Dogsitting 101: How to sift through dogsitting gigs
Bonding with the dog and pet owner
I am not a certified dog trainer. I don’t claim to know every technique for training a dog. My instincts for dogsitting come from 22 years of experience with a German Shepherd and a Labrador Retriever/German Shepherd mix, plus my work with Wag and Rover. And this is what I’ve learned.
- Do not dogsit or walk any dog that you fear.
“Aren’t you scared one of those dogs will bite you?”
This is a question I’ve been asked a few times when I mention that I am a professional dog walker and dogsitter. My answer is always the same: “No.” And here’s why. I don’t walk dogs or dogsit for any animal that gives me this concern. Minus two dogs out of 45 (and a total of 234 walks) — excluding my own dogs — I’ve yet to be wrong. I’ve also never been bitten by a dog.
The more agitated and nervous you are around a dog, the more he’ll wonder what your problem is. Of the two dogs that did not like me initially, Dog One (Golden Retriever) was rubbing his entire body on my calf a few hours later and I woke up to his nose sniffing my face by the second night of sitting. Dog Two (Australian Shepherd) let me feed him, but just flat-out would not let me walk him. A blow to the ego, that Australian Shepherd has kept me level-headed ever since. Still though, I would’ve never tried if I feared either of them.
When I walk in the door, if the dog is crated, I start off by talking to him or her and just seeing how the dog reacts to me. I slowly open the crate, eyeing my unlocked exit, and carefully see how the dog behaves. If the dog is loose, I only open the door a few inches and see how the dog reacts to me. And if the dog is aggressive, which has happened three times total, I cancel the walk. I’m not about to challenge a strange dog. I won’t win.
2. Put yourself in the dog’s paws. How would you react if a stranger showed up at your home and flopped on your couch?
The dog has no idea why you’re there. All (s)he knows is that the owners have left, and now she’s got to deal with this random person she may have met for 20 to 30 minutes a few days ago for a meet-n-greet. She wasn’t particularly impressed with you then and probably won’t be now. And neither are most people when they meet a stranger. Some gloriously friendly people warm up to everyone immediately. Others (read: me) need to feel you out before deciding they like you. Sometimes it’s just watching the clock and waiting it out. As long as you keep your cool, you two should be OK.
3. Stop making assumptions based off of what pet websites say the temperament of the dog is.
I once reported on a story about dogfighting and changing the perception of pit bulls. I sat in a room calmly taking notes while 11 pit bulls strolled around loose with their owners. I’ve read countless reports about how dangerous pits are. Meanwhile, my first encounter with a pit bull was her jumping up into the air and licking all the lip gloss off of my face. She did it so fast that I was more entertained than grossed out. She is still one of the friendliest (and strongest) dogs I’ve ever walked.
I had two German Shepherds (one was a mix) that couldn’t have been more different if they tried. One was a wild child who was reasonably friendly to everyone. He knocked everything down like Marmaduke and wanted to play constantly. He managed to squeeze through the side of our home and just sit on the top step of our house without bothering anybody. It drove my family nuts because we couldn’t figure out how this 50-plus pound dog could get through gates and bricks like a small mouse. I’d come home, and there he’d be. He never bothered anybody, but he’d sit still like a statue for hours in our non-fenced-in yard until we got home. We were very relieved no one ever called the pound.
Meanwhile, my second dog was the epitome of a guard dog, trusted only a handful of people who didn’t live in our home and would bark at gnats. She also despised all mail carriers. We were the same exact owners, but my dogs just had two totally different personalities. Socialization levels and the dog’s background matter far more than the breed of the dog.
4. Know when to ignore the dog — and (unfortunately) sometimes the owner’s advice.
For a brief time, I was a walker for a Shih Tzu/Maltese mix who came from a pet kennel. This dog was highly frightened of everybody. If you opened the crate, he’d dart out and run behind the dining room table or treadmill. Even after going to obedience training, the dog would still bite both of his owners if they reached out to get him. I was instructed to just leave trails of food to the door, and then grab and leash him to go for a walk. That is terrible advice.
First, there is no amount of money that a dog walking service can pay you to force you into the risk of being bitten by a frightened dog. Second, it will make the dog associate food with being grabbed. Third, that could lead to a very fat dog if a trail of food needs to be left every single time he walks. I tried it the owner’s way (minus grabbing the dog). It failed every single time. The dog would eat the food and go flying back into hiding. What worked? Absolutely ignoring the dog.
What worked? Absolutely ignoring the dog.
I would fake-read magazines or fake-watch TV but open the crate. The dog, seeing that I was paying him absolutely no mind, would keep running from behind the treadmill or dining room table, trying to figure out when I was going to scram. I’d glance at him out of the corner of my eye. And on at least three separate occasions, the dog would end up sitting on the couch next to me or running to the door, whining to go out. Familiarity and consistency matter, too. The more the dog saw me, the less he’d hide. After the walk, he’d jump on the couch and want to be petted, eating out of my hands.
5. Make sure the dog owners realize that there is a person plus the dog staying there overnight.
Most of the homes where I have dogsat have been amazing. I highly respect the owners, the first three assignments in particular. I cried so hard when I left two of the three dogsitting assignments to the point that one dog licked away the tears from my cheek and the other whined and sat by the door just staring at me.
With that said, this was the piece of advice I still wish I’d have paid the most attention to. Recently I ended up in someone’s home who:
- skipped out on changing the sheets and comforters to clean ones
- left dirty underwear on the bathroom floor
- had dog feces in two bags on the windowsill
- left several blocks of molded cheese in the fridge
- had a kitchen full of ants crawling around the dog’s dry food
- ignored three garbage cans in the kitchen and bathroom filled to the brim
- didn’t tell me the door knobs on the front door, back door and lobby door all fall off when turned
But the owner took the time to carefully put up post-it notes all over the house to explain where all the dog’s belongings were. I was texted repeatedly to ask about the state of the dog, but the owner didn’t seem to care about the actual person who was watching the dog. Even after I ended up stuck between two lobby doors waiting on someone to walk by to put the doorknob back in the other side, her only concern was whether her dog would get a walk outside.
The dog’s fur was completely matted and was in bad need of a groomer. Hygiene and basic maintenance just were not a priority for this household. Responsible dog owners will want the dogsitter to feel comfortable in their homes. Always do a meet-n-greet to meet both the dog and the owner. Pay attention to the home you’ll be in, not just the dog you’ll be watching. I’m a neat freak. However, I don’t expect people to religiously have Sweep Sundays — something I do every week to clean my place from top to bottom. But basic maintenance, especially when inviting in guests, is just good manners. I definitely did not cry when I left the latter home, but I enjoyed that dog. However, I would never agree to stay in that home again no matter the price. You need to be comfortable with the dog, the owner(s) and the home before taking on any assignment.