Monday, September 17, 2018

Self-advocacy is just one strategy to hurdle being overwhelmed by a sick pet's treatment plan

One of the ways that I spend my time working in the field is by helping families out with specialty care—things like subcutaneous (sub-q) fluids, esophagostomy (e-tube) feeding, giving injections, things like that. It can take some of the load off of the family when they need to travel, or when work or other obligations make keeping up with the care regimen prohibitive. I also coach families on ways to get comfortable with performing the tasks, best practices for keeping things sterile and having ensuring safe interactions with their pet during the tasks, as well as what to look out for as far as signs of trouble. I make a point of going over the veterinarian's written treatment plan with the family to try and detect any trouble areas they might have, and to answer any questions they are reluctant to ask the vet or their staff. 

It’s not lost on me that it's not easy to perform this kind of care when the pet is your own, especially when you've no experience and you're worried about pushing slurried food with an oral syringe into the tube that's been surgically placed into the pet's neck. Or when you need to try and get a minimum of 100 mL of fluid into your cat and you're tired and frustrated and can't seem to get the needle into them just right or you've poked yourself instead. If you've ever embarked on a newly-diagnosed pet's treatment regimen for diabetes, I don't need to mention how overwhelming that can feel. There are days or weeks where things are really tough, especially in the beginning. (It gets easier though, I promise!)

It's really a challenge if you're ruminating on your schedule for the week and wondering how you're going to manage Tuesday's tube feeding schedule or on Thursday and Friday you have to work double shifts and there's no way you'll be able to get the sub-q's done. Maybe you've got a needle phobia and having to give your pet injections is giving you some serious panic attacks that you already have difficulty managing—but some days are easier than others. Let's not forget the crises that come up with loved ones that need your attention, time and mental bandwidth.

I've heard these stories a lot. 

I've also been witness to those seemingly-genius light bulb moments of Why don't I just increase the amount on some days to compensate for what I can't manage on others? and I of course counsel appropriately. Sometimes I don't get the opportunity to hear that beforehand and a pet owner just goes for it. What's the harm?

(On the other side of the coin, in some cases, I hear, More is better, right? The rationale that if the vet recommended this regimen, and the pet is doing well, then doing more must be perfectly fine: if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.)

The results of this kind of tweaking can seriously complicate the diagnosis that the treatment plan it's meant to address. Doubling up on the volume of fluid that you're supposed to administer subcutaneously can result in things like fluid buildup in chest, something that cats with existing heart conditions—diagnosed or not—are at an even higher risk for. Trying to tube feed a pet too much or doing so too quickly can stress them out tremendously, and can cause or exacerbate any nausea. The efforts are often wasted since the pet will likely vomit either from the overload of food or being nauseated. And injections, especially when it comes to insulin, well, that can be a hot mess when adding extra doses. 

Though one of the details that I touch on when providing support with these types of specialty care plans—sticking with the doctor's treatment plan as it's laid out and to call the clinician with any questions—I also realize that it can be difficult, for the reasons I pointed out earlier. I find that often, families get home with their pet, a bag full of supplies and a discharge report and quickly go from feeling grateful that their pet can be treated for something and I've got this! to being overwhelmed and feeling incapably alone, especially when considering a work schedule or their own anxiety issues. Sometimes hiring the services of a professional like me can easily fill in those gaps and provide the support that's needed. But for some, they may not have access to that kind of help. 

If at any point you feel like you'll not be able to maintain any treatment regimen, no matter how simple, never be reluctant to relay that to the vet. Whether you're hearing what that plan is for the first time while face-to-face with the doctor, as you're fixing to leave the facility, or at home and giving things a solid go, if you're not able to manage things, please speak up. Vets understand and often are able to craft an alternative plan or regimen that you can stick to—or they can recommend a professional that is experienced in this area and can lend a hand at home. I know that it's easy to nod your head in agreement and say that you are clear on everything when a vet is reviewing the plan at the clinic or emergency hospital. It can be an intimidating space. The fear of being shamed or judged because you're not clear on things or not feeling confident about how you'll care for your pet is only second to wondering how you'll afford the bill. I get that. 

It can be tempting to double up on medications or sessions of sub-q fluids or tube feedings or even skip them repeatedly. But as I urge my families: forgo that idea to deviate from the doctor's directives and, never, ever be intimidated by speaking up about things that you don't feel are manageable with your pet's treatment plan for one reason or another, or to ask questions that matter to you. It's easy to find yourself in the weeds and you wouldn't be the first to be there. By advocating for yourself, you'll empower yourself to carry out what's necessary in a treatment plan as well as helping your vet to do their job and most importantly, your pet will feel better faster.

Lorrie Shaw, CPPS, CPLGC is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The vetting of qualified pet care providers falls to families—not tech apps—here is how to do it well

'Oh, I'd love to do what you do,' is a common refrain to hear after chatting with someone I've been acquainted with. From the outside, what I and other pet care professionals do can look easy: happy-looking, energetic dogs walking nicely on leash; the antics of cute kittens playing; the random story of how an edible enrichment toy for an exotic bird was crafted.

As I've said on many occasions, what I do for a living is a terrific way to spend time. It can be fun, it's never boring but what many folks don't see is that it also comes with a lot of responsibility and has a very serious side. A few serious sides, in fact. And that may be why a lot of people don't stay in the industry—and why to a degree, some families are not inclined to hire in-home pet care after having a poor experience. I've heard the horror stories from both families and current and former pet care providers about things gone wrong, the misgivings of families who call with palpable tension in their voice, not to mention others who have an unwillingness to be transparent about issues with their pets or past caregivers.

There is a lot in the way of miscommunication and misconceptions in the pet care industry, and some folks want it that way. Being an unregulated industry, it's easy for anyone to enter it and hang a flimsy shingle out, hawk their services, regardless of their intentions, transparency, lack of competency or willingness to do their due diligence.

Anyone can provide pet care, right?

Well, it depends. Anyone can, but when it's not clear what services one offers (which is often confusing for families to begin with), how experienced and capable they are of handling the responsibility of the work and doing so ethically, that's an issue. It's important that families understand that who they're hiring the services of actually has the experience and training needed for the pets they're in charge of. Knowing that they adhere to best practices in pet care, and have a good working knowledge (or certifications) in areas not limited to pet health, zoonotic disease, animal behavior/body language and sanitation is helpful. And then there's the safety factor—not only with regard to the animals and who they have contact with, but with the integrity of one's home when having a caregiver come in. It's also hard to ignore the stories of less-than-equipped or ethical providers who offer boarding services—a professional service that in some cases is a better fit for some pets and their families. 

It seems important to point out that the ease of booking pet care services with a smartphone app only exacerbates the issue of unethical pet care providers being side by side true professionals—yes, those who make every effort to uphold the highest standards in the industry and mentor those who are entering it. There are no guarantees of ratings or background checks and the like, despite what these [tech] companies tout, and that those that act as subcontractors through them are really up for the responsibility that they say they are. 

Yes, it can be daunting, even taxing to connect with a reputable dog walker, pet sitter or boarding facility. And it's hard to know what questions to ask when you do locate one. 

As a pet owner, the best place to start is to be clear on which service(s) you need. Not every professional offers pet sitting, overnight stays, specialty care (like subcutaneous fluids or e-tube feeding), midday dog walking services or boarding. All of these services are different in the scope of work involved and where it's done. I often get inquiries from families that ask for information on pet sitting, when what they are really looking for is boarding. I'm happy to point them in the direction of reputable colleagues who are boarders and who I feel good about recommending. Conversely, I discover that some families aren't even aware that having someone come to their home and care for their pets with daily visits—pet sitting—is even an option. And overnight stays and dog walking services are entirely different conversations as well.

First things first 

So, where to begin? Let's sort things out.

Know your pet's needs + identify which services you want

Does your pet have behavioral needs that require knowledge and tending (think anxiety or separation anxiety)? What about their health needs—can the caregiver you're vetting handle things while you're away? Do you want a professional to come in for daily visits to care for your pets? Or are overnight stays (where the caregiver stays overnight, in your home) more fitting for them? Would they do better with a boarding situation, perhaps? 

Finding a professional

Professionals and those who are up-and-coming and mentored by established professionals strive for transparency, top-notch communication and best practices and ongoing education in all areas of pet care. You can find them online, by asking friends and loved ones for their recommendations, by asking your veterinarian or certified dog trainer and by checking out industry organization websites like Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. A reputable pet care professional will also want to have a meeting with you beforehand to go over lots of questions about your pets and their needs, and they'll detail what you can expect from them. I suggest connecting with a pet care professional before you need to reserve time with one. The really good ones are busy and tend to book early, year round. 

Beyond the basic questions

After years of being in the trenches, I can tell you that too often, families ask the wrong questions when vetting a pet care professional. Asking open-ended questions can make all the difference. Beyond inquiring about how long they've been in the industry, if they're insured and how many households they take care of on an average day, please, lose your reluctance and be more curious.

Don't be afraid to ask if daily updates and the like are an established policy and specifically how they are handled, and what time frames they adhere to for pet sitting visits throughout the day. 'Is this your full time career, or is pet care something that you do in addition to another job?' If the latter is the case, it doesn't hurt to inquire how they manage a work schedule and a pet sitting schedule.

Which approaches do they use or recommend to give medications to pets?

(One family reached out to me to ask how their pet sitter handled getting in
touch with families about regular updates, and how to reach with them. They had been gone for nearly two days with no update from the sitter and she had no voicemail, and no cell phone to call.)

Knowing their recommendations and preferences on dog walking equipment (leashes, harnesses and other tools) is an excellent view into their knowledge about best practices and safety. Ditto for knowing how they would handle a situation with an off-leash dog that is making an unwanted approach or if a dog fight ensues.

Whether or not they require vaccinations and how often they scoop the litter box and asking, 'I'm wondering how I'd know if my dog has tapeworm?', 'My friend's dog has a cough, I wonder if I should be concerned about my own pet', and 'If my dog or cat or displaying unwanted behavior, how do you address that?' can be great leading questions about their basic knowledge into areas of health and animal behavior.

More experienced pet sitters have seen their share of difficult situations and have had to navigate them. Picking their brain about what the most challenging situation they've had to handle professionally is—and how it played out is an excellent question.

To go further, if you're considering boarding services for your pet, ask to view where your pet will be housed, allowed to play and how many dogs are boarded on any given date. Ask about their sanitation practices and flea/tick preventative, heartworm testing and vaccination policies. Does the area or home smell foul? Does it look clean? How many pets are present, and how do they behave? How do the owner or handlers supervise canine interactions—any questionable practices? It's helpful to know if the caregiver (or trained staff) is on site 24/7, and if the facility or home is climate controlled.

There is no substitute for due diligence on the part of families when hiring the services of a pet care provider. Though it might seem like a job that anyone can do, the stories that I could share about my own adventures would quickly change anyone's mind. It's an industry for those who are truly work to do the very best for companion animals and recognize what that looks like. 

Lorrie Shaw, CPPS, CPLGC is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

National Grief Awareness Day sheds light on understanding grief from pet loss and more

On the cusp of a weekend in early-June, 7AM—unexpectedly lying in a hospital bed, after being admitted for a bout of lymphangitis, worried, bleary eyed- and minded—my iPhone was the only thing keeping me company in the dimly-lit, unfamiliar space. Podcasts, working their audible magic after my waking at 5AM in an untethered state. Suddenly, the device lit up, bearing the familiar number on the caller ID that I was all-too-thrilled to see at that hour. Yes, finally, something bearing some semblance to my day-to-day, something that in times like that is always welcome: likely a last-minute request from a client to come by and give their dogs some outside time and fun that afternoon, though unfortunately I knew I wouldn't be able to help. 


The voice, familiar, though strangely foreign in tone and cadence. I couldn't palpate what it was at first, but as is often the case, it was somehow starkly evident as the words tumbled out. Things were not the same. And once I waffled through my initial bewilderment, it was hard to ignore the conveyance of her own despair and confusion, the voice on the other end of the phone. The one who knew that what she had to tell me would be difficult for both of us, but did so in the kindest, gentlest way.

He was gone. Just like that. One of my oldest, dearest and most beloved canine charges. Gone. Past tense.

Odie, who I had seen regularly over the past half seven years—three or more days per week. He who had been probably my best teacher aside from my own beloved Gretchen, who required more of me than [most] others and made me a better professional and mentor. Hemangiosarcoma. In an instant. No goodbye besides my usual kiss and pat on the head and an enthusiastic Love you! See you Tuesday! when we parted ways that afternoon before. But with an illness like Hemangiosarcoma, I've learned in my years, it's often the case that you're not afforded the opportunity to think, to say goodbye. 

I was grateful for that phone call. I was trusted with their grief, and with my own.

Unless I'm working to offer palliative or hospice care support to a family whose pet has a diagnosed life-limiting illness or age-related decline, its not unusual for me to get word from a client about a pet's passing via an email. Sometimes it's just too hard for them to speak the words. Occasionally I'll get that call that they might know or hope will go to voicemail because I'm often in up to my elbows with tending to my charges and can't get to my phone. It's equally common to be told ahead of time that a humane euthanasia for the pet is planned and that I'm welcome to come and say goodbye in the days prior. 

In any case, I always appreciate being in the loop, and included to give my own level of grief the opportunity to breathe—the grief that invariably comes from bonding with another living being that at times has needed your help more than they've ever needed anything. 

After all, despite my being a Certified Professional Pet Sitter specializing in assisting families with their pet's palliative and hospice care (as well as a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion), I'm not a robot. Though I understand propriety when it comes to knowing when others need me to hear them and when I can allow myself to be heard, I'm still human: the basic tool that allows me to do this work. 

It's not lost on me that my families and I are experiencing grief of degrees that span a wide spectrum. There's the anticipatory grief, the kind that you feel before a death or comparable life change occurs. Then the grief during the event. And the most visible to our loved ones and peers, the grief that unfurls after the loss. We share these different types of grief, my families and I, though they are all very much our own.

The Sunday after Odie died, I made my way over to his home after an invite from his family. They knew it might be difficult for me to walk into their home all on my own for that next midday visit with their other beloved dog and not see the one we were mourning welcome me, in the big way he always had. And it would have. We embraced, talked, got choked up beyond words, we supported each other, expressed our disbelief, told stories, reminisced—gave our collective and individual grief room to breathe. And for that time and the conversations we've had since, I'm grateful.

This grief took place privately, just as it does in spaces everywhere in the world. 

But we need to be able to grieve with that sense of safety outside of our private realms. Grief demands discretion at times, but it also needs the autonomy to tag along when we are going about our everyday activities, because it doesn't do well being stuffed where it's hidden from making others uncomfortable or it deemed inconvenient or even not valid (the latter is referred to as disenfranchised grief, something that is very common after the loss of a pet). Giving each other space, the opportunity to express through storytelling and other means, understanding that there is no prescribed timeline to navigating grief and hearing, really hearing ourselves and others when our grief is asking to be given what it needs to stretch its legs is what's needed—not an antidote or a cure or a way to fix it or fill the void, not something to continually cope ugly or anesthetize the pain. And on this National Grief Awareness Day, if we can begin being more comfortable with our own grief, we can work toward being more open to doing so in the presence of the grief that others own. 

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Fireworks season can be easier on pets and families with a tailored approach

Each year at this time, just as many other people here in Michigan, I delight in the arrival of the extended daylight hours; the warmer weather; not worrying about ice-covered roads; outdoor gatherings. Fireworks isn’t included on that list, and though I can appreciate other’s enthusiasm for them, they are the bane of those who share life with pets.

The noise is the chief offender when it comes to frightening pets, but I've no doubt that if the light and smell resulting from them are within a detectable distance of a pet, they’re contributors, too. It’s understandable; the loud pops and bangs are confusing and occur without any sense of place. Though it need not be a precursor, for a pet that already has some level of anxiety or fearfulness, the things that make fireworks enjoyable to humans only feed the behaviors that signal to us that our pet is having even more trouble coping. 

Over the years, I’ve had more companion animals in my care that find themselves in this situation than I care to count. My own dogs were included in that group. I’ve learned a few things in that time, and thankfully, there are more strategies and tools to help stave off the anxiety and fear associated with the nightly light and noise shows—and to assuage it if it’s already a problem. The key, as is the case with so many things, is to anticipate and plan ahead.

The approaches of using storm treats, T-Touch and Thundershirts is something that I’ve written about in the past, but there’s still more that families can do to keep the peace during these particularly taxing periods of time. Whether you've a young pet or an old friend in hospice or end-of-life—the latter posing its own set of emotional challenges—there's some flexibility in choices. 

Pheromone analogs aim to appease

A staple in my day-to-day work, pheromone products work to promote a sense of calm and well-being in dogs and cats, and can be found at vet clinics, better pet stores or online. What are pheromones and how do they work? Pheromones are natural chemicals produced by mammals, and different types serve various functions depending on where they are secreted, but in this case, we're focusing on the ones that aim to appease, happy make, feel good. A synthetic form of the real thing, Adaptil for dogs, and Feliway for cats are available in a plug-in diffuser, spray and for dogs, families also have the choice of a collar.

Herbal and nutraceutical approaches

Rescue Remedy - What’s in this tiny bottle does so much. Long sought after to alleviate anxiety in humans, there’s a formula for pets, too. Available at better pet and health food stores, no vet prescription needed.

ComposurePro chews – Available from veterinarians, these tasty gems are readily accepted by both dogs and cats. Bovine colostrum- and vitamin-based, this product promotes stress reduction and a sense of calm. 

NutriCalm – A combination of amino acids and herbs, this product is available in capsule form for medium to large-sized dogs, and a liquid form for cats and smaller dogs. As with the aforementioned products and as the name suggests, it can be a help to promote a sense of chill. 

Zylkene – This nutraceutical is something I'm really excited about. While attending a Fear Free workshop in Arizona, I spent some time learning about this product by the Vetoquinol company. What makes it unique? It's formulated with bovine-sourced hydrolyzed milk protein, and is good to implement before potentially stressful situations not limited to fireworks season. Events like a move, bringing a new baby home, a visit to the groomer or vet and even preparing for the transition to an adoptive home are appropriate. Zylkene is purported to allow pets to be more receptive to behavior modification training as well. 

Solloquin – Formulated with an amino acid as well as plant-based ingredients and others., this product from Nutramax Labratories boasts its ability to help dogs and cats get in their chill zone. Additionally, Solloquin is indicated to help address inappropriate elimination in cats, and would be a great addition to help make introductions between established family cats and new-kid-on-the-block kitties go more smoothly. 

Though these products are not pharmaceuticals, and don't cause sedation per se, they still need to be used with care. Despite the fact that you'll likely be able to find them available for purchase online, there's no guarantee of their authenticity through that avenue. The good news is that you can get them through your veterinarian, which is where you can figure out which product or combination thereof is right for your furry friend. Your clinician can help you sort out any possible contraindications with existing herbal supplements, prescription medication and diagnosed medical conditions.

Something new

Sileo, a new prescription option on the market, is designed to home in on one pressing issue associated with fireworks: noise aversion. Launched in 2017, Sileo is delivered transmucosally and is not sedating. This drug is not indicated for every dog, but that's something your veterinarian can help you decide. It seems mindful to note that there have been reported incidences of overdose in dogs, so it's a must that families (and pet sitters) are clear about how to dose and administer it properly. 

Queue up the tunes

Music is an area of great interest in recent years, and while classical has been touted as the gold standard for soothing anxiety and offering an audible buffer to offending noise in dogs and cats, a recent study suggests that our canine friends respond favorably to reggae as well. What kind of music would be most effective to help a pet in hospice and end-of-life? Harp music. Click here for more. 

No matter if you've one pet or a menagerie, there are plenty of choices to help your family navigate this ever busy and noisy time of year with more finesse.

Scents and Sensability

A recent study indicates that essential oils  -- four of them, to be specific -- may elicit a sense of calm in dogs. According to a recent study, The behavioural effects of olfactory stimulation on dogs at a rescue shelter, the essential oils containing coconut, ginger, ginseng and valerian seemed to promote better rest and less vocalization and barking in dogs. A trial to see how your dog responds to smelling a couple of drops applied to a bandana might be worth a try. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. Lorrie can be found at and tweets at @psa2

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain made me a better pet sitter

This has been an especially tough week for a lot of people. The loss of two famous people due to suicide only highlights what goes on everyday in our midst: fellow humans grappling with the depth things that no one else can understand, no, not from their point of view. A couple of comments, including "...sometimes the sad just catches up" and "...suicide puts a fly in your head. It's always inside, buzzing around" caught my attention on social media. Maybe because they're simplistic, and that's what we crave when looking in from the outside—a way to get our head around something that confounds us. 

Though working in different fields, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain shared an untimely, hair-thin thread and with the latter's demise, things somehow felt more resonant. Bourdain was the second of the two to be reported to have passed away, and maybe that's why. I'll argue, though, that it might be because his craft, what he shared in-kind with the masses was something that we can't live without: food. And not a stark, preparatory, recipe-led offering on how to make a dish—no, we savored his culinary escapades throughout the world met with unknown-but-interesting humans who were just as much our [vicarious] guides to locales and cultures that we'd otherwise never be privy to. And we watched. And listened to those conversations between guide or friend and traveler—not tourist—some of which were as intimate and forthcoming as they should be at late-night, over a plate of something good, after a day of exploring and drinking and rubbing elbows with locals who are the tightest threads of a city's tapestry. And we let our minds wander to those places and attempted to try our hand at making the foods that might give us that opportunity to have a slice of that place on our plate, in many cases, places that many of us will never visit. I'll admit that the segment on the seemingly mundane cal├žot alone motivated my desire for some tether to something less-familiar. Because onions can do that. Yes, onions.

Bourdain's joie de vivre for people and food were front and center, it was never about him. He was just along for the ride, it seemed, asking the questions and doing the things that most of us would be too timid to.

This piece of art hangs on my front door

I'm grateful to say that Bourdain's body of work first piqued my interest eons ago because of my long-held love of eating and preparing food. His writing was unpretentious and far-reaching through experiences, those in common and not so much so. But his silent urging, 'go, experience, eat, be curious and most of all, listen to those you meet and please... enjoy your life," spurred my love of indulging wanderlust late in life, where, as I understand is where he began his travels. I began traveling a little over ten years ago—and solo a little over half of those trips around the sun. Because of Bourdain, I've gotten over my fear of traveling alone and have criss-crossed the continental United States even Puerto Rico as my budget and schedule have allowed. I've had experiences like quickly getting over my dislike of octopus when a grandmother (the chef) presented me with a dish of it after my over-confident-but-misguided use of Spanish ordered it; watching buskers after a day of setting my feet, my ears and my eyes loose in New Orleans; being given a nearly-private tour of longest-operating synagogue in the country; seeing things I'll never see again before they were destroyed by Hurricane Maria; being on a road trip through South Carolina, sitting roadside with a very old sweet grass basket weaver to hear her stories; downing a shot of hooch with a group of strangers after spending the day with them in the rain forest; coming together with other bumped passengers to offer our food to a young passenger from Europe who didn’t know that food vouchers are only good for vendors inside the security checkpoint. I could go on.

Traveling in it's way, does so much more, and really, you need not go far.

It's forced me to open my eyes to things that are ordinarily dimmed by everyday life. It's allowed me to recognize the importance of standing up for myself, and others. It's magnified how much we all truly rely on others and trust them to take care of us each and every day, because as a traveler, that's what makes for the best experience. Ditto for being a really good listener. Traveling makes for being a better storyteller, too.

Yes, this has been because of Bourdain, or what his example showed me was possible.

And it has also bolstered a philosophy that I carry with me each and every day in my journeys with families as a pet sitter and animal hospice worker, reinforcing the notion of there's much to be experienced in life, near and far, no matter how much time there is to work with, you can hop to it and I'm going to help you do it. 

I've been connected to folks with pets who have not wanted to miss a beat with their wanderlust after a move to the area, others wanted to pick up where they left off with it after being paired with the pet love of their lives, some who found themselves tethered to home and needing the solace of a night out immersing in local food and culture after their pet goes into hospice. There have been several in past years who've remarked, ' helped save my marriage; we were on the verge of splitting because I wouldn't travel and you demonstrated it was possible to leave our pets and enjoy a life outside of them.'

That was possible due in part because I had a vicarious sampling of life that made me want to partake in experiences in different locales, and in turn I want the same for others if they so choose. Because this is what my business, at it's core, is really about: serving others in a way that enables them to live more fully. So, in that way, I owe someone I've never met and never will an ocean of debt for being an unlikely influence on a life and a livelihood that in many ways was so unlike his own.

Taking from an episode of his show, No Reservations, Bourdain said: 

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

And he did leave something good behind. 

The only way I can think to truly pay homage to Anthony Bourdain—a human gone far too soon—and his legacy is to continue pursuing my adventures with food, my travels to places I've not been, and helping others who need help doing the same. That, and to just show up for someone who might be feeling as if they need to make a very final choice. 

Lorrie Shaw is owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care support. She is also a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion and a member of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care and Pet Sitter International. She tweets at @psa2.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Expectations for professionals in the pet sitting industry have grown—sometimes unreasonably so

"...I'm having a dilemma. I have no interest in doing anything like sub-q fluids, in fact, there is nothing in the world that I loathe and avoid more than needles... my business model is more babysitter, not nurse. I get that today's pet sitting client wants more and many sitters like yourself are doing more than just visits and walks, and I think that is AMAZING.... BUT!!! It is not my business model nor do I present myself as such."

This is an excerpt of a message to me from fellow pet sitter (who consented to being anonymously quoted) and serves a neighboring area. And this isn't unique—more than one colleague has reached out to me to ask advice on how to handle a situation when they are asked, or expected by families in some cases, to participate in care that they are not comfortable handling or even being a part of. Things like administering subcutaneous fluids, or to tending to a pet that has been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness and is entering the phase of life that we refer to as hospice and into end-of-life. It could even be something seemingly-less daunting, like administering insulin injections. Let's not forget about pets that have conditions like mega-E or that are differently-abled and use a wheelchair—does every pet sitter (or dog walker) feel confident in handling the care of pets that have these enhanced needs? 

The truth is, no, and that's okay. 

The fact is that even in the time I've been in the industry—well over a decade—all things pet-related have changed, and rightfully so: we know better, in so many ways. If you're reading this, it's a good bet that you can relate. 

It's fair to say the general attitude amongst families is that pets deserve better. Better in terms of care—being home in their own environment, tended to by professionals who really do care about their craft. Better with regard to veterinary care, which has come a long way in the strides that have been made in diagnostics, treatment options and management of disease. Let's not forget the changing attitudes by families with pets in their twilight, with life-limiting diagnoses no matter the age. Palliative and hospice care is becoming more sought after for pets. I can't ignore the fact that there are more pets than ever with special behavioral needs being successfully homed with families, and they require a level of expertise that might exceed the average caregiver's abilities or willingness to handle them.

These are all scenarios that are in my wheelhouse, and then some. I can't say that in every case I went in with the intention of caring for a sick or geriatric pet; there have been far more cases where a family in my care had a pet that aged out and eased into their geriatric years. Others had accidents or developed illnesses or life-limiting diagnoses, or their family found themselves paired with a pet with behavioral challenges. I had the deep desire and a soft front-strong back to match to stay the course and grow with all of them. With others, well, I came into the picture after things took a turn for the worse; in fact now that's my specialty. Through the years, I've been fortunate enough to have the best mentors whether they be veterinarians, vet techs, animal trainers and behaviorists, my own pets or the families I serve—as well as the desire to go outside my comfort zone and seek education at my own expense.

I also don't have a problem speaking up when I'm being asked to handle something out of my wheelhouse (admittedly, egg-bound birds are my Achilles') or if I can see a pet's resources or ability to adequately cope are lacking. This is all in line with the best practices and due diligence/professional standard-of-care that I've established for my own business. 

It's not lost on me that many of my colleagues, who are trained professionals, are happy to handle run-of-the-mill pet sitting and dog walking, easy-to-administer medications, the occasional emergency, and nothing more. I'll be the first to say 'that's okay!'. Goodness knows this business can be demanding and tough given only that responsibility. Some of my colleagues fall somewhere in between that level of basic care and having a skill set and willingness that is at the top of the heap (the former being the majority of pet sitters and dog walkers). I've colleagues who've a knack, as I do, for dealing with fearful dogs or knowing how to handle difficult-to-medicate cats. Others are super-efficient at managing a multi-species household of pets. A few have a preference for being a cat-only caregiver and that's very much a part of their interest and their personal brand. And yes, we need more great professionals like these more than ever. And I embrace them and have a respect for their professional boundaries because I'm clear on what those are. And I've given them the space to express all of that.

The problem is these same professionals (or as some folks enter the industry as hobbyists, non-professionals) don't always feel comfortable speaking up or out to their clients or new families. They may not be sure of how to navigate the difficult conversations they need to have with families, nor the challenging interactions that they're being asked to participate in. They don't know what to ask or where to draw the line. And their comfort levels, their abilities and level of expertise, their willingness to do what is being asked of them may not be where a family presumes it is. We all have different skill sets and experience. 

My solution? 

If you're a family with a pet needing special care, you need to start the conversation with your pet sitter or dog walker. Ask them if they're willing or able. Talk about whether or not they feel qualified or comfortable with handing your pet that may have challenging behavioral or physical needs. Provide a comfortable space for them to articulate their own misgivings about their abilities, their unwillingness to participate or their inability to physically, emotionally or professionally cope with what you're asking them to do. Hold space to allow them to express any anticipatory grief about what's to come with an aging or pet entering hospice—remember, they're a professional, but they've a bond with your pet, too. They also may not have a great relationship with death and dying, nor a lot of experience. Most of all, if you're looking to welcome a new caregiver, or a business that employs caregivers, vet them carefully, have those honest conversations with them too. Never make the assumption that a pet sitter or dog walker is on board with things or qualified to be. At the end of the day, they are still a human being and they deserve the respect of having autonomy.

And to my fellow pet sitters (and dog walkers), you serve the industry and the pets well not when you try and keep up with demands that are not sensible nor reasonable for you, but when know your limits, speak up and advocate for yourselves. And by all means, put that family in touch with another professional who is willing and qualified. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Is the reluctance in using positive reinforcement in dog training linked to the fear of vulnerablilty?

My colleagues and I talk a lot about our industry and those related to it, especially the dog training industry. That’s because with our interactions with dogs are deeply impacted by the way that others interact with them—and that the dog training industry is unregulated. Despite certifications available through organizations like Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers as a start, some trainers don't seek professional training, certification and ongoing education. I’ve talked before about how rough handling, punishment-based dog training and ill-conceived pet products impact my fellow pet sitters and everyone else around the dog that they’re being used on. Sometimes, these have consequences that are unthinkable. It's sad to think that as a pet sitter, given even one of the certifications I've got I out-qualify some professional dog trainers out there.  

Whether we have a pet or not, we hear a lot about dogs that have been poorly socialized, have had a cloudy history or have suffered abuse. I’ll venture to say that we all know of a family with a dog that has separation anxiety, others that have fear-based issues, aggression or anything in between. I know several. Having a knack for understanding how to communicate with them, I’ve several in my care, and we’ve great relationships. Trust is the bass for that. Given the fact that trust and communication are touted so much in relationships between humans (though not so easy facilitated), it’s no surprise that it’s been a healthy boon in our interactions with dogs. This is the core of positive-reinforcement training, and something my work is firmly rooted in. I know that’s true for a lot of other people, too. In fact, most of the interactions that I and other folks have with dogs and their handlers are good. I’m happy about that, given how unfavorably I’ve seen some of them go.

I’ll note that I can always spot an individual that uses training (if at all) and interaction methods that rely on dominance and fear or if a handler is clearly just clueless. The humans may not tell me, but a dog’s body language doesn’t lie. That’s a heart wrenching thing to observe.  I’ve learned to be pretty savvy about diffusing situations for the dog’s sake as well as any human close by and advocating for the dog (and in turn for the humans).

It’s fair to say that in my own view, one that I share with so many others who adhere to ethical and science-based training and interaction concepts, that each of us has not only a responsibility to the animals that have been entrusted to us by clients, The Universe or otherwise, but to the well-being and safety of other humans and animals.

So, why isn’t everyone doing it?

That’s a very good question—one that I've been mulling around—and something that Zazie Todd, PhD explores in a new paper, titled ‘Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Training Methods’ out this month. She detailed a few interesting ideas in a companion piece “Why Don’t More People Use Positive Reinforcement?’, on Companion Animal Psychology.

I’ll assert that, as Todd does, it’s likely that it’s complicated, just as we humans are.

It’s true, that having a smooth flow of communication with dogs takes time, effort, and as is the case with other humans, it’s not the one we’re communicating with -- it’s usually us --  that’s not doing so effectively. But the difference between communicating with dogs and other humans is the language barrier: we need to speak ‘dog’. That requires us to be fully present, clear, precise in our timing, and to be aware of our body language as well as our pet’s. We need to be patient, to stop, back up, start again. Being conscious of how we’re feeling physically and mentally when we’re engaging with our dogs is key, and that goes for our dogs, too: are they distracted or uncomfortable? And, just how does that affect our training time and everyday interactions?

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course, but my goodness, it all seems like such work, compared to methods that rely on fear, punishment, dominance, the notion of living in a pack, or aversives, or so it seems. The fact is that once one understands how to use humane training methods they understand it isn’t work: it’s simply a shift in thinking about how to communicate. The rest comes easily.  

There are a lot of other reasons why the humane methods, though the norm these days, still don’t resonate with some families and even trainers. Todd skillfully points those out, but I feel a lot of it comes down to the perceived barriers of those that aren’t on board, especially because it calls on us as humans to step it up and take stock of how lazy we can be about communication and relationship-building. 

But something else has been gnawing at me: I kind of wonder how much of it has to do with the sense of vulnerability that dogs inherently bring out in us. (Thanks, oxytocin!)

As a Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, I’ve studied how grief and loss are often tainted by shame and fear—and how vulnerability comes with the territory of loss and connection.  That’s not always a comfortable feeling, vulnerability. It’s not a far leap then to consider how one, in an effort to maybe tamp down their natural vulnerability in interacting day after day with their dog during training to go with a methodology that is the polar opposite: to try and mold a dog, like a lump of clay by using fear, pain even punishment, rather than honoring the living, breathing being that they are and building a trust relationship. I wonder the same about those hired by families to train dogs... what is their relationship with vulnerability? 

What I find it hard to ignore is that humane training methods by their very nature require us to tap into our vulnerability and be open to it; those that are antiquated rely on punishment, fear and pain, squashing any any sense of being vulnerable. Going the humane route—being vulnerable—forges the human-animal bond and preserves it. It teaches the pet to be resilient and to cope with difficult situations with more finesse. These methods promote choice and autonomy for the pet, and they hold us humans accountable. Most importantly, they bolster the well-being and safety of not only the humans and animals that engage in interactions that are up close and personal, but every human and animal that they are in proximity of.

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter (CPPS) and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitter International and Pet Professional Guild. She tweets at @psa2.