I guess that sooner or later, just about everyone is pressed into service as a pet sitter. It can be a pleasant experience if you follow a few simple guidelines. To illustrate some basic tenets of the craft, I will use Annie Maguire and her guardians as an example. This isn’t intended to be a guide to professional pet sitting. I pet-sit only for friends and animals with whom I have an established relationship. For information on professional pet sitting, see www.petsitters.org.
Annie is a golden retriever, approximately four years old. Her guardians, Jane and Joel, are experienced and dedicated dog lovers. Over the years, they have shared their home with some marvelous canines. They raised Annie from puppyhood, and their general joie de vive is reflected in her personality.
Taking care of Annie Maguire is the pet-sitting equivalent of winning the Irish Sweepstakes. The Maguires’ home is one of the more comfortable residences on the island, and Annie is intelligent, affectionate and humorous. So let’s just say that I don’t shrink from the prospect of staying in that gorgeous home, taking care of that lovable dog.
In a general sense, it’s best to have a pre-care visit with pet and guardians. The Maguires always write down all the things I need to know about Annie’s routine: what she’s eating, how much to feed her and how often; what medications or supplements she might be taking… that kind of thing. They also let me know how to reach them in an emergency, and give me the contact information for their veterinarian.
It’s a good idea to have a backup plan in case you can’t perform your pet sitting duties. I got sick once while the Maguires were on holiday and ended up in the hospital. Fortunately, we live in a community where we can rely on friends and neighbors to lend a hand, so their dog was well cared for in my absence… a little confused by the sudden change of venue, but well cared for nonetheless. We didn’t have a plan and it worked out, but now when I agree to care for a pet I always keep a backup sitter in mind.
Pet sitting is not just a matter of feeding an animal and attending to its elimination issues. Pets get lonely when their families are away. A lot of people think that cats do well on their own, and it’s true that they do better than dogs, but most of them appreciate some companionship as well. For dogs, daily exercise is essential. Depending on the dog’s personality, interactive play and lots of affection can be just as important as regular meals. Annie Maguire falls into this category.
I don’t think the Maguires will be surprised, or at all offended, if I tell you that Annie is a bit of a goofball. She loves to be the center of attention, and will go to some lengths to get it. She has a laundry basket full of toys and she’ll parade every single one of them in front of me in an effort to interest me in a game of tug-of-war… her favorite pastime. If the bones and balls and ropes and stuffed animals don’t elicit a response, she’ll up the ante. She’ll take some household item that clearly is not hers - a dishtowel or a shoe, and wave it in my face. Her reasoning is that I will try to take the article away from her. She’s prepared to put up with a little scolding if that will advance the game.
I learned a long time ago that Annie does not respond to the firm, “mommy” tone of voice. The guilt gene is completely missing from her DNA, and there’s just no point in playing the disciplinarian with her. In fact, she seems to relish the idea that she can work me into a lather over some minor transgression. I’ve found that the best way to get Annie to lose interest in an item is to feign indifference to the fact that she’s stolen it. The exception to this strategy is if she gets hold of something that might hurt her. The last time I was staying with her, she decided to show me how efficiently she could chew up her grooming brush, which she had stolen from the kitchen counter. It had a plastic handle that disintegrated into small sharp pieces when she bit into it, which could have been a disaster had she swallowed them. Annie doesn’t respond to finger wagging and orders, but she does cooperate when my tone of voice reflects worry and concern. She dropped the brush immediately when I told her how dangerous it was, and allowed me to clean up the pieces without interfering.
Annie is an inventive dog, and she’s found some interesting, not to say alarming ways to amuse herself and liven up the household. One of her games is “how many things can I get in my mouth at once?” This challenging activity involves picking up and holding as many toys as possible. If we’re outside, sticks are used as game pieces. This game seemed benign enough until the day she managed to get two tennis balls wedged in her mouth and could not dislodge them. We had a few tense moments while I carefully extricated them, and now she’s allowed to have only one tennis ball at a time.
I walk Annie at least twice a day; three times if the weather is good. We’re fortunate to live in an area where dog walking is a pleasure: very little road traffic, lots of woodland trails, and miles of largely deserted shoreline. Annie’s pretty well behaved on the leash, with one notable exception… she’ll lunge at any cat that crosses her path. Annie was trained on a gentle leader, so she rarely pulls at her leash, but she can slip a normal collar like Houdini if she’s determined to give chase.
Annie’s favorite outing is a walk to Sandy Beach. In winter, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll meet anyone else there, so I can let her run to her heart’s content. She’s a retriever and can’t resist a dip in the bay, even when it’s freezing, so I carry a bath towel with me. I also carry a pocketful of dog treats, to lure her away from any disgusting thing she might decide to eat. She seems to have a particular fondness for seagull carcasses, which I’m pretty sure are not part of her approved diet. She’ll also eat shells, dead horseshoe crabs and seaweed if left to make her own decisions. I suppose a lot of people would take issue with the bribery method that I use to separate her from these taste sensations, but I’m a path of least resistance kinda gal. My one goal in caring for Annie is making sure that when Jane and Joel return from their trip, I don’t have to open our conversation with, “Remember that dog you used to have?”
Annie takes her duties as hostess quite seriously. No matter what I’m doing… reading, watching tv or working, she stays within petting distance so I can stroke her whenever I feel the need. She selflessly tastes everything I eat to make sure it isn’t spoiled or poisoned. When it’s time for bed, she flops down beside me to guard me from intruders.
When Jane and Joel are at home, Annie has permission to be in the yard all by herself and she doesn’t stray. I always go outside with her, because one thing I’ve learned in my many years of pet care is that dogs seldom adhere to “the rules” when a sitter is in charge. A pet sitter is the doggie equivalent of a substitute teacher, and even the most well behaved animal will test the boundaries occasionally. Annie thinks it’s weird that I don’t let her go outside unattended. She graciously plays soccer and frisbee and fetch and tug-of-war with me, but she harbors the private conviction that I’m a pretty needy human being that can’t be left alone for even one minute.
As much as we enjoy each other’s company, Annie goes totally bananas when her folks finally return from their trip. It’s not that she doesn’t like me; it’s just her way of saying, “You aren’t my parents!” I’m always happy to see them, too. I like looking after Annie, but it’s a relief to return their adored pet to them in pretty much the same condition as when they left… maybe a little weightier from those extra dog treats, and with a faint aroma of seagull feathers on her breath… but pretty much intact.
To recap the salient pointers: always know the routine, plan ahead, never assume that pets will behave as well as they would with mom and dad, and let them have as much fun as they can, as safely as possible.