Friday, November 2, 2018

Adopting or fostering a new pet? Please include your pet sitter in the decision

Not long ago, I'd stopped by one of my family's homes to get a hands-on update on a new diagnosis with one of their dogs. The chronic disease will require treatment that will keep pace with it, which means medication, diet, and monitoring. The family was a little daunted at this prospect, especially the former and that's a refrain I commonly hear. Listening, really hearing them expand on their early struggles with medicating the sweet chap, and knowing what I do about him, my ideas on how to hurdle them immediately started flowing. 

"Let's take the fear out of it—instead, we'll make it a positive interaction. I've some strategies that I learned in this workshop I attended, " I said, and proceeded to demonstrate how to do that. 

The reply wasn't surprising.

"That's amazing! This feels totally manageable, like I wasn't even giving medication. I'm glad we have you for support, you know so much about stuff like this. We've been kind of curious... how have you accumulated all of this knowledge?"

I do get asked that question a lot. I always answer, "Necessity." And it's always in the best interest of the companion animal, and having safe interactions with them.

Given that I have a core level of training in my field, I've built on my professional education steadily over the years. How I've made decisions on doing that has been based on the changing needs of companion animals and their families. And those are complex and vast, make no mistake. 

The changes in how and where we humans live is a great influence on the lives of pets, not to mention the decisions that are made. Then of course, there's the influence of the ever-growing pet product industry, which is very much reliant on what need or problem families decide need fixing or addressing. On the heels of the latter, pet store staff give me plenty to think about when they make misguided suggestions about how to remedy a health or behavioral issue. Dog trainers—the ones who aren't credentialed, let alone ethical nor qualified—offer up plenty of fodder for where I need to take my educational journey. I can't neglect the influence of a family's neighbor's cousin's sister-in-law who obtained her knowledge about canine behavior from a less-than solid or science-based source but is nonetheless generous about espousing it. 

Do these scenarios sound familiar? It's likely they do to you as much as they they do to me, and I can't blame the families that recognize a behavioral issue with their pet or try to make their day-to-day life more manageable with them and end up reaching out for one of the resources above to help. They're trying. And it's not uncommon that at least some of those situations result in pets ending up being re-homed for behavioral issues, whether that be via a rescue, a shelter or privately. The relinquishing families realize that they've done everything they know they are able to do with the resources they have. In some cases, the human-animal bond has become not only frayed, but severed and the situation at that point isn't salvageable. 

But wait. Where do those pets end up? With new families, of course. Some of them are highly experienced, and others, are well-intentioned but need guidance.

All of that said, I'm going to circle back to the education that I've actively sought. Some of it has been free, much of it has been at my own expense of time, money and travel and all of it has been useful. I've spent a lot of time learning how to recognize behavioral issues—even getting a certifications, including in dog bite safety. I'm not unlike other deeply-committed professionals in the pet care industry. I've familiarized myself with the best practices that have been established by vet behaviorists and reputable and ethical dog training professionals. I do this because I want the pets in my care to be at their best, to feel as safe and comfortable as possible, and to be able to cope with the social interactions that they have with humans and the other pets in their midst, whether that's in public or at home. One thing that I can confidently say is that my families understand that and my position on facilitating safe interactions with any pet. And because of that, my families trust my instincts, as well as my recommendations on guiding them on where to find the right help. 

It's not at all unusual for one of my families to contact me when they're thinking about welcoming a new pet. This is especially the case if the pet is being considered for re-homing or fostering with them after being relinquished due to behavioral issues or there was conflict with other animals in their previous home. I'm definitely kept in the loop, and I appreciate that immensely. And why shouldn't I be involved during this process? In speaking on behalf of my colleagues, why shouldn't any professional caregiver? After all, as experienced pet care professionals, dog walkers and pet sitters know their families and the pets in their care well. Most of us have the vantage point of being able to identify possible problems between existing and new pets. We think of good questions that need asking on all sides (on behalf of the organization, the family, and all of the pets). 

In the big picture, we professional pet caregivers can and should advocate for all involved—including ourselves. Advocacy is an area that I fiercely defend in my industry, and for good reason. Pet sitters and dog walkers are sometimes asked to perform their job in less-than-ideal circumstances. Some of my peers, experienced and much-less-so, are expected to care for pets who seriously lack socialization or have hefty fear-based behavioral issues, dogs who've got separation anxiety, and others, they might have unaddressed or under-addressed health issues as well (some of which can contribute to behavioral issues). We professionals should be afforded the right to exercise the autonomy of whether or not we are a fit for a pet, and if we feel comfortable interacting with them. 

Though as I hear from some colleagues, that's not always the case with them. 

I've heard more than my fill of cringe worthy stories from colleagues. They range from close calls with unwanted interactions with stressed-out pets; families disregarding a pet's obvious uneasiness about one specific, frequent-but-unnecessary interaction with their dog walker; a serious dog bite injury requiring the hospitalization of an owner after a fearful dog's communication about their inability to cope with the stress of interacting with the resident dogs was repeatedly ignored by their new family (resulting in the euthanasia of the dog); countless cats enduring health issues exacerbated by the stress of successive foster cats being introduced into the home, even resulting in aggression towards their pet sitter.

These are preventable scenarios, and the power to make that happen resides squarely with the families and the pet care professionals. 

I've been asked by colleagues near and far how to deal with these situations and I always respond: understand what's going on, advocate for yourself, your safety and that of the pets, and have a solid core education about the issue at hand to back up your position and, if necessary, the ability to offer resources for sound, qualified professional help. The close calls I've heard about are impossibly scary, as are some of the outcomes from situations that go unchecked. The case involving the euthanized dog, who had been adopted by the family just weeks before, is the strongest evidence of that. 

So families, please ask your pet sitter's input when thinking of adding any pet to the family, temporarily or otherwise. Don't take for granted that your current pet care professional is equipped to or feels comfortable caring for a pet that you want to welcome into the fold, in fact, please invite them to meet and interact with the pet before making a final decision. The pet may not be as emotionally or behaviorally equipped to manage themselves as you might think and could even have health or behavioral issues that you or the person or entity currently in custody of them are overlooking. What you might discover is that you and your pet's caregiver mutually agree that you're no longer a fit for each other. The good news is that's okay, because it prevents problems, gives you both the opportunity to part ways on a good note, and you the ability to connect with a professional who is indeed a match. 

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, 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.

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