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.

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