Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Too cute- photos and videos

I just couldn't resist this photo, even if it is out of focus. Maya and Millie the dachshunds, Izzy the toy poodle/chihuahua mix puppy, and Lucee the puggle relax at my house during the holidays. They are usually playing too hard to catch them standing still.

I have uploaded (to YouTube) a few videos of the big dogs playing. Recorded with my cell phone, the quality isn't too good, but you will see Junior the Pharaoh Hound (greyhound? whippet?) in constant motion, entertaining Casey the Giant Schnauzer, Chester, Tally and Portia the Labs. 

After 10 days here, Junior finally quit running and laid down for a few minutes with Tally. This lastest for less than a minute. Thank God for crates! At 10 months old, Junior is perpetual motion. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas morning for pet sitters

Very few people are in a hurry to leave the house this early on Christmas morning. As it begins to get light, families sit around the Christmas tree opening gifts and snuggling in their bathrobes, while I make my way down the quiet streets. Rush hour is suspended this morning, ladies and gentlemen, because the only people rushing are pet sitters.

After I drag myself out of bed at dawn to feed the 10 dogs staying at my house, (plus my four), two horses and two cats, I pour some strong coffee and head for the car to start my morning rounds. Each house I enter is quiet and kind of eerie- the Christmas tree is dark, the gifts have been taken to Grandma’s, and the pets are lonely and hungry for both attention and food.

As I make my rounds, I try to find a store where I can get my latte. It’s a treat I give myself to make up for having to work on Christmas. After a few stops, I will sometimes take a short nap on someone’s couch, usually with a lonely kitty perched on my hip. Each pet gets an extra holiday biscuit or treat.

Later in the day, a merciful friend has invited me to dinner. It’s a nice break on a dog-tiring day. I can’t drive 100 miles to see my brother and his family, so I enjoy my friends and their families, and head out after an hour or two stuffing myself with delicious food.

Once I have gone home and fed the animals, it’s out again for the evening pet sits. I’m lucky I don’t have to cope with snow here in San Diego. Isabella the baby puppy will need a late night potty break, and other dogs need to go out as late as possible, so it will be 9 pm or later when I get home on Christmas night.

But it’s not over. The holidays don’t end for me until January 5th when the last dog goes home, everyone’s kids are back in school, and 2009 is well under way. Then I will spend some time with my brother and his family, and take a good long winter’s nap.

Happy holidays, pet sitters! 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pet Sitters: Are you ready for the holiday rush?

This photos is Emma (collie) and Onyx (a foster Lab) going for a Christmas Day walk on our street when I lived in Washington State. Brings back fond memories of cold winter days! Sometimes it was hard to get to my pet sitting clients' homes.

By Saturday you'll all be too busy to read this, so I thought I'd mention a few quick tips for pet sitters before the holiday rush is going full blast.

• Check the air in your tires, your oil, and any other maintenance your car may need. This is no time to get stranded. If it might snow, carry chains. Keep a bag of kitty litter in the car to use as "salt" on the road if your wheels are spinning on the ice. 

• Do your laundry and grocery shopping now. Plan ahead so you don't end up stopping for fast food every day, gaining weight, or snacking away your profits. 

• Do your Christmas shopping and mailing. You aren't going to have time next week.

• Be sure you have flashlight batteries, cell phone batteries, ice scraper, gloves, and pet sitting supplies on hand for when the weather gets bad. 

• Call all your clients and reconfirm their schedule.

You can't anticipate every little thing that will come up, but if you are prepared, the holiday rush won't be quite so frantic. Don't forget to take some time for yourself and your family!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Happy Holidays!

To all my clients, friends, readers, family and everyone who cares about animals: Thank you and I hope you have wonderful holiday with your loved ones, be they people or pets!

Shown here: Desi, my dachshund.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Recent blogs and gifts for your clients

Before I started my Dear Labby blog, I wrote some pet sitting posts for my Everything-Pets blog. Here are the links, in case you missed them:

And a poem, written by me: Polly the Pet Sitter

I hope you will enjoy them! Meanwhile, here is another of my recent paintings. I seem to be in an Australian Shepherd mood lately. Actually, there is a reason. I get a lot of requests for Aussie artwork. You can buy t-shirts with my art of Aussies and other breeds on them at http://www.helpingudders.com. A portion of your purchase helps homeless dogs.

Some less expensive gifts are available in my ebay store. I have over 50 dog, cat and horse note card designs and a some t-shirts and leash racks. If you buy gifts for your pet sitting clients, this may be just what you are looking for. 

And for that really special someone, a gift certificate for a custom pet portrait will bring tears to their eyes. Prices start at $125 for an 8 x 10 up to $300 for a 16 x 20. See my web site for complete details or contact me

Enough of the commercial message. I'll shut up now!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Pet sitting hell week is almost over!

Thanksgiving and Christmas are different for pet sitters. While everyone else is off, we are working, and working hard. This ten day period was packed with visits and boarding dogs for me, and today is the last the day of the rush. I only have three boarding dogs left here (out of ten!) and two go home this morning. Whew. 

I've been sweeping and vacuuming up dirt and washing dog beds all day yesterday, my birthday. What a way to celebrate! With ten dogs here and rainy weather, they tracked in a lot of mud. My visitors included: Jet the German Shepherd, Willa the Boxer, Tally the Lab, Twyla, Bella and Harper, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Rex and Makaso, terrier mixes, Maya and Millie, dachshunds. Plus my four dogs, three shelties and a dachshund, and it was a full house! 

In addition to that, I was visiting clients including a cockatoo, two parrots, two horses, some cats, a couple of dogs and a guinea pig. Tomorrow I will be in full "rest" mode. But in this business, this is the time of year to make enough money to get you through January, so working really, really hard for a couple of weeks is well worth it. 

One of my clients blogged about her Cavaliers at my house on the Pet Connection. Read the last paragraph for a funny story.

The Christmas rush lasts longer, a full two weeks. I do regret that I can't head out of town to visit my family on the holidays, but my friends here have mercy on me and invite me over for a good meal and a few hours of human company. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ten things you might not know about ten different species

Fish can get constipated

Horses spook easily because they are prey animals

Tortoises can learn to come when they are called

If a cat’s head can fit in an opening the whole body can

A dog’s feet smell like Fritos

A rabbit’s teeth never stop growing

Ferrets like to poop in the corner

Birds can’t eat avocados

Snakes “hear” with their tongues; they don’t have ears

Hermit crabs shed their skin and grow out of their shells

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Give the Cat a Pill

Pills and shots: both are a challenge when your patient is a cat. As a pet sitter, you will be called upon to do both. We could assume the owners have a tried and true method of pilling their cat. I wouldn’t count on it. You may end up training them! I had one client who auditioned me. I literally had to stand there on the consultation visit and give his cat a thyroid pill to prove I could really do it. Lucky for me, the cat cooperated and I got the job.


My method, or at least the first one I try, is to wrap my left hand over the cat’s head from the back, with my fingers on either side of his mouth. My index finger pokes his mouth open, and with the other hand, I drill the pill down his throat. Then I close his mouth and stroke his throat until I feel him swallow. This technique is illustrated above with a photo of my cat Sterling, who actually allows me to do it.

Not all cats are so cooperative, so be ready for anything. I have been known to wear a heavy jacket and garden gloves to protect myself from flying claws and well-aimed teeth.

My vet has a canvas bag that holds the entire cat with just his head sticking out. Zipped into this bag, Kitty can’t scratch you, so you have a little more control. At least that’s the theory!

Vets and pet supply stores sell treats called pill pockets that you wrap the medicine in and give to the cat. Cats are masters at eating the treat and spitting out the pill, but it is worth a try. Put butter on the pill to make it slip down easily. Another tool from the vet, a pill gun, holds the pill on the end, and you plunge it down the cat’s throat and release the pill. This way, your fingers are further away from the cat’s mouth.

I have a client who has me wrap the pill in a tiny piece of lunchmeat, and Kitty eats it right down. Another has me put it in some juice from a can of tuna or cat food. For other kitties I crush the pill in a spoon and mix it into a bit of his wet food. When he eats the medicated food, I give him the rest.

The pet’s veterinarian or a pharmacist may be able to mix the medication in a liquid to make it easier to administer. Ask about this; the ability to do this will vary by the type of medication it is.


I often have to give shots to diabetic cats. Your best chance is to move quickly. I reach in from behind while the cat eats and give him the shot before he even has time to react. Lift the skin between the shoulder blades with your left hand, put in the needle with your right and push the plunger quickly. For insulin, the amount is usually so small it goes in fast. You do have to be careful not to push the needle through and out the other side of the tented skin- you’ll squirt the shot into the air and do the cat no good at all. For other types of shots where there is more liquid, you have to push the syringe slowly and evenly.

Dogs are so much easier.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Your client's neighbors

You may get the creeps when you think your clients' neighbors are spying on you, but they can be your best friend too. When I see the neighbors looking at me curiously, I will introduce myself and give them my card. They’ll call if the dog gets out, the sprinklers break, a moving van shows up, or they see any unusual activity. Neighbors have helped me find the main shut-off valve when a water pipe broke, called the police when kids broke in and had a party, and caught and held a fence-jumping boxer for me.

One of my most interesting neighbor experiences happened when I arrived at a client’s house to find their elderly collie dead in the back yard. After calling the client and getting instructions, I discovered the dog was too heavy to move by myself. I wrapped it in trash bags and asked the guy next door to help me carry the body to the car. We got out front, and here comes the busybody from across the street, wanting to know just what I was taking from her friend’s house. I don’t know if she thought I’d murdered someone or was camouflaging the fine china, but she wasn’t going to let me get away with it. It was a light moment in an otherwise sad day. 

In spite of her nosiness, I appreciated the fact that she was paying attention. I'm sure she drives everyone nuts, peeking out through the curtains as they come and go about their daily business. But what if you were gone and she saw the door left hanging open? Or the dog was running loose? This happened to one client. Their house was burglarized, and their Great Pyrennes was running out in the street. Thanks to the "nosy" neighbor, the dog was returned home and the police were called in a timely manner. 

Those of you who think pet sitting sounds like fun, and an easy job, should take note here. It's a big responsibility to care for someone's home and pets. Do you know what to do?

The photo here is one of my favorites: Brandy, a toy poodle I cared for for over 8 years.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Putting family first

In October 2007, I wasn’t very busy with pet sitting. I only had one visit a day coming up for a two-week period, but I decided to stay home and hoped more people would fill in my schedule with appointments. I needed the money, and October was usually busy. But my schedule stayed slow. 

One morning I was lying in bed, thinking about my Dad, who at 86, was in a nursing home in South Dakota. When I had last seen him in June he was in poor shape, rapidly losing weight and his memory due to congestive heart failure. On my last morning there, he hadn’t known who I was.

My eyes filled with tears as I remembered, and I was overwhelmed with a sudden feeling of loss. I got up and called the nursing home, and then my brother Dan in Huntington Beach. “I’m going to see Dad this weekend,” I said, “do you want to join me?”  He said yes, and I made arrangements for a friend to cover my pet sitting visits for three days. We left the next day. I felt terribly guilty leaving my client’s cat, Sabrina, in the care of my friend, even though I knew she would do an excellent job. But I had to see my daddy.

We made it to Yankton, South Dakota by 8:30 pm on Sunday night. Dad’s room was dim as he lied in bed, a small lamp lighting his tired face. “My God,” he said when he recognized us, ”I never thought I’d see you guys again.” 

That night, while we slept, a wildfire burned through Poway and Rancho Bernardo back home, destroying almost 200 homes, including my clients’. I woke the next morning and watched the report on CNN. By the time we returned to California I knew the worst. My clients’ elderly cat, Sabrina, had perished in the fire. It didn’t matter whether I was there or not. The home burned before my substitute even knew there was a fire. The bad photo at left is the last one taken of Sabrina, with a cell phone the night before the fire.

We spent two days with Dad, visiting, holding his hand, and just sitting by his side. I told Dan that if we’d turned around and left that Sunday evening, only staying for an hour, it would have been worth the trip, just to see the happiness in his eyes.

Ten days later, my father passed away in his sleep.    

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing for pet sitters

New Year’s Morning…

While the rest of the world slept off its collective hangover, I was out visiting pets, letting dogs out of crates, scooping litterboxes, and feeding birds. My last stop was to visit a dog, two cats and some bunnies. Hannah the border collie mix needed to go out for the day.

As I walked in the front door, Hannah greeted me frantically. I quickly realized that water was pouring down the stairs into the entry hall. The pipe under the sink in the upstairs bathroom had broken during the night. I had no idea how to shut off the water. I briefly looked in the family room, which is directly below the upstairs bathroom. The hardwood floors were soaked and buckled. Water continued to pour.

After (finally) shutting off the water under the sink, I looked for the main shut-off for the house. Usually it is by the front door, but not this time. It was located behind a utility shelf in the garage, where I never would have found it if not for some helpful neighbors who knew the quirks of the homes in this tract.

I called the owner, who would be flying in from New York that night, and she had me call a friend who took over, calling in a flood repair company to start cleaning up. If you live in an area that freezes in winter, be prepared for broken water lines.

Now, I ask my clients where their water shut-off is, and some even leave me a full notebook of instructions for the electrical panel, water, gas, and other mishaps that just wait until the owners leave to pop up and ruin my day. I’ve learned about sprinkler lines and septic tanks, gas meters and generators.

Septic rules, heat, electric gates

If your client is on a septic system, DON”T flush kitty litter or Kleenex. The best rule is to not flush anything down the toilet unless your client specifically tells you to. A septic system will back up into the tubs, sinks, toilets, and out of the ground up into the yard.

One Christmas, a client’s heating system went out. It was 19 degrees in the house, and the cats were huddled in a basket together, trying to keep warm. I called the owners and got the system repaired before they returned from their trip.

Another time, I accidentally knocked an electric gate off the track. My pet sitting insurance covered the repair. Another time, an electric gate closed on my car and pinned me with no way to escape. My car suffered more than the gate on that one...

The moral of the story: ask your client where the water shut-off is. Learn how to turn off water, gas and electricity, and ask what the client wants you to do when things go wrong!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pet sitting in a slow economy

What is a self-employed small-business owner to do when the economy comes to a standstill? Pet sitters certainly fall into that category. We are lucky that the holidays, traditionally our busiest season of the year, are going to keep us busy through December, but then what? 

I am taking action to maximize my holiday income. I have set up my yard so I can board more dogs than usual. I don't have kennels, but now I can separate dogs into separate sections of the yard during the day so I am not overwhelmed in the house and everyone stays a little calmer. Everyone sleeps inside at night, preferably in the house, so I have baby gates set up and crates so I can separate them without isolating them. Then the midnight play parties will be minimized! 

The problem with boarding at my home is that I am essentially working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's a grind, so I treasure my breaks when I get them. My maximum is usually 6 dogs. This Christmas it will be 10, and I am fully booked already. Plus my own four, so the house will be full.

On top of that, of course, are pet sitting visits. I have not taken in very many new clients for visits the past two years, preferring to concentrate on boarding. This year I will market my pet sitting to kennels and veterinarians so they have someone to refer their clients to when they are fully booked. This has been more successful for me than advertising in the past. 

I am sending out a letter to all of my existing clients to announce that I now accept credit cards. I am a member of the NASE (National Association for the Self Employed), and process my payments through their Bank of America merchant program. There are no monthly minimum fees to pay, which is important when you only have a few transactions per month. 

I am also announcing to my clients that I will NOT be raising my rates until at least 2010, over a year away. And I offer a 10% discount to any boarding or pet sitting assignments that are over 10 days in length. I want to thank my existing clients for sticking with me, many for 10 years or more, and give new clients a financial reason to choose me.

Word of mouth is the best advertising of all. Recommendations from existing clients are rewarded with a free visit or free day of boarding. 

I am a member of Petsitters International, and have gotten several new clients from their referral service. Other online referral services I use are through Zootoo.com,  and Petsitters Associates LLC. Try Craigslist and Angie's list in your areas for extra exposure. 

Once the holidays are over, business may slow down substantially. I hope that my holiday income will hold me over for January and February. I have some savings put away for slow times. I keep close track of school holidays in my area, like Martin Luther King Day and President's Day-- these busy weekends will help me through the winter. 

January and February are months for a short vacation, even if it's in my own backyard. I will try not to sweat the slow season, continue marketing my business and take exceptional care of my customers. I will paint some pictures, ride my horse, enjoy my own dogs, and thank God I have been so fortunate to have this wonderful job and lifestyle.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The ten commandments of pet sitting

            The Ten Commandments of Pet Sitting

Thou shall not set down the keys

Thou shall not snoop

Thou shall keep the dog on a leash

Thou shall call the clients before spending their money

Thou shall return phone calls

Thou shall never skip a visit

Thou shall love their animals as thine own

Thou shall keep the tires inflated and the oil changed

Thou shall cherish thy calendar and keep it with you always

Thou shall treat thy clients as thee would want to be treated 

I could write a long description for each of these, but I think they speak for themselves. Follow these rules and your business will be more efficient, and your ethics will be intact. Happy Pet sitting!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

How a pet sitter can care for senior pets

I have a special spot in my heart and home for old pets, and have adopted many. A few were only with me for a year or two, some for five or more. When caring for a client’s old pets there are some special needs you will be asked to meet.


Old dogs can’t go for much of a walk, but a good cuddling goes a long way to making them comfortable.

In hot weather, make sure the dog has extra water. If you can’t find another dish, use a bucket or bring something from home.

If possible, offer the dog access to the house on extremely hot or cold days. If you can’t let him inside, at least be sure he has plenty of shade. If you arrive on your next visit and the dog hasn’t moved from his spot, that is a bad sign. Check for excessive panting; it could mean heatstroke or pain. Call the owner.

Old dogs often get matted, ratty looking coats and long toenails. Don’t assume the owner has neglected him. It may just be too hard on him to be groomed anymore. Ask the owner before you start grooming the dog.

Old dogs will often have accidents, even when they’ve been perfectly housetrained for years. 

Don’t be too harsh on the dog. He can’t help it. The owner will probably leave you some cleanup supplies. Sudden runny or bloody diarrhea is a bad sign, and it’s time to call the owner or vet.

It is hard for an old dog to walk on tile floors. A throw rug or runner will help him get across the room from his bed to the back door.

The dog shown above is Gizmo, and elderly Chihuahua who stayed with me.


Cats can also get ratty looking coats when they are really old. The owner will tell you if she can tolerate being groomed. Sometimes a bad coat is a sign of illness.

Older cats often suffer from diabetes, heart failure, or kidney disease. They get very thin and frail. If the cat is not on medication, suggest to the owner that it might be time for a trip to the vet.

To keep kitty eating, canned Fancy Feast is a good choice. It is especially smelly, and will stimulate her limited senses. At the Humane Society where I used to volunteer, they fed Fancy Feast to sick cats that couldn’t smell their food very well due to upper respiratory infection.

Soft beds in a warm spot will comfort an older kitty. One client keeps a cat bed at the base of the refrigerator, where the warmth of the motor warms the cat. Kitty might not be able to climb like she used to.

This cat is Felix, 15 years old. He is the one who likes his warm spot by the refrigerator.

Do you have some tips for caring for old pets? Please share!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pet sitter burn-out

I can’t afford a vacation. Like everyone else in the world, the economy is hitting me hard. The good news is my pet sitting hasn’t fallen off as much as I had feared. School in Poway started two weeks ago, almost three weeks earlier than other years, and that put an end to summer vacation. The September Slump in my business started early.

I try to take advantage of the slow periods, and remind myself that it always picks up again. A week before school started, I thought to myself if I didn’t get a break from so many dogs, I would go insane. Six very active dogs a day staying here, five of my own dogs, and pet sitting visits on top of that. Then I suddenly had a week completely off, and I was a vegetable the entire week. I don’t think I left the couch except to take a long-delayed ride on my horse!

Looking at my calendar I see some more frantic periods coming up, the busiest being Thanksgiving and Christmas. I am already fully booked for boarding. But there is a week in September and a week in October that are full too, with young active dogs. And a cat staying here.

How will I survive? How will I cope with all this constant activity at the house? By taking it one day at a time. If the dogs get too fired up, I will put them outside for awhile and let them play (if it’s not too hot). I will retreat to my bedroom (off limits to all dogs, including mine) for a nap. I will crate a dog for an hour if he won’t settle down.

I will stop for a latte on my way out to do visits. I will count my income daily and pat myself on the back for working so hard. I will have an occasional meal with friends so I can talk to a human being! I will stop and enjoy the pets I am sitting, and spend some individual cuddle time with each of them. It reminds me of why I decided to do this in the first place. Because these animals are so sweet. I may even take along a book and sit on the couch with a cat on my lap for an hour.

I will go out for a horseback ride and enjoy the quiet time with my horse or with my friends. I will take one dog for a nice long walk. I will eat well, take my vitamins and get enough sleep. I can do this! 

This photo features several of my clients playing hard and having fun- and ready for a good nap afterwards! © 2008 Terry Albert


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Marketing your pet sitting business

 When I started pet sitting, the Internet was in its infancy, and I didn't have any kind of web site at all. In 1998, I built my own site for the first time, featuring my pet portraits artwork. It wasn't until recently that I added a pet sitting page to my site, because I thought I didn't need it. After all, all my business is local, right?
Yes, my business is local, but even local people search for services on the Web today. I have been amazed. I have gotten several clients who just searched for "pet-sitter, Poway," and found meThey clearly have read every word on my site, and were interested in hearing about my own pets, too. I have found it to be an excellent marketing tool.

Once I built my page, I registered on several pet networking sites, like zootoo.com, and I joined Petsitters Intl. Both have referred new clients to me already. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. I thought I didn't need the Internet, but now I highly recommend it to all pet sitters! 

Advertising in the local paper, a weekly giveaway, has never done anything for me. I occasionally will advertise at Christmas or Thanksgiving, but that is the only time. I don't think it works well because people don't pay for it, and most copies probably don't even make it into the house, much less get read every week. When I was in the advertising business, we spent our money on paid circulation, not free. 

Word of mouth is your cheapest and most reliable form of marketing. Happy clients will give you good recommendations. My philosophy is to give them more than they pay for. Most of my clients have been with me for years, and I have several groups- networks of friends and neighbors who all hire me to care for their pets. I always give my clients several business cards (shown here)-one for the front of refrigerator, one for their wallet, one for a friend. Couples get one for each spouse. My card features my web site, email, cell phone and regular phone numbers. Note that my home phone number is large enough that people can easily read it. I HATE cards that have little tiny type. Maybe they are pretty from a design format, but not practical, especially if anyone over 40 years old needs to read it! 

One of my best resources for new customers is, believe it or not, kennels. When they get booked up for the holidays, they like having a pet sitter they can refer clients to. When I am overbooked, I like having a kennel I can refer to. I make friends with the kennel staff, regularly visit and drop off cards and flyers, send Christmas cards, and occasionally even a gift for the staff. 

This same relationship works well with veterinarians in town. If I take a client's pet to the vet, I give the staff a card and let them know who I am. They are more likely to refer people to me if they are familiar with me. 

Ask the local pet supply or feed store if you can set up a table out front in October or May, just before the busy season. A busy Saturday morning is the perfect time to meet new clients. 

There are lots of more ways to market your business, but the ones I've mentioned here have been the most effective for me. 

The photo above is me with Pudley, an African Sulcatta tortoise that I pet sit. He eats dandelion greens.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

How to have a career with pets

It's time for a formal introduction:

I am an artist, writer, pet sitter and graphic designer- how do I combine all these careers? Through my love of animals.

My art and love for pets merged into a pet portraits business I have pursued for 18 years now. I used to love painting old Victorian houses and abstract color studies. In college and afterwards, my mom and I would do shopping mall art shows- her with her oil paintings of landscapes and flowers, me with my eclectic collection. Professionally, I’ve always been an artist, as an art director for Builders Emporium and other retailers, but in 1990 I was fortunate to be able to quit the corporate world and pursue my true love, animals.

Up until 1990 I had volunteered for rescue groups, and showed my first dog, a sheltie named Sherman, in beginning obedience. I became a dog trainer, working at the Academy of Canine Behavior in Bothell, WA. I began fostering dogs for Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue, eventually caring for over 60 dogs a year in my home. I eventually served on the Board of Directors for SPDR and also the Humane Society for Seattle/King Co.

In 1990, while sitting on a patio at a hotel in Monterey, I pulled a photo of Sherman out of my wallet and decided to sketch. It came out pretty well (see above), and when I got home, I tried the same drawing in color, with a set of pencils that had been gathering dust for years in my studio. From there, I practiced on friends’ pets, and from photos in magazines. I quickly learned that other people’s photos are copyrighted, so I built my own files. I started taking photos of every dog I met, and today I have thousands of photos in my files.

Meanwhile, I began a pet sitting business in Issaquah WA, to supplement my income. All this time spent fostering and training dogs served me well. But pet-sitting was still quite an education, braving rain, snow and downed trees to reach my clients in the dead of winter. There's a lot more to pet sitting than just feeding pets.

I decided that being a professional dog trainer was not for me, so I started working one day a week at an art gallery and learned how to do custom picture framing. I also took watercolor painting lessons and tried pastels during classes offered by the gallery owner, Judy McNea, who also became a close friend. My artwork improved, and soon I was drawing Labrador Retrievers for the 1994 National Specialty show, Goldens for the Evergreen Golden Retriever Club, and Irish Water Spaniels for the Puget Sound club. I did my own sheltie artwork and sold out of a limited edition print edition of 200.

But it’s hard to make a living as an artist, and I dabbled in writing too. This led to the Delta Society, and for eight years I wrote and produced their Pet Partners Newsletter. Pet Partners make animal assisted therapy visits to schools, nursing homes, and more. I joined the Dogwriters Association of America, and was proud to win several awards for my writing and artwork. We moved to California in 1997.

In 2003, my life took a dramatic turn. I got a divorce and was suddenly responsible for all the bills myself. I was terrified and wondered how I would ever survive. I’d been out of the corporate world for 13 years. Last time I worked, Windows hadn’t even been invented…

Today, I am still terrified on a daily basis, but I have survived and thrived. My pet sitting business has grown to a point where it is my major source of income. I now board dogs in my home, and that part of the business has boomed. I still make visits too. It is hard, exhausting work, and when dogs are visiting, I never have a minute “off work,” even in the middle of the night. If there’s a disaster to be had, I’ve been through it.

My pet portraits business is slow but steady, suffering more from a lack of focus than anything else. I am so busy with other things, I do not paint nearly as much as I would like. I spent thousands of dollars developing product lines and experimenting with art fairs, and have decided to abandon all that because of the massive investment in time and money required. The Internet and word of mouth grow my business faster than anything else I do. My graphic design and production background enables me to offer services like logo design in addition to my pet portraits.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and I needed a Web site. I went back to school, learning Web site design, Illustrator, and Photoshop. Besides my own site, I now design and maintain sites for a number of small businesses, many of them dog related. I also work from home for a web site design company, Savvy Sites. It is hard to work alone, in a vacuum, and I’ve appreciated their help on projects, and learned many new things.

I abandoned writing for a few years, but opportunity knocked, and I grabbed the chance to write my first book: Basset Hound, Your Happy Healthy Pet, which will be released in December, 2008, by Howell Books, a division of Wiley Publishing. I now have an agent and a second book proposal in the works.

This all keeps me pretty busy, as you can imagine, but I am happy. I love working at home, surrounded by my cats and dogs. I can look out the window and see my horses munching on their hay. It would be hard to have a roommate with so many animals, so they function as my family. I make sure to schedule contact with friends so I don’t become too isolated. Everyone is different, but I find I get restless and can’t concentrate if I haven’t seen any real people in a while. 

So that’s my career(s) in pets! 

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pet sitting the parrots

Dear Labby,
I'm pet sitting two parrots, and one of them doesn't like me! What can I do to make friends?

Pecked At

Dear Pecked, 

Tabby has her own opinion about how to deal with birds, so Labby just chased her up a tree so I could give you some more practical advice! The parrot at the top is Poncey, an Amazon, that I have been taking care of for seven years. His new rommate, Tooki (second photo), came on the scene about six months ago. I clean their cages every week. Poncey and I have never been close friends, but he puts up with me. Tooki, on the other hand, is downright aggressive. Last week he bit the housekeeper on the lip while I was at the house. 

I figured they didn't like me much because I show up every week and tear their cages apart, stealing their seed, running a vacuum cleaner, and just generally upsetting their routines. Poncey always settles down happily when I give him his fresh apple slices. Tooki pecks at me, bobbing his head and squawking the entire time I am near his cage. He will retreat to the top of his perch and continue posturing until I leave. I ignore him. 

Parrots, Amazons especially, are one-man birds. They will bond with their owner or mate, and never accept anyone else. Sometimes, if they start to bond with you, they will reject their owners! Robin, the housekeeper, tried to make friends, thinking if she spent time petting and cuddling with the birds, they would accept her. That's not how parrots think. Tooki was probably trying to protect his owner, Richard, from the threatening stranger.

Parrots are wild animals (even captive-bred ones), and will not ever be totally socialized like a dog. Think of them as wolves; no matter how domesticated, there is still that wild animal in there that will surface when you least expect it. People who own breeding pairs of parrots generally do not handle their birds much, so the birds will bond to each other and mate.

So what does this mean to you as a pet sitter? You can safely care for parrots and other large birds if you are careful and respect their personalities. The owner can guide you, but don't expect them to know everything there is to know about bird behavior. Large birds like Cockatoos and Macaws can be extremely dangerous, and can do some serious damage with that huge beak. So here are some guidelines:

• Don't take the bird out of the cage. How the heck are you going to get him back in there if you can't handle him? Your pet sitting insurance may not cover you if you let the bird out and something happens, just like if you let a dog off-leash while in your care.

• Don't put the bird on your shoulder or near your face. When threatened, he will fight back with his only line of defense, his beak. You could easily be maimed or lose an eye. (Why does the pirate wear an eye patch? Because he once had a parrot on his shoulder...)

• Learn to read bird body language. A fanned-out tail or puffed-up body is a sign of fear or aggression. The bird is trying to appear larger to scare away an intruder. 

• Biting is not really aggressive, it is a natural behavior. As a prey animal, the bird will strike out to defend himself. A very young bird can be cuddled, but once it reaches maturity, at about two years old, expect the personality to change, especially if it is a male. Males are much more hormonal. 

• Gloves can protect you, but might scare a bird, escalating a situation unnecessarily. Wild-caught birds are usually handled with gloves, so this can bring back bad, frightening memories of the trauma when they were captured.

• Use your body language so as not to threaten a bird. Don't corner him. Face away from the bird, standing sideways so you don't seem so large (This also protects your face). 

• If you have to pick up a bird, put a towel over him to give you some protection and make him easier to carry. Be aware he can still bite through the towel.

African grey parrots are easier to deal with, and often will talk to you and mimic your voice. Amazons don't usually talk. 

A friend of mine is a pet sitter that won't take care of birds- she is terribly afraid of them. Nothing says you have to accept every type of pet as your client. Find another pet sitter who does like to care for birds and refer your calls to him or her. People will appreciate your help!

Labby and Terry (We'll let Tabby contribute next time!)

To learn how to identify different types of Amazon parrots, check out this web site: 

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Pet Sit From Hell

Dear Labby,

Help! I got to the house and the dog had destroyed the couch! What do I do?

Shredded in San Diego

Dear Shred,
Some dogs don't need a pet sitter. They need to stay in a kennel where they are confined in a small pen for 24 hours a day and can't get hurt, out, or destroy anything. 

Never thought you'd hear me say that, did you? But think about it. Leave a 10 month old Labrador at home alone in the back yard for 12 hours, and what is going to happen? (Labby should know, being a fine example of the breed...) By the time you, the pet sitter, arrive, he will have dug up every plant in the yard and eaten the patio furniture. If you're lucky, he hasn't escaped by jumping the fence or digging out. 

Sometimes it is better to recommend that the client board their dog. Many kennels offer some outdoor play time or a walk, which still isn't enough for a young active dog, but it is better than the scenario I described above. I once took care of a young boxer who vaulted the fence as soon as I drove off. I had given a neighbor my business card. I finally took the dog home with me for the rest of the week. No one ever likes to lose a client, but it is really in the best interest of the dog to confine him until he matures and slows down a little! 

Call the client and ask them what they want you to do. They may ask you to take him to a kennel or a relative's house. Offer to take the dog home with you if you can. Another alternative is to crate the dog 24 hours a day, but that is pretty tough on the dog, and you'd need to make at LEAST three visits a day. 

The photo above is Angel and Haley, two really nice, well behaved Labs I have taken care of for years. I locked them in the owners' bedroom every night without incident. But, they are Labs, and one morning, they had shredded their dog beds and were so proud of their work! The rest of the bedroom was in immaculate condition, and they never did it again. I wish I'd had a hidden video camera. I got the impression that they had a blast destroying those beds!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Discount pet sitter?

Dear Labby,

Help! My pet sitting clients are asking for discounts! I know the economy is bad, but they can afford to take a vacation. Why can't they afford to pay ME?

Cashed Out

Dear Cashed, 
That's a tough one. You need to decide if you can afford to give a break to your regular clients. Maybe 10% off if you are making a full week's worth of visits? Sometimes a small break is all they want, and you will generate tons of goodwill. Think about how often they use your services, and how much you make in a year from this one client. I would not discount my services to a new client. 

I've been asked the same thing, and felt guilty if I were to give a discount to one client and not another. So I decided that anyone going away for more than 10 days would get 10% off their total. That seems to be working, and the clients that didn't ask for a discount often give me a nice tip or pay the full amount anyway. They know pet sitters aren't getting rich these days, especially with the price of gas. 

Just be sure you tell your clients you are giving them a discount. You might as well get credit for your generosity!