STAY! Otis (I'm Traveling for Business)
One blustery day in December, Michelle McGraw and I were walking with Otis, a golden retriever puppy. Michelle is a professional dog walker and owner of McGraw's Paws LLC. I often see her circling my block with one to four large dogs, many of whom have households that are disrupted by business travel. As I fell into step beside her, we got to chatting. She showed me the mace she always has on hand and we talked about her favorite brand of waste bags ("Pets N Bags! They’re biodegradable and come in boxes of 700!")
Michelle offered some tips for finding a pet sitter to care for your four-legged friend while you’re traveling.
Ask for the Right Paperwork
Michelle is insured and bonded through Pet Sitters Associates and says pet care professionals absolutely must carry liability insurance. You just never know what's going to happen out there on the road with Rover. Insurance, she says, is totally non-negotiable.
Ask About First Aid
Did you know pet CPR was a thing? I did not, but Michelle says your pet sitter absolutely should. In addition to preventing choking, she can locate a dog's pulse, act quickly if the dog stops breathing, and even use gauze to administer a tourniquet.
"Thank God I have never had to perform mouth-to-mouth on a dog," she says, "but I am confident I could do it." Michelle practices on a dummy dog at the local animal rescue, where they have models in different sizes and weights.
"Thank God I have never had to perform mouth-to-mouth on a dog, but I am confident I could do it."
A good dog walker is well-versed in pet first aid. Dunking pills in yogurt, placing drops in ears or even giving insulin shots can be part of a routine pet visit if the care provider has the right training and experience.
Prioritize the Pet
Michelle's first priority is making sure her clients' dogs are happy. This might seem obvious, but she says to make sure you ask about a pet sitter’s philosophy. Michelle makes sure dogs have the proper socialization and fitness before bringing them along for pack walks versus scheduling private walks or home visits. A pet sitter should keep your pet as close as possible to its routine. For example, even if a dog stays overnight at Michelle's house, she drops the dog at its own home during the day if that's what it's used to.
Ask About Professional Networks
Not only is Michelle familiar with emergency vets in Pittsburgh, she also collaborates with a network of other pet sitters in case an emergency pops up. She says a good pet sitter will network with other professionals to trade best practices and back each other up in the event of illness or other emergencies.
Michelle also collaborates with other industry professionals. For example, she doesn't offer dog training, but trades referrals with a local dog trainer. She sits in on the trainer's sessions to learn techniques for her own dogs or to help socialize client dogs for pack walks.
Get the Details in Writing
Michelle insists on an in-person meeting before signing an agreement with new clients. She says a good pet sitter will always have a service agreement that gets signed before any services are rendered. Apart from defining rates and charges, Michelle begins by asking lots of questions about the dog. What's the dog's schedule like? Is the dog social? Does the dog get stressed out by a disrupted routine and, if yes, what does that stress response look like? "Dogs live for their person," she says. "It's hard for them to be away from their owner, but I try as much as possible to keep things fun for the dog."
The pet sitter should always ask about any special medical considerations. Michelle has one client who had to travel before her dog's stitches were out from a surgical procedure. Michelle made sure to review the vet's recommendations with the client so the dog didn't get overstimulated or inadvertently attempt to climb stairs. "That guy had to stay crated," she said. "I know it was hard, and I kept reassuring his owners that he had good spirits when I was at the house."
Not all pet sitters will stay overnight in a client's home, and not all can respond to tight schedules. But open communication should be a priority for a pet sitter. "Even when I leave my own dog with my mom, I call to check on him all the time," Michelle says, "So I totally get how people freak out and wonder how their dog is doing." Michelle sends regular photos and text messages to her clients, letting them know about Fido's temperament, activities, and of course, any abnormalities.
It’s a job interview, so a good pet sitter should have references on hand before you leave your pup. Michelle observes that many clients felt nervous to hire her after experiencing an unreliable sitter in the past. Her own website has testimonials on it, and references should be part of the review process.
If there's something special you do for your pet, don't be afraid to ask your pet sitter. Michelle has heard everything. She dresses short-haired dogs in bedazzled, zebra sweaters for walks. She slips jackets onto little dogs without much body fat. "I do draw the line at holding an umbrella over a dog, though," she says.
Like any professional pet sitter, Michelle spends a lot of time dealing with dog waste. She's scrubbed it out of carpets, furniture, and shoes. Michelle points out that it's normal for dogs to poop or vomit from stress when their owners leave town. When shit happens, a good pet sitter will get in touch with the owner, maybe give the dog some rice and chicken, and visit the emergency vet if things get concerning.
Voice Your Fears
Speaking of concerns, there are very few that Michelle hasn't heard. But the only way a pet sitter can address your worries is if you verbalize them before you leave town. One client was very concerned that her dog would grow anxious without her and would spend the day barking incessantly, bothering the neighbors. Because Michelle knew this dog had separation anxiety, "I can take that pup with me on my walks and play dates. I work on mentally stimulating the dog with some basic obedience skills and treat games." This dog gradually learned to be less anxious and no longer barked when his Jane was at conferences.
Michelle has another client whose greatest fear is a house fire. Knowing this in advance, Michelle can adjust her visit frequency to every three hours versus three total visits per day. Good pet sitters aren't just visiting your pet when they check your house. Michelle points out that she's always assessing the environment, paying attention to details. She once noticed an odor in a client's garage and was able to stay at the house to greet the gas company and address the leak for the client. "I always reassure my clients that if any dangers were to arise, I would take the pets with me," Michelle says. "I work really hard to be on top of things so my clients can be more relaxed while they are away."
Business travel can be stressful and challenging, for you and your pet. But finding a good pet sitter can lead to happy tails for all involved.
~Journey On, Janes.