Over the years, I have ended up being a pet sitter more times than I can count. Janice and Leroy are laid back enough to allow us to host a guest every now and then, so that all means that I’m a good choice for my friends when they need someone they can trust with their pet. But just because I love dogs and I have them myself, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t need to do some research first before I agreed to watch an unfamiliar dog.
We frequently talk about finding places and people to help take care of your dog. In fact, my co-blogger Franklin wrote this article about finding a great dog boarding kennel quite a while back on the blog. But what about those who have to handle the other side of the equation? What if you get asked to babysit someone’s dog? Do you know how to be a great pet sitter?
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Here are 11 tips I’ve gathered over the years that have helped me be a great pet sitter. If you are a first-timer, these tips can help you ace the job the first time around.
1. Set Your Limits
Many people who attempt to run an impromptu pet sitting business, or who just make themselves available for occasional pet sitting to their friends (like me), don’t really think about all the ways that pet sitting can throw you for a loop. It’s important to sit down and think about what you are comfortable doing, and what you aren’t. For example, are you capable of lifting a dog that weighs over 50 pounds? While you may not ever need to when you pet sit, you also don’t know what could happen. You may need to limit yourself to pets under 50 pounds, or whatever the case may be, to suit your physical abilities in the event of an emergency.
Also consider what kinds of pets you’ll be willing to watch – again, based on what you know you can do. Can you give a dog a medication? Probably, especially if the owner allows you to use a pill pocket. But what about a bird? Are you willing to feed a pet snake?
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2. Start with Research
Ideally, you’ll have plenty of time to ask questions about the pet before you are due to show up for the pet sitting job. When you are asked to pet sit, be sure that you do some research about the pet. Ask about all the usual things, of course, such as their feeding schedule, any medications, their exercise needs, and so on. But also ask if there’s anything that scares the dog, if there’s someone (like the mailman) that they hate, if they have a tendency to bolt towards an open door, if they have any allergies, what their favorite games are, and so on. The more you know about the dog, the easier your job will be. You may also want to do some basic research into the breed to get an idea of what level of exercise they may need.
3. Be Aware of the Financial Obligations
When you are caring for a live creature, there are always financial obligations that may arise. For example, the dog may get injured and need veterinary care; the owners may have forgotten to top off the food before they left, and now the dog has run out. In any case like this, it’s important to know ahead of time how the bill will be handled. Will they leave an emergency stash of cash, or will they reimburse you for any purchases? Will their vet bill them for any services needed? Be sure that you know what vet they use for both regular working hours and emergency hours.
4. Set a Routine – and Stick to It
Not every pet that you meet will warm up to you, and that’s okay. Remember that the pet is confused about where his owner went and is likely mourning what he sees as a loss till his owner returns. One of the best things you can do for a dog in this situation is to keep them on a routine. If you can stick to their usual routine with their owner – such as a walk in the morning, breakfast, and then another walk after dinner in the evening – this will help them make sense out of their situation. If you can’t stick to their usual schedule, then stay as close as you can, and be sure that the schedule you are using stays the same on all the days that you are pet sitting. The dog will feel much more grounded and calm if they know what to expect, and the owners will come back to a dog that hasn’t gone totally crazy in their absence.
5. Be Sure You Are Handy with a Leash
If there’s anything that you must be confident with as a pet sitter, it’s using a leash. You need to be able to control any dog, even a dog that is anxious or skittish, with a leash. Many dog sitters will attempt to walk dogs from multiple households at once, but unless these dogs know each other, it’s a bad idea to introduce them without their owners present. Having a heavy duty leash that you are familiar with is more important than using the dog’s own leash. You may want to keep a few backup leashes in your car that you know you can trust. One heavy-duty leash I really like is the police dog training leash by Pettom. It has elastic to absorb shock if a dog pulls, and is made to withstand a lot of force.
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6. Keep the Dog Owners on Speed Dial
Perhaps one of the reasons that my friends like me pet sitting for them is that I’m not above snapping a bunch of pictures of their dogs and sending them a quick text. Dog lovers like to know that their furry pal is safe and happy while they are traveling. If you can, email, text, or otherwise contact the dog owner on a regular basis while they are gone. One fun way to do this may be to send them a picture or an update on social media, which they may be more willing to check than their email on a vacation. This also ensures that you can get quick advice should any emergencies arise while they are away. Don’t interrupt their hard-earned vacation, of course, but do have a way to get in contact with them.
7. Know the Household
Many pet sitters often end up being house sitters as well. Even if you aren’t staying in the house, the dog may be staying their overnight while you take care of them two or three times a day. If you have to be in or go to their house at all, be sure that you know the ins and outs of their household. Do they have other help that will be showing up (cleaning lady, gardener, etc.)? Are they expecting any handymen or servicemen to come by while they are gone? Do any of their friends or relatives have keys to the house, and would any of them show up during your time there? It’s important for both your safety and the safety of the house that you know who is and isn’t okay to be on the property.
8. Follow Basic Safety Rules
To keep yourself safe while pet sitting, you should follow some basic safety rules. Don’t walk the dog after dark if you are in an unfamiliar area. Don’t approach the dog while she is eating, even if she has been very friendly with you so far. Be careful when picking up a dog, unless you know for sure that she’s comfortable with that. If you are playing with the dog, it may be safer to choose a toy that gives you some space between your body and theirs, such as a flirt pole or a tug of war rope. If you pet sit often or run a business as a pet sitter, getting some kind of insurance is a very good idea. Even the sweetest dogs can have unpredictable reactions to new situations. Insurance also shows clients that you are a responsible business owner, which can help you get more business in the future.
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9. Stay Organized
Even if you are only sitting one pet at a time, it’s still important that you are a very organized person. You’ll need to keep all the pet’s routines, special needs, and contact information in a safe and accessible place. You’ll also need to be able to find their toys, bed, food, and everything else at a moment’s notice. If you are sitting multiple pets at once, visiting each house every day, then you’ll need to be even more organized so that each pet gets the proper care. It’s vital that you stick to your routines because that helps the pets feel more stable – and to do that, you need to be as organized as you can be. This will ensure that no pet is accidentally fed at the wrong time, giving medication at the wrong dose, or not given the care that they needed because you confused them with another dog.
10. Avoid Anxiety
Dogs that are anxious pick up on a lot of the behaviors of those around them. If you are not a calm person who can handle any emergency thrown your way with grace and patience, then you may not be the best pet sitter in the world. Pets need a person to be very calm during this time because they will already be worked up over losing their owner for however brief a time. Make sure that you remain calm will help them deal with their own anxiety better, and it also helps you stay level-headed during emergencies. If you are the type of person who gets anxious when emergencies arise, consider that pet sitting may not be the best option for you. Having a very detailed emergency plan regarding vet care, unexpected costs, runaways, illnesses, and any other contingency can help.
11. Pay Attention to Pet Body Language
The most important thing you can do as a pet sitter is to be sensitive to the way pets communicate. Pay attention to their body language and behavior while you are with them. It may be that a dog needs to be given some space to process what’s going on; or it may be that distracting a dog with a fun game could help them stop pacing around. You’ll have to gain experience in understanding how to read dogs’ body language and behaviors, and the sooner you can develop this skill, the better. Be sure that you have a good handle on positive training techniques so that you understand how best to connect with a dog, even for the sort amount of time that you’ll be there.
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The Final Verdict
Pet sitting is a very big responsibility. To my mind, it’s no less important than taking care of someone’s child. If you are considering becoming a pet sitter, or if you get asked to watch someone’s dog for them while they head out of town, it’s really important that you take the time to consider what is best for the dog. Are you the right person for the job? There’s no harm in saying no, especially if you know that the dog will suffer because you don’t have the necessary time or skills to care for them properly.
These 11 tips can help you be a better pet sitter once you’ve begun, but they are also a good place to start for newbies. If you’ve never watched a dog for someone before, you may not have known how vital structure is to their day, for example. So give this list a look any time you need a refresher on how to be a great pet sitter. Your friends or clients will thank you, and so will their dogs!