What you need to know about pet sitters and dog walkers

copyright (c) 2021 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 caring for our pets when we are away. Initially we boarded Daisy but found that being in her own environment was a better situation for us and her. 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. Armed with names, we set up meetings and keep an eye out for the ones who ask questions about our pets as opposed to telling us "every animal loves me" and who come bearing treats and the ones that get down on pet level to interact, the ones that our pets react to best - you know when your pet 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.

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, for the second, go through your leashing process together and 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. Repeat for the third walk.

Daisy appears unsure initially on that first walk, not as scared on the second and somewhat resigned by the third. On the solo second and 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 there, 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. And please, please contract for individual dog walks and avoid "pack" walks. Individual dog walks 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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