Thursday, April 30, 2009

I've got a fence jumper

A challenging but sweet Pharoah Hound is staying at my house this week. His owners thought he was a greyhound when they adopted him at the shelter. We've all learned there's a big difference! Where a greyhound is a mellow couch potato, Pharoahs are constant motion and boundless energy. Junior goes over my five foot patio fence like he's riding a magic carpet; he just floats. The baby gates in the hallway are no obstacle either, so the bedroom door is shut to protect my cats.

Today's achievement: Junior went over my six foot gate to get in the front yard with me. I caught him easily, which is in itself a miracle, but then needed to figure out how to keep him in the yard. I have added a baby gate above the gate in my carport, so that exit is blocked all the way to the roof.

I can hardly wait until tomorrow when Nate the Lab is coming to play with him for the weekend. Junior needs another active dog to wear him out!  Junior is shown here playing with Rex, another large Lab. I have a video on YouTube of Junior running in circles around Casey the Giant Schnauzer. Casey just stands there and lets out an occasional "ruff" as Junior does laps around the yard.

At home, Junior is an only dog, and much calmer. Though I notice that there is chicken wire wrapped entirely around the frame of the back door, around the air conditioning unit, the garden hose, and their own ten foot tall gate. He is so sweet, but so busy!

Junior is shown here with Miranda, who loves him very much.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Too Many Rules

Business Rule #1: The customer comes first.

Business Rule #2: If the customer is ever wrong, go back and read Rule #1.

After my last post about setting boundaries with clients, I wasn’t happy with what I’d written. I went back in and added phrases like “after all is said and done, rules are made to be broken,” and “there is an exception to every rule.” In other words, I don’t like to set up a bunch or rules and procedures for my business.

Often on the various discussions forums I participate in, I read a post that says “I added this or that to my contract and had them sign it.” Or “You should put it in writing and make sure your customers know you won’t do that…” Whatever it is, I wonder if some of us don’t make so many rules we chase the customers off rather than make their experience with us a happy one.

Some pet sitters have a long list of charges. $15 per visit, plus $2 per visit for each additional animal; $2 per animal for administering medication; $5 extra for brushing the dog; 50 cents per mile extra outside of a 5 mile radius; $5 extra for holidays; $5 extra for visits after 9 pm. And on and on.

I’m not saying some of these charges aren’t reasonable. I am pointing out that you can nickel and dime your customers to death. Is that really customer service?

My charges include everything, with the understanding that I will stay 30 minutes. I charge extra if I have several horses that I have to clean up after, and it will take more than 30 minutes to care for them. Other than that, my rate is all-inclusive. I do have two price points- extra for visits outside of my city. I don’t take assignments that are more than 10 miles away from home.

I strongly believe in giving added value for the dollar. I wash the bowls or brush the dog – whatever I can. I found a kitty litter scoop I really liked, and bought a bunch to give each kitty client’s family. I brought a bucket with a flat back that hooks to a fence for a dog that was constantly dumping his water.

A local one-hour photo processing store was sold to new owners. Every time I went in, there was another little piece of paper posted near the register. “We no longer accept business checks.” “Please allow five days for enlargements.” No this… no that… They closed within three months.

I have wonderful clients that don’t take advantage of me and I don’t consider it an imposition to care for their pets. Take a good look at your contracts and policies and procedures and forms…etc. If they run more than a page or two, maybe you have too many rules. 

Photo above: Kallie will fetch all day long. © 2008

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Pet sitters must set boundaries

A frustrated doggie daycare operator recently posted this to one of the forums I am on:

“Boundaries. The new money word for me in 2009, set some friggin' boundaries and I won't be so drained and abused ending up doing training for free.”

It really struck me that so many pet sitters go out of our way to please clients, maybe too far, and forget our own needs. I’m sure you’ve had someone say to you, “Wow, it’s so wonderful you are self-employed; you get to set your own hours.” Yes, I set my own hours. Sometimes I feel like I work all 24 of them, 7 days a week. I need to be available when my clients need me, but there are reasonable limits too.

When we first start out, we need the clients, need the money, and are brimming with enthusiasm, so we take the 11 pm phone call, schedule the 10 pm visit, the aggressive dog, the outdoor-only cat.

Protect yourself from pet sitter burnout, and set some rules about your business. If you let some people take advantage of you, they will, just like a dominant dog will knock you out of the way going through the door.

What hours will you do visits? Sometimes you are required to let a dog in at night and out in the morning. I always try to go no more than 12 hours, preferably 10. But I’m not usually willing to be driving around on a dark winter night at 11 pm, letting a dog out for a last potty break, and you shouldn’t either. It’s just not necessary or safe.

When will you answer the phone? I quit making and taking client phone calls after 9 pm, and before 8 am. That is still much longer than most people’s office hours. I also don’t answer the phone during dinner. There is an exception to every rule, and I go out of my way to accommodate my clients. Just don't let pushy people run you ragged.

Cat care policies. Will you care for outdoor-only cats? I do, with the understanding that if I can’t find the cat I will not be held responsible.

If a client wants you only every other day for their cats, will you accept the assignment? Again, I do, but I’ve discovered many pet sitters don’t. They feel it is too long to leave a cat unsupervised. I think it depends on the cats. It's your decision; accept only what you are comfortable doing.  

Will you pet sit for a territorial or aggressive dog? If you can’t even get in the door or gate to feed the dog, how on earth are you going handle the situation if the dog is hurt or sick? I recommend clients take this dog to a kennel, where he won’t be so territorial out of his home environment, and will also be safer. 

Will you walk a dog that pulls like a freight train for 30 minutes? Is it your job to train him? Of course not. I always walk a dog with the owner during the consultation visit so I have a feel for what I am getting into. After the first few walks, the dog may learn your rules and behave admirably. Sometimes you can use a special collar like a gentle leader and accomplish miracles. But if you can't make it a pleasant experience, politely decline or resign. Offer to give owners the names of others who might be better able to handle their dog.

The above are just a few examples. I covered an assignment for another pet sitter once, and took care of three unruly Labs for a week at Christmas. Totally untrained, these dogs slept in the garage at night. I worried they would scratch the bright red Mercedes convertible parked in there. It proved to be the least of my worries. One morning I opened the door to the garage from the laundry room. The door smacked open under the weight of three strong dogs leaping against it, and I got smacked right in the face. I thought I had a broken nose.

The next morning I arrived and discovered that during the night, they had rolled up the garage door (attached to a garage door opener, no less) and had escaped. I drove around the neighborhood and finally found them, sopping wet from a romp in the stream, sweaty and dirty. They joyously leaped in my car (ick) and I took them home. The owners told me how to set a lock so the dogs couldn’t escape again. That was the last time I took care of them. I love Labs, but these boys needed some serious training.

Don’t be afraid to set limits on what you will do, and stick to it as much as possible. If you don’t, you’ll only end up hating the client, the pet and your job. And that’s not why we got into this business. However, after all is said and done, rules are made to be broken, and I will go out of my way to accommodate a client with an emergency or last-minute change of plans. You'll know who is abusing your good nature, and who truly needs your help.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More help with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for your web site

Probably my most popular blog post has been the one I wrote about Search Engine Optimization for pet sitters' web sites. As I was poking around on the Internet, I discovered a blog published by Stat Counter, a site that helps you track how many people visit your web site or blog (You'll note that over in the right-hand column of this page there is a link to Stat Counter). 

Stat Counter's blog has a series of beginner guides to SEO (Search Engine Optimization), which I found very straightforward and helpful. While not specific to pet sitting, they certainly offer good suggestions for any business owner that wants to get more traffic, and therefore, more business. Here are the links:

I hope you'll find these articles as informative as I did! 

And since I can't stand to post something without a picture, here's a photo of my client, Jet, one of the prettiest German Shepherds I've ever seen. She's a sweet girl too!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Canine Lullabies- a product to help pet sitters and doggie day care operators

On my other blog, Everything-Pets, I have recently posted about a new product I tried, Canine Lullabies, a CD with soft music and an underlying heartbeat that helps calm and relax dogs. I'm happy to report that I like the results, so I am posting about it here too, because doggie day care operators and pet sitters may want to try it. 

I hope you'll go over and read about it! 

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What you can do TODAY to help your pet sitting business grow

  1. Check out the competition. Do a Google search for “pet sitter” and your zip code. Where do you show up? (You don’t? If you’re not on the first page, go to item #2). Look at other pet sitters’ web sites that are in the area you serve.  Compare your services, prices, and the information you provide.
  2. Read my blog post: Optimize your web site for search engines. Be sure your site is working for you. Review your keywords and headlines to be sure they help the search engines find you.
  3. Update your Web site. Even if you do show up on the first page, take a fresh look at your site and see if it needs updating. New photos of pets, a new picture of you (you DO have a picture of YOU on there, don’t you?), new links, new colors, seasonal pet care info – all of these make your site look fresh and current.
  4. Check your listings. If you are an association member, for example PSI, take advantage of their listing services. Be sure your information is current. Be sure you are listed everywhere you can be on the Internet.
  5. Add your web site address to your email signature.
  6. Review local newspaper advertising. Are your competitors in there? Small community papers often run special sections or pages offering pet services. Find out when they run, what they cost, and look at some past issues (the ad salesperson should be able to provide these). Decide if you need to run ads a few weeks before major holidays.
  7. Beat feet. Go visit the local kennels, veterinarians, dog parks, pet supply stores and groomers. Don’t just drop off your business cards. If they’re not too busy, engage them in conversation. Offer a free day of pet sitting to staff members, or buy-one-get-one-free, or a similar offer. Bring a small thank you gift, like a box of candy, to companies that have referred to you in the past. They’ll remember you!
  8. Contact your clients. This is a great time to thank your regular clients for their business, and visit with clients you haven’t heard from in awhile. Ask them if they know upcoming travel plans so you can pencil them in on your schedule. At the very least you’ll feel better knowing you have future business on your calendar. Offer a free day of pet sitting if they refer new clients to you (this has worked especially well for me).
  9. Network with other pet sitters. Plan a get-together, or just chat on the phone or online with your fellow pet sitters. Besides being your competition, you can back each other up in an emergency, if one of you gets overbooked, or someone sells or quits their business. Make friends now; you might need them later.
  10. Take a class. Now’s the time to update your certification in pet first aid, take an accounting or marketing class, or an online teleconference from a business coach. Learn about a species of animal you haven’t cared for before, like ferrets or hedgehogs. New skills enhance your resumé.
  11. Take a vacation. Even if you have little money for travel, you can still go to the beach, a museum, a park, or nearby tourist attraction. Get away from it all for even one day and you’ll come back refreshed and ready for the next challenge.
  12. One last idea: Do something special with your own pets. They often get neglected because you burn yourself out caring for other people’s animals. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

In-home dog boarding

In addition to pet sitting, I offer in-home boarding for dogs (and an occasional cat). This is the Easter holiday week, and today I have 7 dogs here in addition to my four. It's quite a crowd. My usual numer is 2-4 dogs visiting at a time. 

You may want to offer in-home boarding on a smaller scale. I don't keep the dogs in kennels, though I do have one dog run for emergencies. They all play together in the house and yard and sleep together at night. I feed everyone separately in crates or different parts of the yard or house.

I have a section of my house set up to be totally dog friendly:
• The hallways are paneled half way up with dark wood that doesn't show the dirt (though there are a few chew marks on the corners).
• I have a permanent baby gate in the hallway that keeps the dogs out of the bedrooms, and provides an escape route for my two cats. Sometimes I have to cover it with a beach towel so the dogs can't see the cats. 
• The floors in the main area are ceramic tile for easy cleaning.
•I have baby gates that I can section off the front hall or kitchen to keep dogs separated at night, for feeding or safety reasons.
• I have no area rugs, just dog beds--WASHABLE.
• The couch and recliner have removable, washable covers. It doesn't look as awful as you might imagine!
• This is my personal space too. My computer, drafting table for artwork, and television are all here so I can do things while everyone is playing.

At night, everyone sleeps indoors. Some dogs sleep in crates, depending on age, temperament, and destruction tendencies! Crates are also great for time-outs if anyone gets too rowdy. I have several crates, and some owners bring theirs so their dog feels more at home, sleeping amid familiar smells.

The outdoor setup
Recently, because I have a lot of dogs here, I sectioned off a portion of the yard so smaller dogs could go outside without having to deal with the big guys. I also put up a solid fence (instead of my old chain link) to keep the noise down. The neighbor dogs like to come over and fence-fight, and that has now been stopped. 

I live in a neighborhood with half-acre lots, so I have lots of room, but it is still a neighborhood, and I keep the dogs as quiet as possible. I have wonderful neighbors who don't mind them. The back portion of my property is fenced off for my horses, and I have a strong welded wire fence (not woven wire–these are called hog panels) between them and the dogs. Occasionally there is a dog who likes to bark at the horses, and that one spends more time indoors.

The most important factor is that the dogs HAVE to get along well. Aggression just doesn't work in a group setting.

One dog that comes here, Nate, a lab, loves to pick up everything and carry it around. So when he's here, I close crate doors so he won't steal beds. I put away the patio cushions, horse lead ropes, paper towels, shoes and other odds and ends I would usually leave laying around. I also clear off the kitchen counters.

When puppies are here I use Chew-Stop or Bitter Apple, and have lots of acceptable chewies around. Puppies chew dog beds, shoes, furniture and anything else they find. Most big dogs shred stuffed animals, kongs, tennis balls, and just about everything else, so I limit toys for them to Galileo bones (absolutely the toughest chewie around). One gallon water bottles or one liter pop bottles are great toys for the big dogs, but I have to watch and take them away when they start to get shredded.

I started a cactus garden in my back yard but have gradually moved all the thorny succulents out front. Several clients worried that their dogs would poke an eye out on the thorns. I don't have fussy flowerbeds out back, just some bushes.  I carefully avoid plants like oleander, which is poisonous. 

For grass, (if you could call it that in my yard) bermuda and St Augustine are the strongest. Mine is a mixture of weeds and bermuda, mowed by the horses. There is a lot of dirt in my back yard, which means dirty dogs. My clients understand this and expect their dog to play hard and get dirty while he's here. 

The big dogs play so hard they wear themsleves out, so evening are pretty relaxing, with dogs spread all over the floor and furniture. I warn owners that their dog will go home very tired from the fun and stress of being with other dogs. The photo above shows Indy, Max and Nate, worn out from a good game!

My liability insurance covers dog day care and boarding in my home. There was an extra charge for this coverage. 

I'll write more about the subject in future posts!