One blustery day in December, I took a walk with Michelle McGraw and Otis, a golden retriever puppy whose mom was away on business. Michelle is a professional dog walker, owner of McGraw’s Paws LLC. I often see her circling my block with one to four large dogs. As I fell into step beside her, we got to chatting. She showed me the mace she always has on hand but has never had to use. She talked about her favorite brand of poop bags–never anything with fragrance. “Poop plus perfume? That shit gives me a headache,” she said, showing me her roll of Pets N Bags. “They’re biodegradable and come in boxes of 700!”
We talked about asshole drivers who blow stop signs and waited for Otis to pee. From my perspective, we were just two gals on a walk with a dog, gabbing. But when we got near the neighborhood barbecue joint and Otis slurped up a bone from the grass, Michelle had her hand in his mouth in an instant. “I hate when people throw bones on the ground,” she said calmly, as if she hadn’t just jammed her fist between a dog’s jaws to save him from choking.
For many Janes on the go, leaving their beloved fur baby behind is more stressful than preparing for board meetings. The stress is magnified if a dog is elderly or infirm. Once she knew Otis was safe from the killer bone, Michelle offered some tips for finding a pet sitter to care for your four-legged friend as attentively as when far-off business beckons.
- Ask for Papers
Michelle is insured and bonded through Pet Sitters Associates and says pet care professionals absolutely must carry liability insurance. You just never know what’s going to happen out there on the road with Rover. Insurance, she says, is totally non-negotiable.
- Pet CPR and First Aid
Did you know pet CPR was a thing? I did not, but Michelle says your pet sitter absolutely should. In addition to preventing choking, she can locate a dog’s pulse, act quickly if the dog stops breathing, and even use gauze to administer a tourniquet.
“Thank God I have never had to perform mouth to mouth on a dog,” she says, “but I am confident I could do it.” Michelle practices on a dummy dog at the local animal rescue, where they have models in different sizes and weights.
A good dog walker is well versed in pet first aid. Dunking pills in yogurt, placing drops in ears or even giving insulin shots can be part of a routine pet visit if the care provider has the right training and experience.
- Prioritize the Pet
Michelle’s first priority is making sure her clients’ dogs are happy. This might seem obvious, but Michelle says when choosing a pet sitter, make sure you ask their business philosophy. Michelle makes sure dogs have the proper socialization and fitness before bringing them along for pack walks versus scheduling private walks or home visits. A pet sitter should keep your pet as close as possible to its routine. For example, even if a dog stays overnight at Michelle’s house, she drops the dog at its own home during the day if that’s what it’s used to.
- Professional Network
Not only is Michelle familiar with emergency vets in Pittsburgh, she also collaborates with a network of other pet sitters in case an emergency pops up. She says a good pet sitter will network with other professionals to trade best practices and back each other up in the event of illness or other emergency.
Michelle also collaborates with other industry professionals. For example, she doesn’t offer dog training, but trades referrals with a local dog trainer. She does sit in on the trainer’s sessions to learn techniques for her own dogs or to help socialize client dogs for pack walks.
- Hammer Out Details…In Writing
It’s hard to trust someone else to enter your home and interact with your beloved pet while you’re out of town. That’s why Michelle insists on an in-person meeting before signing an agreement with new clients. She says a good pet sitter will always have a service agreement that gets signed before any services are rendered.
What should this entail? Apart from defining rates and charges, Michelle begins by asking lots of questions about the dog. What’s the dog’s schedule like? Is the dog social? Does the dog get stressed out by a disrupted routine and, if yes, what does that stress response look like? “Dogs live for their person,” she says. “It’s hard for them to be away from their owner, but I try as much as possible to keep things fun for the dog.”
The pet sitter should always ask about any special medical considerations. Michelle has one client who had to travel before her dog’s stitches were out from a surgical procedure. Michelle made sure to review the vet’s recommendations with the client so the dog didn’t get overstimulated or inadvertently attempt to climb stairs. “That guy had to stay crated,” she said. “I know it was hard, and I kept reassuring his owners that he had good spirits when I was at the house.”
- Regular Communication
Not all pet sitters will stay overnight in a client’s home, and not all can respond to tight schedules. But open communication should be a priority for a pet sitter. “Even when I leave my own dog with my mom, I call to check on him all the time,” Michelle says, “So I totally get how people freak out and wonder how their dog is doing.” Michelle sends regular photos and text messages to her clients, letting them know about Fido’s temperament, activities, and of course, any abnormalities.
- Check References!
Definitely call the references a good pet sitter should have on hand before you leave your pup. Michelle observed that many clients felt nervous to hire her after experiencing an unreliable sitter in the past. Her business website teems with glowing reviews of pet owners who view her like part of the family. Hopefully, your potential sitter has a similar resume!
- Just Ask
If there’s something special you do for your pet, don’t be afraid to ask your pet sitter. Michelle has heard everything. She dresses short-haired dogs in bedazzled, zebra sweaters for walks. She slips jackets onto little dogs without much body fat. “I do draw the line at holding an umbrella over a dog, though,” she says.
Like any professional pet sitter, Michelle spends a lot of time dealing with poop. She’s scrubbed it out of carpets, furniture, and shoes. “Diarrhea is really pretty mundane,” she says, pointing out that it’s normal for dogs to poop or vomit from stress when their owners leave town. When shit happens, a good pet sitter will get in touch with the owner, maybe give the dog some rice and chicken, and visit the emergency vet if things get concerning.
- Voice Your Fears
Speaking of concerns, there are very few that Michelle hasn’t heard. But the only way a pet sitter can address your worries is if you verbalize them before you leave town. One client was very concerned that her dog would grow anxious without her and would spend the day barking incessantly, bothering the neighbors. Because Michelle knew this dog had separation anxiety, “I can take that pup with me on my walks and play dates. I work in mentally stimulating the dog with some basic obedience skills and treat games.” This dog gradually learned to be less anxious, less stressed, and no longer barked while his Jane was at conferences.
Michelle has another client whose greatest fear is a house fire. Knowing this in advance, Michelle can adjust her visit frequency to every three hours versus three total visits per day. Good pet sitters aren’t just visiting your pet when they check your house. Michelle points out that she’s always assessing the environment, paying attention to details. She once noticed an odor in a client’s garage and was able to stay at the house to greet the gas company and address the leak for the client. “I always reassure my clients that if any dangers were to arise, I would take the pets with me,” Michelle says. “I work really hard to be on top of things so my clients can be more relaxed while they are away!”
Business travel can be stressful and challenging, for you and your pet. But finding a good pet sitter can lead to happy tails for all involved.
Journey On, Janes!