breaking up is hard to do: when should a pet sitter fire a client?

As you likely know, I have been a professional pet sitter for over ten years, and  an amateur one since I was a wee lassie. When going in and out of countless homes and taking care of a wide array and large number of animals, I've seen a lot. Some people have OCD, so I'm afraid to touch anything, and other people look like they haven't seen a dust rag in decades, so I'm afraid to touch anything. Most clients thankfully fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. But considering cleanliness, alone, doesn't paint the whole picture.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: When Should a Pet Sitter Fire a Client?

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: When Should a Pet Sitter Fire a Client?

When a new potential client comes to me and we set up an initial consultation, it is important that they trust me and get a sense of who I am. After all, I'll be coming into their home when they are away and taking care of their fur babies. But just as I'm presenting myself to them, they are presenting themselves to me, and it's important that I get a sense of the kind of pet parent they are. Do they treat their animals well, and am I comfortable with them?

I've heard some nightmare stories from other pet sitters, and, thankfully, my bad experiences with clients have been few and far between. There was one occasion when I refused a job right there at the interview. It was summer, and the family was going away on a week's vacation. The family dog, a sweet-as-can-be Rottweiler, was an "outdoor dog." Though dogs love the outdoors, no dog should be made to live exclusively outdoors, especially in extreme temperatures. You've seen the recent news about how states are making it illegal to leave your dog out in freezing temperatures? (Yay!) Well, here in Phoenix, it can get to be 120 degrees in the summer, which can be just as harsh. The matriarch of this particular family told me that they planned to rip open the middle of a twenty pound bag of kibble, leave a trough of water, and could I please check on the dog four days into their seven-day vacation, just to be sure everything is okay?

I let her know that I had several concerns, and that I would be happy to check on her dog multiple times a day, as long as she let him in the house, otherwise I would have to refuse the job. I asked her what would happen if the dog tipped over the water trough on day one or if the open food became rancid or attracted a pack of coyotes. Not to mention the danger of her dog becoming overheated in the middle of the day. She nodded and said she understood my concerns. When we parted, she said she would consider my proposal and would be in touch. I never heard back. And, yes, I asked that local animal control keep an eye on the pooch. 

why a pet sitter might fire a client

That family never became a client, and I feel fortunate that I haven't had to refuse work like that very often. And only on a couple of occasions have I had to fire a client for nonpayment. I'm sorry...I can't take care of your pets again until you pay your balance from your vacation three months ago. Hmmm. Just as a client could fire a pet sitter for any number of reasons, a pet sitter can also choose to fire a client. Each professional pet sitter's threshold of pain is different, but here are a few reasons why a pet sitter might fire a client:

• nonpayment (duh)

• mistreatment of the animals by the owner

• not providing a key (don't make your pet sitter crawl through the doggie door)

• making unreasonable requests

• health concerns regarding cleanliness of the home

• not requesting enough visits to properly care for the animal(s)

• co-care (my clients sign terms and conditions that state that if someone else will also be providing care–such as a neighbor or relative–during the service period, I am released of ALL liability)

• anything that makes the pet sitter uncomfortable 

when the lines between professional and personal become blurred

Though I am a professional, I provide a personal service. Quite often my clients and I know personal things about each other, and we bond over their pets. So lines between professional and personal can become blurred. I establish reasonable boundaries so that I can provide a professional service in a personal way.

About a year ago, I experienced some unusual behavior in a long-standing client. Though I loved her dog very much and it was heartbreaking to have to part ways, the situation escalated to the point that I no longer felt comfortable working with her.

Charlene* first called me to her home to request periodic care for her therapy dog, Hannah. Charlene seemed like a very thorough pet parent. She let me know that Hannah was a therapy dog to her, but I didn't ask questions about her condition. She let me know that since Hannah was almost always with her, it would be difficult for the dog when she needed to be apart from her, so she wanted me to come to the home and spend time if she had to be gone for more than a couple of hours for work or some such thing. The initial consult was quite lengthy, as Charlene liked to chat, but she was very nice, and her dog, Hannah, was delightful.

Over the next several months, Charlene would request my services a couple of times a week, usually with a couple of days notice. She then started requesting that I take Hannah into my home for longer stretches. I don't normally take my clients' dogs into my home, but Hannah was so wonderful, that I agreed and didn't mind at all. We agreed on an hourly rate, and she always paid me immediately after every service.

As time went on, I took care of Hannah more and more often. And with little, if no, notice. Charlene's demeanor became more frantic, as if she was always in the midst of some emergency. If I didn't answer her call, she would call over and over and over again. I began to question her mental stability, but her dog was great and she paid me well, so I was patient with her.

I realized I had to set some boundaries when she showed up at my front door with her dog unannounced. "Charlene, I'm happy to take Hannah today, but, in the future, I'll need you to set up service in advance. I don't mind last-minute bookings, but I can't guarantee that I'll be available on little or no notice." She apologized, handed me the leash, and frantically made her way to her car and drove off. She picked up Hannah later that afternoon and paid me, as usual.

Over the next few weeks, Charlene started to call me more frequently to take care of Hannah, and our phone chats became quite lengthy. I'm not one to cut people off if they are sharing sensitive information with me, but I began to feel uncomfortable. Charlene seemed to be in some trouble, which is why she was asking me to take Hannah so frequently. She just didn't want to expose her to that. She shared with me that her husband, who lived in another state, was "after her" and was emotionally abusive. She would stay in this hotel or that hotel to escape him, and she'd leave Hannah with me for days at a time. I noticed that Hannah seemed tired all the time. She would come over and sleep and sleep and sleep. I think she was exhausted from dealing with her owner's emotional distress.

It all came to a head when we were giving a birthday party for my teenaged son. He had a bunch of his friends over, and we had some family there to celebrate, as well. The doorbell rang unexpectedly in the middle of the party, and there stood Charlene and Hannah. Charlene asked if she could come in. I told her that it wasn't a good time...that we were hosting a party. She begged, and said it would only be for a minute, so I let her in. 

Hannah made herself right at home, and Charlene collapsed in a heap on the floor just inside the front door. She was in emotional distress, running from her husband. She asked if she and Hannah could stay the night in my home. I told her that I didn't feel comfortable with that, that Hannah was welcome to stay, but suggested Charlene go to a hotel or shelter. After a couple of hours of conversation, I realized that Charlene was making things up. Her mental instability had gradually gotten to the point where she thought the mob and the pope were after her. She would have to travel to Iran and "take out" the men who were doing this to her. She wanted me to keep Hannah. I told her I didn't feel comfortable with her in my home, asked that she leave, but let her know that her dog could stay as long as she needed. I suggested she seek psychological help. 

She slept in her car outside my house that night. 

The next morning, Charlene came to the door to retrieve Hannah. As much as I loved Hannah, I knew this relationship had to end. Charlene said she understood, and promised she would seek psychological treatment. I watched she and Hannah drive off, and I cried for Hannah. I don't know if she ever did seek help, and I don't know where she and Hannah are, now, but I never heard from her again.

I contacted the police out of concern for her, and they said though they couldn't give me details, they already had a file on her. I left it in the hands of the authorities. Though I think about Hannah every day, I've made peace with the situation.

Part of me feels awful for breaking it off. I loved that dog. But when the client–however mentally unstable–disregarded professional boundaries that I had expressed to her and her behavior began to affect my family, I knew it was time to break up. This was an extreme case that I let continue way too long, but it taught me valuable lessons about setting boundaries with clients and recognizing when I'm being taken advantage of.

Are you a pet sitter or other professional that provides a personal service? Have you ever had to break up with a client?

* All names have been changed in the interest of confidentiality.

pet sitter life: open door policy

As a professional pet sitter, my integrity is just as important as the care I provide. After all, I'm entering your home when you aren't there and I'm making sure your beloved furry family members are safe, healthy, and happy. Cutting corners is not an option. I employ professional standards that I practice upon each visit. One of these standards is my "open door policy."

Pet Sitter Life: Open Door Policy–

Pet Sitter Life: Open Door Policy–

what is the open door policy?

What is my "open door policy?" 

Any open door remains open, and any closed door remains closed.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it is.

why is the open door policy important?

The open door policy is important for two main reasons.

1. Privacy. I respect the privacy of my clients. Any closed door is off limits. During each visit, I patrol all open areas of the home to make sure there haven't been any "accidents" and to make sure everything is safe. If a door is closed, there is no need for me to enter.

2. Safety of the animals. If I open a door, there is a chance the animals in my care would accept the invitation to enter. A sneaky cat could slink in and become trapped without food or water until my next visit. Yikes! The open door policy is especially important in homes with cats. 

are there exceptions to the open door policy?

Cats who like to hide may sneak into an off-limits room if the door is opened.

Cats who like to hide may sneak into an off-limits room if the door is opened.

The only reason I would open a closed door in a client's home is if I suspected an animal was trapped inside.

During my first visit of any service period, I make a mental note of which doors are open and which are closed. When visiting a couple of cats last year, I had a terrible time finding one of them. I looked everywhere, and then it dawned on me that one of the bedrooms that was open the previous day was closed. I opened the door, and out scrambled the cat, straight to the litter box, then quickly to her food and water. Poor thing! She'd somehow gotten into the room and shut the door on herself. I don't know if she'd been trapped for one hour or twenty-four, but she was ready for the bathroom and some nourishment. I called the clients and let them know that she'd trapped herself in the bedroom, and they let me know that it wasn't the first time she'd done it. They were thrilled with my idea to keep the door open with a heavy object, and she didn't become trapped again. 

Just last week, I was sitting for three cats, one of which is super friendly social, and two of which think I am there to skin them alive, so they keep to themselves. I've cared for them regularly for a few years, now, so I know all the hiding places. I checked every one, and couldn't find them anywhere! I sent a text to my client:

"I can't find them you think they may be trapped in a closed room?"

She responded "Oh...they have a new hiding place. Check inside the box spring in the master bedroom."

I pulled up the comforter and saw the entrance where the fabric was torn. I turned on my phone's flashlight, shone it inside, and, sure enough, two pairs of reflective eyes looked back at me. They were safe! Having let the client know that I suspected the cats were trapped, she was able to fill me in on the new hiding spot, so accessing a restricted area was unnecessary.

professional policies

Worrying about doors may seem like overkill, but I believe that this level of detail is required both for my clients' privacy and the safety of the animals in my care. Considering these types of things is what sets a professional apart. I find that my clients appreciate the attention to detail and know that they can trust me to respect their privacy as well as provide excellent pet care. 

when is it okay to let your dog off-leash?

Running free...romping...picture it in slow motion: tongue flapping in the wind, ears bouncing up and down, and that joyful look on your dog's face. Lovely, isn't it? Maybe. Maybe not. 

When is it okay to let your dog off-leash?

When is it okay to let your dog off-leash?

when is it okay to let your dog off-leash?

In my professional opinion, it is okay to let your dog off-leash in public at two–and only two–times.

1. When you are in a place where it is legal and appropriate to do so and you have 100% complete proven verbal control of your dog. Meaning, if there was a steak dinner, a thrown frisbee, or a tempting playmate, your dog would not go toward it without your permission. He never fails to obey your command. Ever. 

2. When you are in a place where off-leash dogs are expected and encouraged. A dog park for example. Or a dog beach. 

Period. End of story.

let me tell you why

As you probably already know, I am a professional pet sitter and dog walker. I walk all kinds of dogs, and I see other people walking all kinds of dogs. When I am walking a client's dog, I have rules. 

• I do not allow my client's dog to socialize with other dogs. You just never know, and I don't ever want harm to come to a dog in my care.

• We never go off-leash, and we don't go to off-leash places. I'll take your dog hiking, jogging, or to the park, but we're going on a leash. I do not have 100% complete verbal control of your dog, so attached to me he stays. 

• I avoid off-leash dogs like the plague. Their owners almost never have verbal control of them, so I keep my distance.

This week I had two dog walking experiences, one positive and one negative. Ironically, I was walking the same dog, Thor*. This is a dog I regularly walk. I have great leash control of him, and if he gets excited about a passing bunny or kid on a bike, I make him sit until the enticement has passed. He listens to me, and we walk well together. I am extra careful with him because when I was first hired to walk him, his owner let me know that he was dog-aggressive, meaning he might harm another dog if contact is made. When I walk this particular dog, I am extremely careful to keep my head up, be aware of my surroundings, and keep control of him.

the wrong way 

The other morning, I took Thor to an open grassy area in the neighborhood in which he lives. Though he was on his leash, the large, open space gave us a chance to romp and play rather than just walk up and down the sidewalk. About twenty yards away, I heard a car pull up. A lady got out, and I didn't think much of it, but then she opened one of the back doors, and three Labs popped out, none of them leashed. All three ran toward us. I immediately made Thor sit, but the rush of canine coming toward us was too much for him to sustain the position. I yelled "NO! NO! NO!" but the dogs wouldn't stop. I yelled at the lady: "He's not friendly!" She tried to call her dogs back and they sort-of listened, but then just ignored her. I screamed at her "GET CONTROL OF YOUR DOGS RIGHT NOW!" All the while, trying to move us in the opposite direction.

We escaped unscathed, but talk about a frightening adrenaline rush. 

That lady did not have control of her dogs. Thor could have fought with one or all of them, and any one of the four dogs could have been injured or killed. I could have been injured in the middle of it. The whole situation was a mess. She was in an area where it is not permitted to have dogs off-leash, and we weren't expecting it. I still get angry just thinking about it. It was completely irresponsible of her to create that situation. 

Even if your dog is friendly, not every dog is. It is not okay to allow your dog to approach another dog without permission. And that leads me to the positive experience I had this week...

the right way

Just a couple of days later, Thor and I were walking down the sidewalk (avoiding the nice open grassy area) and I noticed a man with a dog on a leash walking in the opposite direction toward us. I crossed the street to put some distance between us as we passed, and I made Thor sit while they passed. The gentleman stopped directly across the street from us and asked "is your dog friendly?" 

I replied "I'm sorry, he's not friendly with other dogs. Thank you so much for asking."

He nodded his head in an understanding way, and we both went on with our peaceful walks. Faith in humanity partially restored.

when in doubt, pull the leash out

Allowing your dog to be off-leash is risky. It's risky for your dog, for you, and for others. If your dog wants to romp free, find a place where others expect dogs to be off-leash. No matter how well you know your own dog, you don't know that dog you may encounter. A little bit of freedom isn't worth the potential price.  

* names have been changed in the interest of privacy


i believe in leashes: my story

beyond business: the heart of the client/pet sitter relationship

Sometimes "professional" and "pet" are a dichotomy in my mind. I am a "professional pet sitter," but what does that mean in terms of relating to my clients? The day-in and day-out of pet sitting is mostly mushy-gushy. I love my clients' pets nearly as much as they do (most of them–wink, wink), so it sometimes just seems like a free-for-all love fest. But the professional aspect is also important. So, as a professional pet sitter, I get to play both sides simultaneously. Sometimes being a professional means I need to make sure to send a confirmation in a timely manner or be sure to give an injection in just the right way to a diabetic cat. Other times, it means rolling around on the floor wrestling a puppy or sitting quietly with a senior pooch in declining health. It's all part of my profession, and I love the variety it brings.

Beyond Business: the Heart of the Client/Pet Sitter Relationship.

Beyond Business: the Heart of the Client/Pet Sitter Relationship.

Though I'm all about the pets, and they are my top priority, I make sure I take care of their parents, my human clients. Often, I only see them once, at the initial consultation. In fact, I have ten-year-old relationships with clients I've only been physically in the presence of one time, ten years ago. And yet, they are valuable, solid relationships. We communicate via email, text, and phone, and we relate well. Some relationships are stronger and tighter than others, but they are all special to me. I consider the fact that I can be genuine and true with the humans involved a big part of being a pet professional. 

Most of my clients understand the bond I share with their pets. Occasionally, one won't, and they'll be some meanie who doesn't pay their bill or treats me like a servant. Though I'm giving myself a high-five for dumping that variety, it breaks my heart because by breaking up with a human, I'm breaking up with their pets, whom I've inevitably bonded with. Thankfully, I can count on one hand how many of those I've had.

As you may know, a few months ago, one of my longest-standing pooch clients passed away. It was a big deal for my whole family. Not only did I have a close bond with this dog, my kids (jr. pet sitters) did, too. The family kept me posted during their dog's final days, which meant so very much to me. 

It meant the world to me that a new client read about our loss and took the time and effort to purchase special books for us.

It meant the world to me that a new client read about our loss and took the time and effort to purchase special books for us.

I wrote about the experience, and a couple of days later, one of my brand-newish regular clients told me she read about our loss and gave her condolences. And then she went above and beyond. She gave my jr. pet sitters and I four lovely books about losing a pet. Like, she actually went to the store with us in mind and purchased these amazing stories for us to share together. In the infancy of our relationship, this blew me away. I fought back the tears and thanked her, but didn't know what else to say. She felt a close enough bond to us to extend herself personally and provide us with an intimate gesture that will be forever remembered. 

Though my professional pet sitting business exists so that I can make money for my family, it is so much more than that. It is something I am passionate about. I am passionate about the pets in my care. I treat all of them as if they were my own. I often say that being a pet sitter saves me from having a zoo of my own. If I didn't have clients who shared their pets with me, I'd bring home every stray anything, and you'd see me on that show where they out crazy people who hoard animals. Being a pet sitter is kind-of like having pet adoption birth control. I get my fix elsewhere. 

Monetary tips are great. I'll take them with appreciation. But what's even more valuable to me are the texts and calls and email messages saying "Thanks for taking such great care of Fido. We don't know what we'd do without you," or "Wow. Bonkers seemed so calm and secure when we got home. You're a miracle worker," or "We're home, now, and really appreciate how comfortable we feel with you being in our home and taking care of our crew." My favorite? "Are you available again next weekend?"

It's a business. But it's personal. The two are not mutually exclusive. It's one, big, happy emotional mess-of-a-job, and I can't imagine doing anything else.

Do you have a special pet sitter or other professional that you've bonded with on a personal level?  

a pet sitter's schedule

For the first time in I-can't-remember-how-long, it's a Saturday, and I have no pet sitting visits scheduled. This is almost unheard of, except during the rare times I let my clients know I'm taking time off for travel and am unavailable. So with this unexpected day off, what am I doing? I'm panicking every five minutes that I'm forgetting to see an animal. I'm checking and rechecking my calendar. I'm reviewing email, text, and Facebook Messenger correspondence I've had with clients over the past few weeks to make extra sure I really do have the day off. And I do! I really do!

I love what I do, but it sure is nice to have an unscheduled day every once in a while. I slept in to the glorious hour of 6:30 a.m., which feels like a sin. Yes, 6:30 is sleeping WAY in. My husband even congratulated me and gave me a hug and a high-five. What time do I normally wake up? Well, let me tell you about my typical schedule.

A Pet Sitter's Schedule

A Pet Sitter's Schedule

the morning

As a professional pet sitter, the time I wake up depends on how many visits I'm scheduled to make in the morning. Typically, my alarm is set for 4:30 a.m., which allows me to freshen up, get dressed, and pour myself a cup of Joe (essential) before my first visit. 

How do I decide who to see first?

I prioritize based on the circumstances of all of the pets in my care at a particular time and their humans' wishes regarding their schedule. I don't guarantee a specific time. In the morning, I see pets between the hours of 5:00 and 8:00 a.m., unless some other time is specified and agreed upon. When deciding whom to see when, I consider the type of pets and their bathroom needs, first. Dogs without doggie doors come first, followed by dogs with doggie doors, and then cats and other pets who have means to go potty without being let out. If I have any unusual or exotic pets such as horses or chickens, they are considered, as well. I also think about geography. I try to make my visits in a somewhat organized fashion rather than bounce back-and-forth around town like a ping-pong ball.

the afternoon

My afternoons are typically booked with dogs and other animals that need to be seen three times a day, as well as mid-day potty breaks and dog walks for working families. In the summer, I am busier with vacation visits, but have very few mid-day dog walks, as I do not walk dogs when temps are higher than 100° for the safety of the animal. All pet sitting visits include a daily walk, if desired, so, during the summer, I fit those into the early morning visits, which are the only times the weather permits. In Phoenix, summer highs are 110°+. In the fall, however, when the weather is gorgeous and everyone wants to be me, my mid-day dog walks pick up.

Afternoon visit times aren't typically as critical as morning visit times, but some of the same principles apply. If I'm giving a potty break–say–for a family who works long hours, I take their schedule into consideration and try to visit the pets about mid-way through their time of absence. I typically make afternoon visits between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. 

the evening

I use the same principles for evening visits as I do for morning visits: priority one are dogs who need to relieve themselves. In the evening, however, I typically make those visits last. Why, you ask? Because they have to make it through the night. I try to make the overnight wait as short as possible for these guys because it's typically the longest stretch of time they will be left alone. When deciding whom-to-see-when in the evenings, I take the next day's schedule into consideration. My evening visits are typically made between 5:00 and 8:00 p.m. 

in-between visits

As you probably know, I have two kids at home (one away at college), ages eight and six. My husband has a demanding job that requires him to be out of the home a lot and sometimes work atypical hours, plus, sometimes he travels. Thankfully, he's usually home on the weekends, my busiest times. 

During the week, I try to be back from morning visits in time to get the kids ready for school, but if my hubby is traveling, the kids get up early and come with. They are my Junior Pet Sitters, and they know the drill. They aren't always thrilled about it, but they do what it takes and are usually rewarded with an ice cream or extra allowance for a particularly demanding schedule. After morning visits, I get the kids off to school, hit the gym, and then do administrative tasks and work on this blog you are reading right here.

I then make my afternoon visits, and if there's time before picking the human rugrats up from school, I get some more blog work done. After school, we'll grab a snack and do homework, and then the Junior Pet Sitters are off with me again to do evening jobs so that we can be home and reunited with Daddy for dinner as often as his schedule allows. 

what about holidays and my own vacations?

Being a pet sitter is a 365-day-a-year job, and major holidays are some of my busiest times. Winter holidays such as Christmas and New Years are pretty hectic, but we make it work. On Christmas morning, I've been known to start my pet sitting visits around 3:00 a.m. so that I can be home when my kids wake up to see what goodies Santa brought. And, yes, I have to be careful about champagne consumption on NYE. I really don't want a massive hangover when visiting pets on the first morning of the new year. 

My family does not typically travel during holidays and times others usually travel. Everyone wants to get out of the Phoenix heat during the summer, so that means we stay put and watch their pets. And holidays? Forget it. We stay home, and I work. 

So when do I get away? Well, we'll (shudder) typically pull the kids out of school for a week in the fall and/or spring, but not during fall and spring break when I'm busy. Our kids' charter school usually has a slightly different schedule than the public schools in the area, so sometimes we get lucky and can travel during their school breaks.

sick days

What's a sick day? 

I work when I'm sick. On the rare occasion that I simply can't (picture the worst), I have relationships with other pet sitters in the area who are willing to help, or my husband pitches in. Visits are made, no matter what. 

This is how my son, Porter, and I worked together back in the day (he is now eight years old).

This is how my son, Porter, and I worked together back in the day (he is now eight years old).

keeping it straight

How do I keep all of these appointments straight? I have three calendars. Yup. Three. I make sure they all match, and I check them throughout the day. I schedule everything into iCal, which pops up on my laptop and my phone. I also have an old-fashioned planner in which I write everything down. Believe it or not, that's my go-to calendar. In addition, I schedule all visits through online pet sitting software, so I can view my visits any time there. The system sends me an email in the middle of the night letting me know my visit schedule for the next day. It may seem like overkill, but all of this means I don't miss visits. My reliability is one of the most important things to my business, so I keep things straight.  

living the life

Though my schedule can be demanding, I wouldn't have it any other way. My days are dictated by the needs of my furry, feathered, and scaly friends. I have flexibility that allows me to do things like go to the gym, schedule doctors appointments, or meet a friend for lunch, which I consider a luxury people with traditional work schedules don't have. 

A day off rarely happens unless I schedule it that way. So I'm going to try to stop freaking out that I'm missing a visit today and relax, enjoy my family, and double-check my calendars only a few more times. Just to make sure. 

Do you have an unconventional schedule? How do you manage your day?