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.

when a pet passes away: a pet sitter perspective

One of the most difficult parts of being a pet sitter is when a client's pet passes away. Over the course of my pet sitting career, I've had to experience this more times than I'd like. Only once has it actually happened in my arms. A handful of times I've let my client know that it might be time when it was too hard for them to let go. But, mostly, the pets I care for pass peacefully with their families. This has happened more than once over the last couple of weeks, and I must say that my heart is breaking. 

When a Pet Passes Away: A Pet Sitter Perspective

When a Pet Passes Away: A Pet Sitter Perspective

I always say that my greatest qualification as a pet sitter is my love of animals. Sure, it takes a lot more than that to be a professional, but if love doesn't motivate one to do a stellar job, I'm not sure what will. You can't learn to love animals. It's just in you or it isn't. 

So each time a pet I've cared for passes, a little bit of my heart goes with him or her. I've spent quality time with these magnificent creatures. We've bonded and shared love. They come to depend on me in their owners' absences, and I depend on them because they deliver the best part of my job. They deliver the joy that makes me love what I do for a living.

Since we're a small family business, my children sometimes come with me on pet sitting visits, so they, too, become bonded with the pets we care for. These past couple of weeks have been really rough on them, too. Though they have now had quite extensive experience in pet loss at such a young age, it still hits them hard every time. 

My clients understand the love we have for their animals, and they usually keep me updated if their pets have a serious health issue, even if we aren't caring for them at the time. The humans who hire us understand and appreciate the bonds we share with their pets. We are so grateful that they take us into consideration. The fact that they are dealing with difficult decisions and sadness but still take the time to keep us in the loop is amazing.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a text from my client, Liz.* She let me know that their mixed shepherd, Clayton, had taken a turn for the worse. Over the past several months, I'd been taking care of Clayton as the family traveled, giving him supplements, medication, and special food, and keeping an eye on his overall health as he battled an insulinoma (cancer of the pancreas). I helped care for him after surgery, and the family and I were in regular communication about his condition, even when they weren't traveling. 

Clayton, circa 2007, at the Maricopa Mutt March, a community event I co-founded.

Clayton, circa 2007, at the Maricopa Mutt March, a community event I co-founded.

Clayton and his family will always hold a special place in my heart. They became clients of mine when Clayton was just a puppy, soon after I moved to Arizona and opened my pet sitting business ten years ago. Their family gave me a sweet little Dalmatian stuffed animal for my son, Porter, when I was pregnant with him...something he still cherishes. After a couple of years, they moved out of my service area, then we moved a couple of times, then they moved again, and just a few months ago, I got an email from Liz..."remember us?" They were back in my service area, and I was reunited with Clayton. To say that these people and this dog are special to me would be an understatement. 

A couple of weeks ago, when Liz let me know that Clayton had taken a turn for the worse and that the veterinarian was running some tests over the weekend, it didn't sound good, but we hoped for the best.

Come Monday morning, I received a text from Liz letting me know that the cancer had spread to Clayton's bones and had made them so brittle that they could break at the slightest pressure. If that happened, the bones could not heal, and he would be in a great deal of pain. There was nothing more to do. There was really only one choice to make. Liz let me know that the vet would come to their home that evening at 7:00 PM. 

Campbell took the news about Clayton particularly hard. Our dog, N.A.S.H.A., tried to comfort her.

Campbell took the news about Clayton particularly hard. Our dog, N.A.S.H.A., tried to comfort her.

I thought about Clayton and his family all day and watched the clock. I broke the news to my children, and they were devastated. We'd spent a lot of time with Clayton over this past summer, and they had really bonded with him, too. As the clock struck 7:00 PM, we stopped what we were doing, had a group hug and a moment of silence for Clayton. 

About an hour later, I received a text from Damon, Liz's husband, letting me know that Clayton had passed peacefully.

Over the next few days, I exchanged quite personal text messages with Liz and Damon. They sent me a picture of Clayton enjoying the back yard just a few hours before he passed. Their family was struggling, and so was ours. I tried my best to support them. After all, it was their dog. Even so, they somehow understood our deep loss, as well, and considered our feelings. They even offered for my children to choose one of Clayton's toys as a keepsake, as her children had. This was truly a remarkable relationship. 

A couple of days ago, a card came in the mail. It was addressed to the "Junior Pet Sitters." 

The thoughtful message to my Junior Pet Sitters.

The thoughtful message to my Junior Pet Sitters.

The kids smiled and got a little teary, as did I. Included inside was a gift card for them to get some ice cream. That made them smile, and–I think–made us all feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Times are sad, but we can always find joy. And what better joy than ice cream, right? I plan to take the kids for ice cream this week and use it as a time to remember all of the things we loved about Clayton. 

I couldn't be more thankful to have these people, and to have had this dog, in our lives. Bonds like this go beyond the "business" of pet sitting. 

I am looking forward to the day when the Ashcraft family brings a new dog into their lives. They are remarkable pet parents, and I have confidence that our partnership in pet care is far from over. It may take some time, but we'll be here when they are ready. 

R.I.P., Clayton. You will always have a piece of our hearts.

Junior Pet Sitter Porter enjoying cuddles from Clayton.

Junior Pet Sitter Porter enjoying cuddles from Clayton.

Clayton and I liked to cuddle.

Clayton and I liked to cuddle.

The many moods of a morning walk with Clayton.

The many moods of a morning walk with Clayton.

Clayton enjoys a good brushing from Junior Pet Sitter Campbell.

Clayton enjoys a good brushing from Junior Pet Sitter Campbell.

Smooshing in for a selfie.

Smooshing in for a selfie.

*All names are typically changed in the interest of client anonymity, but I have been given special permission from my clients, in this case, to use their real names. I wanted to honor them properly.