writing

I Sleep with Dogs – how not to play dead in a bad senior job market

This past summer, in an attempt to avoid a job market in which I was considered too “old” to re-enter, I decided to start dog sitting for a living. As I have noted on my blog, the canine love of my life is an 11 year old English Springer Spaniel. He keeps me hopping, laughing and totally owns me. He brings in the paper, my purse, and sometimes groceries. In return, I allow him on my bed, as well as in the front seat of my car.

DogSitting. I wasn’t thinking of dog walking, or a plain old let in, let out. No, I was trying to get the most out of caring for canines by actually becoming an overnight dog care provider. I had lots of ideas coupled with plenty of doubts that such a gig would work. I had no savings, no financial cushion, but lots of friends with dogs. Over many years of work spent in customer service, I knew people. I enjoy people. I love meeting new people, so I was pretty certain that marketing myself would not be a problem. After all, I’d been in PR, and know social media quite well.

Following articles in The Wall Street Journal, about launching a business, People magazine about how starlets baby their dogs, and reading and crying over books such as “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” and “A Dogs Purpose”, I began to realize that Americans had become head over heels in love with their furry friends. Although dogs are an edible delight in China, in America we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year pampering our pets. Guaranteed to love you unequivocally, dogs are more trustworthy than husbands, wives or children. Which is why most owners go to all lengths to make sure their puppies and older dogs, when left behind on a vacation, are well cared for, and happy.Peace of mind plays a big factor, too.

Twice in my lifetime, I’ve attempted to start my own business, and both times I flopped. In 1978, during my first year of marriage, I began my own bakery out of our apartment. Back then, there were no rules about home baked goods being sold to non-family members. At the time, I also worked 40+ hours a week for a law firm, and didn’t need the extra income, but I created amazing loaves of bread from my mothers overabundance of homegrown Zucchini. In addition, I taught myself how to make a killer chocolate cake with beets instead of eggs. And, lemon poppy seed loaves. I didn’t have a name, knew nothing about marketing, and must have had incredible energy that I could work all day, and cook all night. I was definitely underpriced for the work and supplies I put into my bakery. I literally did not earn a cent that wasn’t put back into the bakery to keep it going. After awhile, I hated beets, and couldn’t see the point of killing myself for nothing. Like I said, once the Zucchini died, so did my bakery.

The next business i ventured in to was 30 years later, when, burnt out from having written and self published my own book, marketing it to libraries, book stores and gift shops (sometimes innocence is bliss), I turned to needlepointing school logos for fun. Which led to designing floor cloths of the same thing. I had a friend who sold canvas rugs to designers at $1,000 per rug measuring 2 feet by 3 feet. Granted, she was a natural born artist, but if I found something unique to paint, I figured I too could make easy money. While working days in a high school, I began collecting school logos, and to stray far from violating any plagiarism laws, I would take a school logo and add a twist. For Princeton University, I’d use their school colors but in each corner of the rug, I’d add a lacrosse stick, rowing paddle, or replica of a school building. I would then approach school bookstores and hawk my finished needlepoint pillows of floorcloths. What I did took guts and determination, and although I never sold a floorcloth for $1,000, I made nice chump change.

Years before this venture, I’d taught myself needlepointing, but back then I worked with wool, which was heavy and hot. During a summer vacation, I learned how to make hooked rugs, with 100% cable wool. I made probably 10 hooked rugs from scratch and kept some, gifted others. I soon had a following for my designs, and returned to needlepointing using DNC cotton floss, satin, crepe and whatever flosses that struck my fancy. I took booths at craft shows, and consigned at posh area gift shops. I called my business Designs by Em, but people didn’t care about my name. Unfortunately, floorcloths and pillows were not impulse buys. Although I undercut my labor costs completely, i made no profit on any designs I sold. I made lots of people happy with their purchases until Target opened, and within 6 months, most of my clients were buying needlepoint pillows made in Taiwan for $25 each. No school logos, but pillows that the owners would claim they’d made themselves!

Start ups are all the rage now, and I love the innovative ideas of unknowns as well as Steve Jobs. It’s fun to create “things” other people covet. Beaded jewelry, painted Dr. Scholl’s, canvas totes monogrammed by hand painstakingly for a summer at the beach. However, thinking this through, asking people their opinions, and researching other dig sitting agencies’ price variables, I decided to create a service almost everyone needs. Dog/cat care sitting. With a twist. I spent 30 years of vacations worrying about my own dogs, at home, with teen age sitters. I also came home from said vacation to a house with cigarette burns on my antique end tables, a lost front door key that a male sitter lost in an hour flat, and instead of getting another one made, he smashed open our front window, and climbed in and out through splinters of glass until we returned home again.

It seems with 30% joblessness in Maryland, everyone is becoming a dog walker or dog sitter. The options for dog care are endless, but so are the horror stories associated with such “personalized” pet care. Petsmart began a pet hotel. This is where you board your beloved Mini Yorkie and a stranger will spend the night near your dogs’ crate for $60 and up. Does that person actually try to bond with your dog? Or does he tease him, fart in his sleep, or reek of smoke from the bar he stopped at before his doggie hotel shift? Then there are people who take your Daschund into their house for 1-30 days with other dogs. Imagine the panic your dog feels as he is left off in a strangers house with up to 10 dogs he’s never sniffed, and you, his mum and pop, disappear without a trace? It is said dogs have no sense of time, but one hour to them seems an eternity.

Last but not least, there are more people than you would believe who are unemployed, and tout themselves as dog sitters in order to make money. One such person let a pet out without a leash and the dog ran away, never to be seen again. Or how about the provider who locked his canine client inside its home, and then not once graced the doorstep until the day before the owners returned. That poor dog, a 57 variety, age 13, ran out of water, and starved to death. To boot, jewelry was missing, and the sitter skipped town.

Not to mention the chains – Rover, Dog Wags, BFF, and so on. They make a mint by pyramiding dog walkers into bidding for areas of town that they want to service, and in addition,take 15% of that dog walkers’ hourly earnings. My neighborhood has such a walker, and she walks anywhere from 3-6 dogs per hour. For her to make any money, she has to walk that many dogs, if not more. Granted, the dogs all seem to get along, but if you are seeking someone to give your dog more than a preconceived 10 minute hug, this is not the route to go. To these agencies, your beloved pet is nothing more than a commodity. Don’t kid yourself. No one who walks that many dogs at a time, 8 hours a day, gives a damn about a pat on the head, or occasional hug. This person is all business.

Craigslist runs ads for free for both dog walking agencies and owners seeking walkers. One dog care agency breaks their fees down like this: 3 minutes is spent petting while leashing up, 2 minutes is allowed for departing the house, the walk is exactly 20 minutes long, and the remaining 5 minutes deals with unlocking, unleashing, refilling water bowls, and leaving. Your dog may have been walked, but if he suffers separation anxiety, he is no calmer or less wound up, than when you left the house in the morning.

I Sleep With Dogs was born out of my disappointment that I could not find decent care for my Springer Spaniels for over 30 years of vacation. Boarding is stressful, expensive, and they often came home sick. At another kennel, they treated a “skin condition” that didn’t exist, for a whopping $300! A fairly decent kennel was a 75 minute trip from our home to there. The dog w e own now has an eating disorder that demands extra care. I was distrustful that this kennel could handle it. Eventually I gave up on teens and college kids. My relatives all had pets of their own, so they were not an option. So what to do? And how about everyone else bedeviled by so few quality options out there?

I quite literally sleep with dogs. If the dog is not allowed upstairs, I will make a bed out of the sofa and on it we will go! I often am crowded off my own blanket from home, but my dog sitting service is about the dog, not me. I keep a running diatribe with my canine client, where we discuss meals, world events, mailmen who offer treats versus those who don’t, and I sing along to my iTunes (always off key). More importantly, I keep a short journal for the owner of missteps in the dogs life – limping, crying during cold weather, vomiting, anything that seems unusual or “off” about him/her. Sometimes, with the owner’s permission, I take their dog off leash in a field away from people and cars. Although I don’t charge extra, I am also a housesitter, changing lights, bringing in mail and newspapers, and generally making certain the house looks the way it did when I moved in.

  • To determine my pricing, I track what kennels charge, and what dog agencies cost in order to keep my rates below theirs. Since my business is not a volunteer job, I can’t charge too little or I’d go out of business. My caveat is that I don’t charge by dog size, or breed. I love the name of my business and have adorable two-sided business cards that I ordered online from MOO Designs. Because I speak directly to canine owners in person, I’m gaining credibility for my kindness and compassion to animals. I run free ads in our neighborhood online newsletter and on Facebook. But word of mouth, aka networking, is the best tool a business owner can use. So is honesty. I’m not one of those dog sitters who only shows up an hour a day, or says they’ll be in every night but aren’t.
  • Advertising, albeit free, on Craigslist was a business learning error that I hope to never repeat. I had a bad experience with a client through that online advertiser. You just have to always interview a client before spending time in their house. They may seem on the up and up, but turn out to be on the down and down. Most of my advertising is done through social media, and neighbhorhood online newsletters. Word of mouth is the best way, though. Otherwise known as networking, and I keep plenty of business cards with me at all times.
  • Remain open to dog walking and let ins/let outs when the sitting business hits a lull. I thought I’d be very busy during Christmas but I was not. However, I am dating up fast for spring and summer. When I’m not on a sitting gig, I have a regular client who uses me for walking her dog. Walking is good exercise, but walking a dog is fun good exercise!

I consider myself creative, tenacious, and kind, which is why my dog sitting business is the perfect antidote to a job market where I no longer fit, and a job I can keep doing well into my 70s.

For the dog lover in you, book recommends: Old Dogs are the Best Dogs by Gene Weingaten; Best Friends by James Warner and Margaret White; The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.

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