What you need to know about pet sitters and dog walkers

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

We are getting ready to travel without our pets. Travel is no longer fun these days with the lines, security concerns, delays and the new "less is more" philosophy in airline service. And leaving the rest of the family at home is no fun either. Although, truth be told the cats prefer to stay at home. Daisy (our dog) would probably endure the flight stuck in a travel bag under the seat just to be with us but weighs in several pounds over the limit. And no, flying in the baggage compartment is not an option for welfare and safety issues.

Over the years we have come to rely on pet sitters for dog walking and for caring for our pets when we are away. While we always had sitters come in for the cats, initially we boarded Daisy when away but found that being in her own environment was a better welfare situation for her and us. And we have yet to find the doggy day care that had enough of the elusive appeal of the comforts of home and family enough toys for each dog to play with, enough spaces for dogs to find playmates and disengage from them, enough floor area for beds and furniture for all dogs to lie on and around, enough skilled handler to dog ratio and truly knowledgeable staff to interact with dogs (including relationships, walks and knowing when a dog wants to go home and bringing them there), etc. There's more to consider than we think, And no doubt better ways to run pet care services, we'll be on the lookout for them. Until then, each neighborhood we move to begins a new search for the right pet sitter.

Our search for the right sitters yields sitters who have never walked a dog but would like to, sitters who only want to walk the dog during the week in the middle of the day, sitters who want to bring the dog to their home because "it’s easier that way", sitters who don’t do cats just dogs, etc. But New York is full of possibilities and full of pet sitters. We ask for recommendations at the pet store, from the local vet, from neighbors with dogs.

Bring the safest and best dog walker into your home to work with your dog. Set up your pet sitter/walker interviews with a list:

- Take the time to make sure the dog walker is the right walker by meeting them first. No matter what a potential service may tell you about how wonderful their sitters and walkers are, nothing can substitute for seeing for yourself.

- Make sure to tell every walker, that you are not asking them to train your dog. That you only use positive methods and require them to.

- Ask how they feel about sniffing? And let them tell you. A leisurely sniff around the block relaxes and satisfies the dog brain far more than any timed walk not including a sniffari can ever do.

- Ask open ended questions as to what they do to correct behavior? What happens when things go wrong? What do they do when a dog does not listen? Move forward? Pull? Lecture? Redirect with neutral or positive energy? Wait a minute or two for a response and avoid filling in the silence. You want to know their answer.

Take the time to find the right fit here, not going for a walk is way less harmful than going for a walk with the wrong walker.

- Pay extra attention to whether they ask you about your dog, what they like and don't and how you provide for that, as opposed to telling you what an expert they are even though they have never met your dog. Relationships are created with our pets through experience and trust and are not instant.

- Watch them in action are they good with cats and dogs? Speak gently? Avoid direct eye contact initially? Use a "jolly camper" voice for a dog and an "elevator" voice for a cat? Not loom over your pet? Approach from the side?

- Immediate, large and glaring red flags for corrections, including scolding or punishment. Be wary of the group walk. Dogs walk, sniff and eliminate at different speeds. This is not a dog park excursion, we are talking a necessary relief walk to take a good sniff around and elimination. Not to mention, those occasions where the walk you think you are paying for is parked on a sidewalk instead.

- Stay off their phone? How can anyone watch your pet when they are looking at their phone? Non negotiable.

- Did they come bearing treats? Do they want your dog to like them and willing to take the time and put in the work to make that happen? Do they know what that even means?

- How does your dog respond to them? You know what it looks like when your dog likes somebody or not so watch closely to see how your dog feels about the prospect of this possible walker.

- Know how to approach and pet a cat? Know that "let them come to you and make them want to" has cat written all over it. You know when your cat likes someone, they "tell" you, watch. We find the right one (fingers and paws crossed). As our new sitter gets to know our pet family we are struck again by the time it takes to create a relationship. No matter how much of an animal person one is, there is still time to be taken in building a bond with a new animal comfort and trust need to be established.

We find the right one (fingers and paws crossed). As our new sitter gets to know our pet family we are struck again by the time it takes to create a relationship. No matter how much of an animal person one is, there is still time to be taken in building a bond with a new animal comfort and trust need to be established. (Continue Reading Below)

To help facilitate the humans and pets getting to know each other in the most appropriate way, I arrange for our new pet sitter to walk Daisy three times over the next three days. And on each day I am part of that process, both as social support for my dog and also to physically show how we do dog things from approach -always at dog level and from the side, no looming over (yes, the walker should have passed knowing this when they got the gig but bears repeating), put on her halter, leash, hold the leash and walking style. I talk about which are the preferred walks, where the shady side of the street is for summer days and scaffolding stretches are found for when it rains.

I accompany both Daisy and the walker on the first walk. I start holding the leash and after a block (half a block, if Daisy is really relaxing) hand the leash to the walker with the dog between us and continue for another a block in this fashion. The next step would be when a block from home to allow the walker to step around so they are between me and Daisy and walk her in this fashion for half a block and then return Daisy to between the two of us for the last half of a block home. We take our cues from Daisy on this last block, if she is unsure, we do steps instead. Sometimes a few steps at comfort level are way more effective than half a block.

It is important to keep these introductory walks short so, as soon as Daisy relieves herself and turns for home, we follow. If your first introductory walk has gone well - the handling is good, no signs of minor stress such as yawning or lip licking, etc. or major signs such as trembling or slinking (stop if you see this), try for a second, go through your leashing process together but allow the walker to put on the leash and hold it this time. This is another short walk. The third walk is when you can ask the walker to walk your dog alone for a very brief walk, while you wait for them to return. Make sure and confirm that just a pee on this walk is fine, a poo is great if it happens but the dog must be allowed to return home when they want (be very suspicious of a walk that is not short here), where you calmly greet them with love.

Daisy appears unsure initially on that first walk, not as scared on the second and somewhat resigned by the third. On the solo third walk, the sitter reports that Daisy just wants to take care of business and return. That is just fine. No prolonged sniffing on these walks if the dog decides so. And because these new walks can be stressful initially, I have asked only for "relief" walks for these walks to begin with. Leisurely walks can come in time. Daisy will adapt, in her own time, to this new situation and hopefully we will return home to happy, healthy animals.

For the cats, I stress repeatedly that the most important thing is not to stress them. This means that if the cat does not want to interact initially, allow this. If the cat is hiding from you they are no doubt doing this because they are frightened of a new presence.

Doing a “cat check” - making sure they are all safely present and accounted for, changing water, cleaning litter and fresh food (make sure to point out to discard any uneaten wet food and to clean plates in between feedings), may be all some cats want with a new sitter. For the cats that do approach, remind your sitter that cats, especially yours, are only to be pet in a cat friendly manner – confining touch to the head, as in behind the ears and along the muzzle. Touching in any other manner is too much too soon for a new acquaintance.

When working with a new pet sitter, please remember to give your pets enough time to get to know the new person who will be in your home before you leave. As many walks or visits as possible before you leave are necessary to begin acclimating your animals to a novel presence in your home. Try and schedule these for initially when you are around and then when you are not at home for maximum benefit.

Again and again, stress there is to be no "training", no force, no corrections. Contract for individual dog walks and avoid "pack" walks. Individual dog walks to insure that your dog benefits from the full attention of the walker and prevents unexpected or unwelcome complications from another dog that is not familiar to your pet.

While you may value a longer walk for your dog, recognize that with a new person walking your dog, shorter walks are less stressful in the beginning of the relation- ship. Your cats are only used to you and the people you know in your home so allow plenty of time to go by before asking the sitter to spend extra time with them.

With pets home alone and sitters and walkers coming and going, keeping an eye on what is happening at home while you are not there is a good idea. Digital cameras provide a remote view on how things are going and allow you to make sure the schedules your pet expect and you have asked for are maintained. They also provide an up close view to make sure nothing but positive handling and love is happening in your home in your absence.

Maintain as much of the usual structure your animals expect, keeping to the schedules of when meals are fed and walks are given, a written list of how you do things helps tremendously and make sure and leave adequate supplies of whatever your pet needs. Leaving your radio turned to a classical music (studies show this type of music lessens stress) station which the sitter can turn on and off on alternate days can alleviate some of the angst over your absence. Above all else, do not expect an instant bond, your companion animal has a relationship with you built on time, history and trust, allow time for a new relationship to develop.

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