The term “dog-sitting” is kind of a misnomer, isn’t it?
Sure, some dogs sit, some of the time. Others sleep most of the time. Some pups would rather curl up in a ball than chase one, and that’s OK. Others like to run and play and party hard.
Regardless of your dog’s activity level, the sitter in question – the paid professional charged with the dog’s well-being while its owners are out of town or away for the day – should be doing anything but “sitting.” After all, there are bowls to fill, frisbees to toss, sidewalks to stroll, poop to scoop, meds to administer, and more. You get the picture. Pet sitting is a serious job, meant for serious animal lovers.
And it’s not without its hang-ups.
“We get phone calls almost every day,” says Laura Laaman, president of Outstanding Pet Care, which provides practice management expertise to pet resorts throughout the country, and owner of Wiggles Pet Resort in Mahopac, NY. “Yesterday, three or four people called, panicking because they were going away the next day, and their dog sitter had just canceled. And for seemingly legitimate reasons – people get sick, or there’s a death in the family, or whatever… and they have to say, ‘I can’t take this dog.’ But then the owners are left scrambling.”
In short: things happen. And while no one is necessarily at fault, last-minute cancellations on the sitter’s part can throw a huge monkey wrench into pet-owner proceedings, making contingencies (like keeping the local dog boarding facility on speed dial) a must.
But there is also a darker, more unfortunate side to pet sitting. In recent years, horror stories have popped up on the Internet and the 6 o’clock news regarding renowned pet care companies and their farmed-out dog sitters; stories in which inexperience, indifference, or both led to cringe-worthy results ranging from no-shows to lost and abandoned dogs to falls from unsupervised balconies, and even worse.
As society becomes more and more interconnected digitally, and more distanced physically – the proper vetting of dog and cat sitters can take a hit, possibly putting pets at risk.
And, yet, hiring a pet sitter is sometimes the only tool you have.
YES, SOMETIMES HIRING A PET SITTER IS NECESSARY
Partnering with a quality dog boarding center, or doggie daycare, is an ideal situation – but it is not necessarily appropriate for every dog.
“There are some dogs that don’t belong in a pet care or pet boarding facility,” says Laaman.
Pets who have not been properly introduced to a pet resort – or social settings of any kind – from an early age, may not take well to unfamiliar surroundings. (The American Veterinary Medical Association suggests dogs be properly socialized between 4 to 6 months of age.)
Additionally, geriatric dogs and those who are incredibly anxious or fearful may do better at home, making pet sitting a viable option.
“But their owners really need to find someone reliable in advance,” Laaman says.
If you must hire a dog sitter, she says, there are certain steps you can take to ensure everyone’s safety and comfort.
STEP 1: CONSULT YOUR VETERINARIAN
Whenever you have any questions regarding the safety and health of your dog, the best place to start is always a consultation with your veterinarian. He or she will be able to suggest an ideal course of action regarding your pet’s care and potential caretakers.
Laaman notes that your veterinarian may also have someone on staff who is willing and qualified to care for your pet while you are away. This not only provides added peace of mind but in all likelihood a familiar face that your dog recognizes and trusts.
That being said, even certified pet care specialists can have crises spring up unexpectedly.
“Even though these individuals work for a veterinary office, they still can have life occurrences just like anyone else – illnesses, family emergencies, or whatever – that could make them unavailable at the last minute.”
For that reason, two heads may be better than one when hiring a pet sitter.
STEP 2: HAVE CONTINGENCIES
Laaman strongly recommends hiring two qualified sitters and scheduling them at alternate times of the day. This way, if conflicts arise, a backup plan is already in place.
Surveillance, too, is a wise investment for pet owners who are inviting relative strangers into their homes to watch their pets.
“We certainly hope that pet parents have tools like cameras or some type of alarm system so that they know when their sitters arrived and when they left,” says Laaman.
Closed-circuit surveillance systems are ideal for in-home use – and also outdoor spaces, such as the backyard.
“You want to be able to see, ‘What did the sitter actually do?’” she continues. “Was the sitter actually there? Did they play with your dog and cuddle with your dog? Or were they just on the phone passing the time?”
STEP 3: BE PREPARED
Before embarking on a trip, homeowners typically create a to-do list to ensure nothing is forgotten before locking up and backing out of the driveway.
The itinerary when you hire a dog sitter should be just as thorough – if not more so.
Food options should be well-articulated, says Laaman, leaving nothing to chance. When possible, prepare meals in advance for quick and easy feeding times.
And just as you make certain that food is eaten at a normal time, you will want to make sure that when nature calls – your sitter is there to answer.
“Make sure your dog can eliminate in whatever time the dog needs,” Laaman says. “Make sure sitters are following your guidelines, and that they know about your breed of dog.”
Some breeds, she says, will have restrictions after they eat.
“Some dogs will need separate exercise sessions from elimination sessions,” she adds. “At a pet care facility, we know that some breeds can’t play within a certain window of time after eating because of major life-threatening conditions like bloat. Ideally, your sitter would know a lot about your breed. This is also a good reason to work closely with your veterinarian.”
STEP 4: ASK FOR REFERRALS, THEN CHOOSE WISELY
Unfortunately, there are no official standards for the pet sitting industry.
Common sense should prevail. Consider the hallmarks you would want to know about any professional contractor:
- Regular office hours
- Response time (phone, text, email)
- An established online presence and clear pricing
- Insurance and bonding
- Experience in the field
You should strive to meet with your pet sitter in advance for proper vetting. During the visit, you can better gauge the individual’s comfort level around your dogs and ask them about previous work. Be sure to inquire about the steps your sitter would – and will – take in the event of a medical emergency.
“Look for someone who has been doing this for years,” Laaman says. “Get references from other pet owners who use cameras in their homes and can verify that their dogs did well and that their pet sitter was engaging with the dogs instead of just opening doors. You want to be able to tell if your sitter is doing quality work.”
WHEN POSSIBLE, A PET RESORT IS BEST
Pet resorts are specifically designed with dogs – and their many needs – in mind, Laaman says.
“Someone made an investment in brick and mortar who knew that it would be used for dog care, housing, and wellness,” she adds.
Because of this, pet owners can rest easy knowing that when their dog is at a pet resort, they are well supervised, fed, and cared for in every way.
Wiggles Pet Resort, for instance, conducts a five-point wellness check for every guest.
“We report on the dog’s elimination and consumption. We can track how much they ate and notate it. We call the owner if we notice anything and if anything needs to be changed.”
During a wellness check, the Wiggles staff examines a dog’s coat, checks eye clarity to make certain there is no discharge of any kind and assesses the dog’s gait to determine if there are any mobility problems present.
Quality pet resorts like Wiggles are also equipped with advanced ventilation systems and air control and employ state-of-the-art disinfecting techniques.
The best pet resorts also go to great lengths to maximize your dog’s comfort.
According to Laaman, at Wiggles this includes raised cots; soft, cozy bedding; and luxury suites for every guest.
“Plus, we have reliable labor,” she says. “We overstaff with people who are dedicated to caring for pets and understand just how important it is to be reliable.”
If a storm is coming, pet owners can rest easy knowing that Wiggles is powered by a backup generator to keep the lights on, the air flowing, and their dogs comfortable.
“We know that things happen and so we take precautions to make sure we have backups and redundancies,” Laaman continues.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PET CARE PARTNER
Many pet owners understandably prefer to have their pets stay in their own homes. Occasionally, this is the only viable option due to the needs of older dogs, anxious dogs, and those with special needs that hinder them from being in a communal setting. But being in a social, camplike environment is hugely beneficial for so many dogs, particularly when they have been introduced to the environment from an early age.
“It’s great when a pet owner has a trusted place that they can bring their dog whenever they want to travel or simply go away for a weekend,” Laaman says.
The important thing is to choose a qualified partner in your pet’s well-being, even when you’re away from home.
“Again, we’re not saying ‘NO’ to pet sitting, we’re just saying ‘be careful.’ Because every day, we get calls of people who are just scrambling because they don’t have a better option. And it’s really sad. They’re so stressed out.”
“Healthy, social, confident, and happy dogs really do well at a quality pet care facility,” Laaman continues, adding that a trusted pet care facility can be a hugely satisfying and enriching part of your dog’s life.
“Most people, when they take on a pet, choose a veterinarian at the same time,” she says. “You should also choose a pet care facility early on in your pet’s life so that you have that trusted partner who is there when you need them.”