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?

Signed, 
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!

Signed,
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?

Signed, 
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?

Signed,
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!

Signed,
Labby