Frisky business

The days of leaving an open bag of food for your dog while you go on vacation are over. Its time to bring in an expert. And Rex and Fluffy (or Tempeh and Lapis Lazuli, if you live around here) aren’t just pieces of moving furniture that need to be fed. They’re little furry people, with all the quirks, complexes and foibles that come with that. For a pet owner, these things are givens—so much so that they may not even warrant mention. But for a pet sitter, little behavioral nuances can mean big surprises at a time when the owners are far, far away.

More and more, pet sitters are learning what questions to ask to avoid unpleasant or even panicky situations later. As Carol Darling puts it, “There are a number of things I have learned the hard way.”

Feeding, both dogs and cats agree, is probably a pet sitter’s most basic duty. But there’s more to it than just plopping down the bowl and taking off.

“When you have a number of dogs, where does the bowl go?” asks Darling, who operates the Hisses and Kisses pet-sitting service. Dogs, she notes, learn to eat in their own particular spot, and if you put the food in the wrong place, “They look at you very confused.”

Dogs are also notoriously protective of their food. This can manifest in different ways, including aggression, says Roni Davis, owner of The Soapy Dog, a do-it-yourself dog wash and information clearinghouse for local pet services.

“It’s really nice to know ahead of time if they are afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks,” says Davis, “and what are the methods for comforting them.”

Dispensing medication is a common job for pet sitters, but times and dosages aren’t the only things surrogate owners need to know.

“What should I look for if the medication isn’t working?” says Caren Harris, who owns At Your Bark and Call. “And also, what are the side effects of the medication?”

Garnell Jackson of Mountain Care Pet Sitting highlights another issue. Animals know when they’re going to get medicine, she points out, and they often react by fleeing the scene. “Where do they hide? is an important question. You look up and they’re gone.”

Pet sitters also need to know the symptoms of chronic illnesses or conditions that are being treated so they’ll know the appropriate response if a problem develops.

And just in case, it’s a good idea for owners to leave their credit card information with their pet’s veterinarian, notes Darling.

Plays well with others

These days, most pet sitters require a meeting with their wards before the owners hit the road, just to make sure they’re compatible. And find out if the animal’s a guard dog.

“When you go to do the interview when the people are home, the dog will let you in,” says Jackson. “When they are not there, [the dog] thinks they have to guard the home and won’t let you in.

“The last thing they will ever admit to you is that the dog has bitten someone,” she adds. “They leave that for you to find out on your own. You can never get enough information.”

Other beasts—and humans—may further complicate the equation.

“Find out if someone else is going to come into the home,” advises Harris, noting that this can put undue stress on pets. And how do they act around other animals they may encounter on walks? “If you don’t know how they are going to handle another dog, the best way is to avoid them,” says Davis. “I don’t want to have to call owners on vacation and tell them their dog attacked another one, or was attacked.”

And here’s a bit of news pet sitters want you to know: Your pet acts differently when you’re away. Separation anxiety can show up in various ways, including depression (“He wouldn’t eat; you had to hand-feed him,” Jackson remembers about one client), or acting out by scratching and chewing. For some owners, a sitter is the perfect spy to find out what happens when the pet is alone.

“The more comical ones are the people who swear their dogs don’t get on the couch—and I’m there to see that they do,” says Jayne Gretz, aka The Asheville Pet Nanny.

These days, interviews are standard practice in pet sitting, using questions learned from experience or via resources such as Pet Sitters International, which supports more than 7,900 members across the country with information on things like insurance and how to collect the information you need.

“Is there a door in the back that doesn’t latch? Is there a hole in the yard that Fido likes to dig into? They need to have this initial information,” explains PSI representative John Long.

“Behaviors that you think are ordinary or common, you need to mention them to the sitter,” stresses Darling. Or as Gretz puts it, “You should learn everything there is to know about that dog.”

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