Many people begin a pet sitting or dog walking service because they love animals. Others go into the business because they see there is a need for the service and they think that they can make a lot of money providing a needed service. Neither of these is a good enough reason in itself and could end in disaster if you are not properly prepared before you start taking on clients. Evaluating your motivation and talents thoroughly before moving forward on a pet sitting or dog walking business can save you lots of headaches and great deal of time and money invested in what might not be the right business for you.
Do You Love Animals?
It sounds like a simple question. Most people love puppies and think that playing with dogs and cats would the ideal job situation, but it takes far more than simple enjoyment of the warm and fuzzy aspects of an animal to make you successful in a pet oriented business. Most people love animals to some extent, but many people do not "live and breathe" their love of animals. You have to be the kind of person who does not mind muddy paws on your clothing and can be just as loving and affectionate with a cat who is old, arthritic, and cranky as you are with an adorable kitten.
Patience and compassion need to be available in equal proportions. Part of pet sitting will deal with unpleasant surprises. For instance, accidents in the house, vomit, cleaning up messes, or confronting damage done by an animal while you were gone. No matter what a pet has done, you must never lose your temper and take it out on someone's beloved pet. Do you have the tolerance to face this kind of frustration?
It is not All a Walk in the Park
You must also be able to adjust to change and quickly adapt to the unexpected. Animals are unpredictable. You have to be able to "go with the flow" when the circumstances demand it. If you have a regular schedule that you need to stick to, that is fine, but you may need to adjust it occasionally to compensate for pet personality differences, health concerns, or simply stubbornness on the part of a particular animal.
There is also the chance that you will be faced with a pet emergency, and you will have to be able to think fast, act quickly, and be the voice of calm that saves the life of a beloved pet. Can you handle this kind of situation rationally and take control of the situation? Will you be able to overcome your emotions and not let fear take over? When clients trust their pets' lives to you, you must be able to handle stressful, dangerous situations with authority and intelligence.
Dependability is what will make or break your reputation as a pet sitter or dog walker. Clients will rely on you to show up on time and take care of their pets' needs as scheduled; you cannot call it off when you feel like it. The holidays, evenings, and weekends will often be your busiest times and you will need to be reliable. Can you force yourself to show up no matter how bad the weather is and on late night visits, to make sure the animals you are responsible for get the care they need?
You do not have to be a marathon runner or weight lifter to be a pet sitter or dog walker, but you certainly have to be in relatively good health. After all, you do not know from week to week if you will be walking three Great Danes or pet sitting a parrot and a large snake. You should take care of yourself so that you are able to handle any animal you might be called upon. In addition, take care of them in the event they become ill or injured, and you might have to transport them to a veterinarian or animal hospital. You also need to be able to control more than one animal at a time if you are walking dogs in a group. Remember, you have to be able to assert your authority at all times.
Being in good health also goes back to reliability, if you are frequently sick, overworked, or too tired to function properly, you are not giving your clients or their pets the best possible care and it will show. The animals you care for regularly will look forward to seeing you and can sense when you are not fully participating in their walk, play time, or socialization.
A good businessperson has to have a variety of skills in order to keep a business running smoothly, make money, and keep clients satisfied. Organizational and marketing skills are essential as well as some understanding of the basics of bookkeeping, scheduling, and general business practices. If you are not yet familiar with some of the technical aspects of running a business, that is fine, you do not have to have the knowledge already in place. The key is to have the ability to learn it.
If you have a knack for grasping business concepts and the ability to follow the rules of business and stick to them, you may be able to run your own business successfully. However, if you hate doing paperwork and are always unorganized, you may find yourself six months down the line with unpaid bills, debts, and unhappy clients and you may wonder how you got to that point. You can always learn specific skills such as bookkeeping and marketing, but organizational skills and solid business acumen are traits that you will soon know whether you have or not.
· Love and Compassion for Animals.
· Good Health.
· Business Skills.
Did you know that 39 percent of households in the U.S. have at least one dog? ( 77.5 million)
Preparation and Training
Once you are certain a career as a pet sitter or dog walker is right for you, the temptation will be to begin working right away. You can find a few initial clients through family and friends and hope that word of mouth will spread the word, but this is not the right approach. It does not prepare you for the unexpected, is not professional, and does not protect you or your business in any way. You need to be fully prepared and have the proper training before you even think about putting together a business as a pet sitter or dog walker. The first step is knowing you are fully qualified and able to tell your potential clients that you are properly trained for the job at hand.
Do Lots of Research
There are numerous resources for information on pet sitting and dog walking businesses. Two of the most respected organizations are the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS) at the websitewww.petsitters.org and Pet Sitters International (PSI) atwww.petsit.com. Both of these sites were established by one of the recognized leaders in the pet sitting industry, Patti J. Moran, who left the corporate world years ago to begin her own pet sitting company, Crazy 'Bout Critters. She eventually employed over forty pet sitters and founded both organizations to ensure the professionalism of the industry and the safety of animals.
These sites can give you valuable information on what you need to consider in terms of time and money investments, what to expect, and how to get started. Membership will also give you the benefit of sample forms for your business, educational tools, and networking opportunities with other members. Finding a mentor is a great way to learn what to expect in the industry!
Membership in these organizations provides valuable resources for pet sitters, including publications available to members only such as magazines for pet care professionals, newsletters, website design assistance, and an annual industry report. Members may also post the logos for NAPPS and PSI on business web sites as a sign of their professional membership and standing in the pet sitting community.
Business Research and Preparation
The United States Small Business Administration offers information on how to start a business in general. They can guide you in everything from how to set up separate business checking accounts to how to track your business sales taxes. You may be overwhelmed when you take a look at all of the forms that you will need to fill out and how much you will need to take care of, but the administration has wonderful employees and volunteers to assist you. You will need a business plan (we will talk more about that in the next chapter) and will have to understand how to do accurate bookkeeping and effective marketing.
Fortunately, you can learn a lot of this from local programs offered through your community's local outreach programs. Community colleges, libraries, and the Chamber of Commerce in your area may offer courses that will be helpful in giving you the business background you need to start and run a small business successfully. Look for workshops, seminars, and even mentoring programs that cover such topics as:
· Basic Small Business Accounting.
· Bookkeeping 101.
· Small Business Marketing.
· Computer Skills (if you are not comfortable enough to run your business with one).
· How to Start a Business.
· Small Businesses on a Budget.
· How to Develop a Business Plan.
· Small Business Tax Basics.
You will not need to know all of these things before you start, but the more you learn before you begin, the better prepared you will be, and the less likely it is you will run into unpleasant surprises. Basic understanding of how to run a business is essential to running your pet sitting and dog walking business smoothly. You cannot simply do the "hands on" work of taking care of your clients and let the paperwork fall through the cracks.
Unfortunately, the less you understand about the basics of running the business end of your service, the more likely you are to let the paperwork slide until you realize one day that you have let it go for too long and your bookkeeping or records are hopelessly messed up. Being prepared and educated before you start, will ensure that you start with confidence. If you spend an hour at the beginning or end of each day to review your accounts, prepare your paperwork, and take care of daily or weekly tasks as they come up, you will stay organized and impress customers with your professionalism.
For dog walking, you need to be familiar with the general health and well being needs of canines. If you are interested in pet sitting, you will also need to be familiar with the needs of your other clients such as cats, birds, fish, and other animals. You may not be able to prepare in advance for all other animals, but if you are contacted about pet sitting for an unusual exotic animal, it will be your responsibility to spend time learning all you can about that animal so that you are familiar with that animal's particular needs when you begin watching him.
Do online research, purchase books, and keep a mini-library of basic books on the pets that you will most often be working with. sSo xx when something does come up, you will have a reference to turn to, whether the problem is an anxious dog or a feline who refuses to eat while her owner is away. Reference books are wonderful guides that can give you tips on how to handle these situations or let you know when you need to turn to a professional veterinarian.
When Todd was pet sitting for a new client, he noticed that the dog he was watching, nine year old Sophie, was not eating much, and he was concerned. The next day Sophie had loose stools and he called Sophie's owners and expressed his concerns. The owners said that this happened occasionally when Sophie was stressed and not to worry too much, it was probably the separation. However, that evening when sitting with Sophie, Todd noticed that Sophie was "hunching," her body, she would put the front part of her body down but keep her butt in the air when she sat. Todd knew this was sometimes a sign of abdominal pain and gently pressed Sophie's stomach. When there was a yelp of pain, he loaded Sophie into the car and took her to her veterinarian.
Sophie had pancreatitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of her pancreas that sometimes strikes older dogs. They immediately started treatment and had to keep her overnight. Her owners were grateful to Todd for his familiarity with the signs of pain and unusual illness and for saving their beloved Sophie, who lived for many more years, although on a special diet.
Animal First Aid courses are available through a variety of organizations. One of the two most reputable is the American Red Cross, which offers an excellent pet first aid book and hands-on classes at a variety of locations. Pet Tech also offers an eight-hour pet first aid class and often schedules them through organizations or corporate partners. Both of the courses offered by these organizations award Pet First Aid certifications to those who successfully complete the courses, which is a valuable tool for establishing yourself as a knowledgeable, trustworthy professional.
Stock a first aid kit that you will have with you at all times. In most cases, keeping it in the trunk of your car will be sufficient for pet sitting and most walks unless you are trekking quite a distance from your car, in which case you should carry it with you, perhaps in a small backpack. However you manage it, you should have a first aid kit with you at all times. You can order pet first aid kits from online sources or put one together yourself, but make sure it contains everything you need and has enough for more than one animal.
One of the most important aspects of dog walking is keeping your charges under control. In many instances you may be walking up to five dogs at a time, being in complete command of the dogs is essential to their safety, your safety, and the safety of those around you. Most major pet store chains offer obedience training classes, as do larger veterinarian's offices and pet care clinics. Call and inquire about when these are offered and take your own dog or borrow one from a friend who has not yet had obedience training in order to "start from scratch."
After you have learned the basics, you may also want to take an advanced course if you have the time and money to invest. There are obedience clubs you can join that can provide you with newsletters and updates on new insights into dog training and obedience techniques as well. Keep in mind that there is a variety of types of obedience training techniques. Never learn any obedience techniques that advocate fear, intimidation, or physical punishment. Respect, authority, and positive reinforcement are the hallmarks of good obedience training for animals.
Just as you did with your first aid course or courses, ask about getting a certificate for any obedience training courses you take. Having a dog obedience training certificate on record that you can show to prospective clients establishes your credentials as a pet care professional.
Part of learning how to ensure that dogs behave properly is familiarizing yourself with breed behaviors. Dogs are unique in the pet world for having certain behaviors that tend to fall along certain breed lines. While every animal is certainly unique, if you are aware of breed tendencies, you will be prepared for what to expect when you are working with more than one breed in a group situation and how one breed of dog is likely to react to you as opposed to another.
For instance, hounds are generally tracking and trailing dogs used for hunting. Trained or not, they are bred for these characteristics and will instinctively lunge for birds, squirrels, rabbits and any other animals that cross their paths and are likely to bolt quickly if off the leash. Sporting dogs such as Labradors are passionate about water, so do be aware that they may be tempted to jump into a pond and splash around! Herding dogs instinctively want to round up other animals and keep them in a tight group, so they can show a tendency to be "control freaks," which other dogs may not appreciate, depending on their personalities. Your job will be in part to find a way for all your charges to learn to get along and play well together. Understanding each breed's traits will help you do this.