As a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant I developed a working relationship with hundreds of families over the years, and many pet owners have asked for my recommendation when they needed a pet sitter or dog walker.
This often arose when there was a planned vacation, a wedding or an unplanned absence from home. Some folks did not want to board their pets and for others that simply was not an option, as many of my dog clients are anxious or fearful of strangers.
It was always difficult to know how to respond to my clients, not knowing much about the myriad individuals offering pet services. Any recommendation I make is a direct reflection on myself and my business.
The point came sharply into focus when a very fearful dog I was working with required a sitter while the family vacationed in Jamaica. They booked their flights and hotel and paid for their vacation in advance, only to learn two weeks before departure that the pet sitter they used in the past was not available.
They found a new pet sitter and called me to train her how to work with their fearful dog, Oscar*…after their initial meeting went poorly and she was nipped.
Oscar had a bite history with family members, always in circumstances when he went into hiding and someone reached to grab his collar and drag him out of his safe haven. Each instance was a quick nip, at level two on Dr. Ian Dunbar’s bite scale.
I spent two sessions with Oscar, the owner and the new pet sitter. I taught the pet sitter how to recognize stress signals in Oscar and how to use known training cues like “touch” to prompt him to move from one location to another without physical handling, and how to attach a leash to take the frightened little guy outside.
Oscar’s owner called me a few days later in desperation, having concluded the new pet sitter was still being too loud, too abrupt, and too often triggering defensive responses in her dog.
Time was running out and the family vacation was in jeopardy.
She asked me whether I would take care of Oscar for the two weeks they would be away, since I was the only person outside of the immediate family the dog trusted. All they wanted was for someone to check in three times a day for food, water and toilet breaks. I lived nearby and could flex my schedule to accommodate them.
I agreed and we began daily training exercises to desensitize and counter-condition Oscar to accept me reaching toward the leash attachment ring on his body harness, without triggering another bite. Each time I reached toward him I delivered a piece of meat, and I strengthened his trained responses to “look” and “touch”.
Sometimes Oscar would even join me on the couch for a snuggle, which I took as a high compliment. He simply never did that with folks outside the family.
On the final day before the family departed, Oscar allowed me to attach his leash without any signs of stress. As I took him out to the yard Oscar’s owner smiled and breathed a sigh of relief. Days of worry had taken a toll on her and she could at last relax.
I sent the family daily email updates and photographs of their furry family member and they were able to enjoy themselves, rather than worry and fret.
It dawned on me that I could extend greater support to my clients by expanding my business into the realm of pet sitting and dog walking, rather than referring them to others and hoping for the best.
I joined Pet Sitters International, added pet sitting to my business insurance, secured a dishonesty bond, created a presentation book for new clients, created new business documents and updated my web site.
Pet Sitters International has proven to be a very helpful organization with a weekly email newsletter, resources readily available from their web site, and they offer “The Professional Pet Sitters Startup Guide” at a reasonable add-on expense. I found the 177 page guide well organized and a complete resource for those interested in adding pet sitting services to their business.
Another benefit of PSI membership is a free prescription drug card that I simply downloaded, and an unlimited free supply of cards that I can distribute to my clients as added value to our professional relationship. The discount card is accepted at thousands of pharmacies across the United States and will reduce the cost of medications 10-60%.
Some of my clients pets require behavioral pharmacology and the cost can be prohibitive. If I can relieve them of that expense they will have greater incentive to maintain the training and behavior plan I prepared for them. Others will benefit from lower cost for pain medications or other concerns.
Another great resource is the expert advice and free educational online presentations offered by Kristin Morrison. Enrollment is currently open for her annual online Prosperous Pet Business Conference. There is no financial obligation and you will learn, as I have, how to improve your business and services.
The response I received from my clients has been enthusiastic and supportive, with many expressing relief and gratitude that their pets would be in my care. As I look back, offering these services seems a logical expansion of the compassionate care I intended to provide from the start.
Since announcing my pet sitting services I have enjoyed a steady stream of appointments, adding to my revenue while building goodwill with clients. No doubt these happy pet stewards will tell their friends and relatives and several have eagerly given me testimonials. This also gives me the opportunity to reinforce the training I initially provided, on a more frequent basis.
One client has asked me to walk her dog four times each week, and her neighbor immediately informed her “Your dog walks perfectly with your trainer.” When neighbors notice improved behavior in a pet and compliment the owner, that is powerful positive reinforcement for them.
They can feel comfortable in the knowledge that they are their dog’s best advocate.
While recently walking that same dog, a friendly 15-pound Welsh Terrier, an aggressive 65 pound dog burst out of the front door of a house we were passing and rushed up to us. The unfriendly dog stopped short and growled at me. As a professional, I was trained and prepared for such an encounter.
After safely returning my client’s dog home I informed her of the incident and wondered what would have happened if she had continued relying upon the neighbor kids and an unreliable family friend to walk their dog, instead of calling upon me to undertake the responsibility?
If you are a professional trainer and have not considered offering pet sitting services, this may be an option to explore. You could expand your business profile and provide enhanced services to the clients and dogs you already care for.
* A fictitious name