claims they didn't isn't telling you the truth and you may want to take that as a sign to keep interviewing because they are more interested in making a good impression on you than giving you vital information.

Why are the pet sitting challenges important to ask about? Because you won't see them mentioned in profiles but you definitely want to know how the sitter copes with the unexpected. How are they at dealing with problems when they arise?

Note the absence of glasses on my face.

Note the absence of glasses on my face.

I've had dogs backslide on potty training here. I've had my eyeglasses chewed up. I've had a dog go bananas when he saw my husband in the yard wearing a hat and sunglasses. I've had dogs with upset tummies who needed coaxing to eat. I've had dogs that were perfect on walks until they saw another dog, or a squirrel, or heard a garbage truck around the corner. I've had a person with an unleashed dog they could not control race right up to my dog walking client as the other person yelled, "Oh, don't worry, my dog is friendly!" assuming that mine was.  Stuff happens. That is normal.

Assume your pet will not fully be themselves at a stranger's house and ask the sitter to describe what they do to help dogs settle in.

Years of Experience. This has already been discussed a bit,  but here is what I want you to pay attention to: If someone says they have 25 years experience but only shows pics of 3 dogs in their client section, get curious about that. As a business owner, you would want to share info and maybe even some quotes from clients over the decades of experience you state in your profile. That's one way to distinguish yourself as a seasoned professional. If that profile support is missing, it could be due to lack of business savvy on part of the sitter or it could be that the 25 year thing was mostly watching family pets and not actual professional services for paying clients as just discussed above.

It also could mean that the sitter has fostered for a rescue for 25 years and has maaaaaad skills but just stinks at writing a profile. You cold be looking at a sitter that will be worth their weight in gold. It's up to YOU to try and figure out what that 25 means.

Keep in mind, you won't see reviews from prior to their getting on the dog sitting site. A new site profile will have new reviews (or maybe no reviews yet).

Bottom line: If someone reporting many years of experience has chosen to get on a site that will take a percent of their income, I'd ask why. Why after 25 years did they opt to join the site? People ask for word of mouth recommendations for pet sitters all the time. So, if in 25 years this person hasn't built a business strong enough to not need a directory site, why might that be? There may be plenty of good reasons! Maybe they are new to the area. Surely a number of their clients may have moved away (and pets will have passed away) in that time so it IS entirely possible that they've had to work harder to keep their business up and maybe it's simply a case of "If you can't beat 'em, join em" as competition has increased with the birth of these directories.

If you see a reference to years of experience that doesn't appear to be backed up on the profile: ASK, DON'T ASSUME.

Other things to look for and ask about: 

Breed experience. A pug is different than a Jack Russell terrier is different than a schoodle, is different than a pit is different than an Aussie. Sites characterize sitters by SIZE dog they are willing to sit, but within each size there is a world of possibilities in terms of breed and temperament. How well versed are they in terms of your breed? Do they know herding dogs? Have they dealt with diggers? How might they deal with a stubborn dog?

Age of dogs. Puppies are cute but they can slip on house rules when in a novel place so how prepared is the sitter to deal with training needs and how do they approach that? Older dogs can sometimes experience cognitive changes with age and may not see and hear as well. Has the sitter had much experience with that?

Special needs. Many sitters list this but ask for a definition of that in terms of their personal background. If your dog has medical or sensory or behavioral issues, don't assume someone who has experience with special needs dogs has experience with your pet's special needs issues.

Fenced yard? Not a requirement but if the home also has kids, you may want to be careful because kids and doors can be tricky, especially if you have a confused dog (yours will be) trying to figure out where mommy and daddy went. If the sitter doesn't have a fenced yard but YOURS is, your dog may be getting a lot more walks on the leash than they are used to. Some dogs are better on leash than others. Be prepared to talk this through and BE HONEST about your dogs leash skills.

Profile content.  Every profile is unique and so are your needs. Read profiles thoroughly and take notes as you do because you'll want to make sure you are reading correctly. Anything a potential sitters says (or shows in a pic) that might be relevant to your dog's needs is a great reason to ask a follow up question. "I see you have a gorgeous yard but it doesn't have a fence. My dog has "catch a squirrel" on his bucket list. How do you deal with dogs that have a prey drive with all those trees on your property?" "My dog sleeps in bed with me and I see you allow dogs to sleep in bed. You have two dogs of your own. Do they sleep in bed also? How do you see the sleeping arrangements working out?"

Okay, hope that helps you get your profile reading eyes sharpened a bit. Next post will help you think through the actual sitter interview, be sure to subscribe below so you can get a quick note in your email when the post goes up.

And a heads up, DO plan on a home visit before you leave your dog with the sitter.

AND KEEP THIS IN MIND: You have options outside of these directory sites.

Your local rescue organizations know people who know dogs. So do trainers. Don't forget they can be a source of word of mouth referrals.

Rescue folks are picky about who they entrust their own pets to, as you may well imagine. Do be aware, county shelters can't really recommend, since government agencies can't endorse businesses but talk to their most seasoned volunteers. Chances are they have a great network (and might actually be pet sitters themselves).

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