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 lorrieshaw.com. She tweets at @psa2.






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