Owning your own business can be a lonely job. It’s not as easy as one would think, all dependent on what you offer and what sort of clientele you target. Sometimes it can be downright scary, going to strangers’ houses to sell your product. Remember those real estate agents thinking they were meeting clients, but instead the end of a gun? Just because I offer a service, that doesn’t make me unsusceptible to psychos here and there. Which is why, over the past 3 years I’ve been in business, I’ve stopped advertising on Craigslist. I prefer to network or rely on word of mouth.
Before the gathering of customers, I set rules for myself. No talking about clients by name to another client by name. Keep promises, and if you find you veer off course during a job, be honest about it. Never leave a canine client alone when you’ve promised to be there for it. Never post photos of the clients’ house or pet on Facebook without their permission, or while you are on the job. You could attract unwanted visitors to that home, and put yourself, as well, in danger.
Being a dog care provider, I meet all sorts of friendly, caring dog owners, who have rescued their pets or bought them from breeders. I’m learning lots in this business, and have established friendships with most of my clients. We are like minded in wanting to give their dogs the best of care and compassion. But there is a downside to wagging tails, and it’s bad, and sad. Not all clients who own dogs make good pet owners. In fact, not all pet owners should own pets. Look at the amount of animals turned over to Baltimore’s SPCA each year – 3,000! That doesn’t include how many dogs, cats, horses, pigs and goats are deposited at the Baltimore County Humane Society dot com, Defenders of Animal Rights, BARCS and a myriad of other shelters in the state of Maryland. Some of my own neighbors bought dogs because everyone else seemed to have dogs. Like their SUV, summer in Rehoboth, and Spring Break in Aruba, a dog is sometimes only a status symbol. But with 3-4 children, the poor animal becomes the last family member attended to. They eat suspect dog foods, scraps from the table, and more snacks than food. But I also should not criticize or act superior to the client. What they do with their pet, excluding abuse, is their business.
Sometimes annual inoculations are skipped because it’s more important to save money for a plasma TV than keep their dog updated at the vet. Or, if the pet gets injured, too bad. The dog and/or cat “lives” outside in all sorts of weather, sometimes with just a front porch for protection from the elements. And, when the family goes away, a neighborhood kid shows up to feed it in as little time as possible. Hugging or petting? No time for that simple act of kindness. In these cases, the real dogs are the owners.
The first client I ever sat for owned two cats and a dog. The client told me he’d be back in 4 days. His dog was riddled with knots and mites in his ears. He was also starved for affection. I was told to keep him in a crate, even when I was home, but I couldn’t. For the first hour, the poor little thing peered at me from behind his fur matted face, shaking like a leaf. Once I picked him up and cuddled, it was instant love for the two of us. I never found a need to crate him again. In fact, if we weren’t out walking, I’d take him in my car for rides.
His cats, who were fed canned food, and let in and out, related with me fine. The more friendly cat brought me a mouse as a gift. The house was limited by a sofa and coffee table only, and the back yard, which terrified the Llasa, was filled with a large Harley. My bed, which I never slept in, was a sheetless mattress on the upstairs floor. No blanket, no spread, though promised, were not delivered. That room also housed the kitty litter box which hadn’t been emptied in days. The room reeked. The other piece of furniture was the owners’ bed where I wasn’t allowed. I knew in advance there’d be no TV, but I did have access to Netflix, as promised.
The owner called over the weekend to say he’d extended his trip four more days. I had a new client starting in four days. I was truly aghast that I’d be stuck at this home by an inconsiderate client. Yes, I could have taken the dog to a boarding kennel, but I liked the little guy and he was so needy, that I stayed through the extra days, and went to my next job without a break. I figured, extra days, extra money. But when the owner returned home, he refused to pay for the cats, saying they were self sufficient. Who had opened cans of food for them? Brought them in from the cold? The client was adamant, and too new to the business, I’d been trusting and gullible. I was therefore gypped $70. It was a hard lesson, but often that’s how I’ve learned things.
Over the 3 years that I’ve been in business, I’ve acquired an ability to read people by their affectations, what they are truly like, and when to run the other way. Once, I got a request for me to stay 4 days with a dying pet. I turned it down. I’m an overnight pet sitter, and refuse to do let ins/let outs if the owners are away overnight. Too much bad could come of that. What if your house is robbed or burned down? The robbers could either steal your pet or kill it. Yes, sometimes dogs are stolen and sold to dog fighting rings. Overall, though, an overnight let in/let out makes me susceptible to a lawsuit with accusations of neglect.
When I began my business, my rates were $20/night, in order for me to establish myself. Since then, I’ve raised my fees and given leeway to owners with elusive cats. Some possible clients who find me on Next Door Neighbor are definitely looking for a “deal” on fees, and when they aren’t lower than they’d hoped, cease to hire me. By setting the rates that I have, I compare them to a popular boarding kennel in the area, and the cost of living in Maryland. I read about a young man in NYC who makes $113,000 a year walking dogs. But also a dog trainer, he is able to handle up to 8 large breed dogs every hour of the day. My dog walker friends in Maryland charge $10-15 per one hour walk because Baltimoreans will not pay much more. In VA, dog walkers charge up to $30 per walk, but with the proximity to D.C., they can afford higher fees for their pets.
The hardest part of my job is finding room for everyone on my calendar. Last year I had only 4 days off from June thru August. I was booked for the summer by early March. This year, I’m booked for the summer by early April. But Fall and Christmas holidays are also a busy time for me. This year I worked most of December, New Year’s, and all of January. I didn’t get home until February 4. That was a long run, but dog sitters, or at least I, don’t pick when I want to work. It’s when I’m needed most.
While possible clients act insulted when I turn them down, it’s because either the animal has biting issues, or because my living arrangements for a weekend, week or month are dirty, in the basement, or there is nowhere to park my car. Sleep in a basement? No use of a kitchen? No Internet or TV?
All possible clients are interviewed the same time they interview me. I meet their pets, and their pets meet me. Being a one person business, some clients schedule their vacations around my availability. I tried to hire a coworker, but she quit after double booking me. That put me in an embarrassing customer relations predicament. Now I refer clients I can’t accommodate to other area dog sitters who take my overflow. It’s a better arrangement because I would not recommend them if they failed to live up to my standards. Another house where I dogsat for a month, while interviewing the client I was promised internet service that didn’t happen, and the heat didn’t work in the kitchenette. Plus, my bad, I undercharged. This year, I charged a flat rate for a month. My daily rates are too low for me to consider being away from my own family for that long without making a profit.
To me, honesty is everything. I find it difficult to believe how often people aren’t. Dog owners are entrusting their most valuable possessions to me – their beloved pets. But, sometimes the owners fail to mention that their dog bites, or goes manic during thunderstorms, or suffers from seizures. I don’t make promises I don’t keep. But if a dog dies on my watch from a pre-existing medical condition for which I wasn’t informed, it would tear out my heart to have a pet die on my watch. Selling myself to said dog owners must include honesty from both ends to make this business opportunity work. If I say I’ll be home for their pets every night, then I’m home every night. I allow myself to be out up to 3 hours a day, but that’s it. I don’t hold another job while dog sitting, and I don’t have parties in my client’s house. In addition to spending the night with pets, I try to make the home look as lived in as possible from the outside. I change lights, bring in mail, newspapers, and park my car in their driveway. While I do not do housework, I do change kitty litter, take out recycling, and if a pet vomits, clean it up. I’m capable of administering pills, insulin, and basic first aid. I walk dogs, either twice a day, or four. But I’m not a trained vet and cannot resuscitate a chronically ill dog. Nor should I be expected to.
Sometimes I’ll get a strange email from an Arab, Chinese or even American who wants to interview me at a house that doesn’t exist, or asks me to give them my bank account number so they can pay me for a gig that will never occur. Self-employed business owners have to be careful. I prefer to be contacted via email, but calls are fine too. However an interview must be conducted before I agree to any job. An invoice is then sent to the client before the job begins. They must sign and return one copy.
Other strange requests from pet owners came from a young girl to care for two dogs, five show cats, and her mother. No thanks. Another client asked for care for an Alzheimer’s patient, no dog mentioned. A Korean family wanted me to watch their Gucci dog plus teach their daughter English. A really desperate young woman wanted me to care for unhousebroken puppies in an apartment house during Christmas.
But back to advertising. Craigslist is sketchy, even for selling things. For a while I posted on care.com, paying $12 for a background check, but I was never contacted. According to care.com, dog care providers could supposedly make as much as $60 an hour, while child care providers were limited to $10 an hour. Dogs are worth more than children! Yet, I think the site was half scam, half real.
I am my own advocate for my services by being forward and offering people with dogs a business card, or speaking to people at parties, tennis games, lacrosse games, and grocery stores. Friends of friends of friends have spread the word. I also have visited real estate agents, since they know who is new to town, and hung some at vet’s offices. I also created a FB page for my business and once I got 23 hits, FB recommended me to followers seeking dog care. Facebook is a good promoter, as is our neighborhood online newsletter, reaching 1978 houses.
And then there is the business of saying no. Having been an administrative assistant for 16 years, I always said yes. No task was unsurmountable. But sometimes sitting for many clients means no time for myself, my own dogs, and my husband. So I have to refuse some dates before the burn out factor hits.
I love dogs, cats, and sitting for them. In the past 3 year, I’ve sat for Bichons, a Maltese, Pit Bulls, all friendly, a Coon Hound, rescued, Llasas, a Westie, Labs, Jack Russells, an Akita, mutts, Golden Retrievers, rescued Cairns, a well trained Boykin, 2 Schnauzers who were forced to share one crate for up to 11 hours a day, a water spaniel, King Charles, and many Labradoodles and Goldendoodles. As for cats, Maine Coon Cats, weighing in at 40 lbs. have been the most exotic. Rodent phobic, I don’t care for them, snakes, or birds. I know nothing about horses, either.
Sitting for pets isn’t really a job. I call it a passion. No longer trapped behind a desk, I get to take walks midday without watching a clock. As my own boss, I’m hard on myself, but if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have return clients. The real reason behind starting I Sleep with Dogs, is because, though I’ve owned 7 dogs in my adult life, my outpouring of love for the many dogs I couldn’t own myself, has not been filled. Like some grandparents relate to grandchildren, they don’t mind caring for them, but can always hand them back. I can go to my home after a gig, love up my own pups, but know that there will be another time for me to see the Jack Russell, Akita, Cairn, or Llasa I liked so much during my last stay at their house.