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.