Pet sitting and dog walking sounds like a great job. Wouldn't it be fun to play with puppies and kitties all day long, every day, and never have to work in a boring office again? That last part is wonderful but the first part is a myth. We rarely spend a whole lot of time playing with puppies and kitties. Our job is to provide in home pet care for the pets. While we do give plenty of love, attention, belly rubs, and snuggles to pets that is all secondary to make sure they get out to go potty, have fresh food and water, medicine if that is required, and all the cat boxes are clean. Once that is all done then we can give them love and attention but most of our time with the pets is spent working.
I absolutely love this job. Later this week I get to go and play Frisbee with a Boxer Dog for almost the entirety of the visit. It is great fun and you pet you're going to see some pictures on Instagram and maybe even a video on YouTube, but that isn't how all my visits go and the job always comes first. As I mentioned in an earlier post a professional pet sitter/dog walker is someone that makes more than 50% of their income from pet sitting/dog walking and that is because being a licensed, bonded, and insured pet sitter that is part of a professional organization and Pet First Aid and CPR certified can be accomplished in a day. Building a sustainable business takes time and effort and builds experience along the way. So what are some common pitfalls of the pet sitting industry that make it such a high turnover industry and have claimed many a dog and cat lover that think this job is all about playing with puppies and kitties all day? Here are three I've seen.
Burnout is by far the number one hill that pet sitters/dog walkers die on. Just imagine the person that has been taking care of their neighbors pets and then they get more and more people requesting them so they start charging and then they get their business license and soon a website and then they're a legit business offering pet sitting and dog walking not just to neighbors anymore but to the entire town and for a couple months maybe even a couple years it is wonderful. Then all of a sudden a very good client comes home from a trip and gives their pet sitter a bottle of Spanish wine. It is a wonderful gift but the pet sitter looks at it with a sense of longing instead of appreciation and all of a sudden they realize that they can't remember the last time they took a vacation let alone had a night or weekend off and this realization comes in the middle of summer. It's the busy season for pet sitting/dog walking. They can't make any plans now. They're booked through Labor Day and then it's time to get ready for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Burnout has its claws sunk deep into this pet sitter. They become resentful. Resentful towards the business, resentful towards the clients, and even resentful towards the puppies and kitties they so wanted to spend their days with. Once they become resentful they lose focus and soon after they aren't providing the quality of care their clients are used to and then they start losing clients and not replacing them because they are tired and they are finished and pretty soon the industry has chewed them up and spat them out.
How do you avoid burnout if you're a pet sitter, dog walker, or any other small business owner. That is an easy one for me. As a pet sitter/dog walker you're going to spend as much time in your car as you are on the job and thanks to smart phones and other technologies riding around on the road can be filled with lots of enjoyable activities. I enjoy listening to music and podcasts and have occasionally listened to a book on tape although I much prefer real books. The other big thing is to make time for yourself and take it. Carve out an hour a day that is just for you. Watch a show on Netflix, read a book, play video games, or whatever else is an activity the is quiet and peaceful and you enjoy doing. My last one is find plenty of places near your clients that you enjoy going and go there. I go to coffee shops, pastry shops, tea stores, BBQ joints, and an Amish market. It gives you a bit of a break and personal time between appointments without causing you to fall too far behind and have your day go off the rails.
Pet sitting and dog walking is a rewarding job. It is fantastic when a client tells you how much they appreciate you or you walk in to take care o a dog you haven't seen for awhile and are bum rushed at the door or when a cat that you were told would never come out comes out and greets you. Those are all the emotional highs of the job but there is another side. There are a few of my friends I've made through the years that I will never forget. One of those is one of the first dogs I walked as a professional. He was a retired seeing eye dog, a chocolate lab the size of a small bear, named Madison. He would saunter and sway more than walk and at times he'd just want to stop and stand in the middle of the path. He was old when we started walking him and only grew older. Partly because he was one of the first dogs I walked, partly because he was such a gentle loving beast that loved to back into you for butt scratches, and partly because he was the dog I had to walk before joining Lara at the emergency vet and making the decision to say goodbye to our Corgi, Ollie, I felt a very deep emotional connection to Madison. As he got older he got sicker and he started having seizures. Madison's owners canceled a trip one time due to his health and told us that was probably it and then we saw him again. He was gaunt and even slower on his walks and just didn't have the joy for life he had before. Soon after his owners called us and asked if we'd like to come over one evening to say goodbye. We did and on the ride home both Lara and I shed our tears.
We've provided hospice care for a Great Dane and took care of a Newfie with spinal stenosis. We've gotten the call from owners that a sudden and unexpected tragedy has taken their dog or cat from them. Puppies and kitties are great but they aren't puppies and kitties forever and all dogs and cats become old dogs and cats and then they leave our lives but they leave our life richer than it was for having known them. Dealing with sickness and death is part of being a pet sitter/dog walker and a part many don't think about when they get into this industry. It is always rough to lose a friend and I do think off all the animals in my care as my friends. While I am sad and often heartbroken when one leaves us I know that my life was better for having known them. On the last day of the above mentioned Great Dane's life I laid on his bed with him and gave him a big hug and told him soon he'd be running in the fields chasing bunnies. Then I went to my car, wept, and drove off to the next job. I'll never forget the friends I've lost but I am thankful for the gift having known them was and I know there are always more friends out their counting on me.
Attracting the Wrong Clients
Lara always tells me not to mention client relationships that haven't worked out but all our current clients are our ideal clients. One of the things we've done really well as a business is identifying and appealing only to our ideal clients. We'll work backwards on this one because avoiding bad clients is one of the number one challenges for any small business owner and one that's even harder for a professional pet sitter/dog walker. You might find this surprising but there are a good number of people that do not value what we do. Lots of people think anyone can walk a dog or take care of a cat. Lots of people think cats don't even need care. That a big bowl of food can be left out and they'll be fine for a few days. These aren't our ideal clients. For the most part they'll never even contact our business and when we do meet them at networking functions or other gatherings we know to get away as soon as possible. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to identify your core values and to make all your marketing and branding match that core value. Our core values are open communication and building relationships with our clients and their pets. Our aim is to appeal to people that value open communication and a service provider that wants to keep personal services personal.
Of course we have, at times, failed at this. We have on occasion attracted clients that are not our ideal clients and we have paid for it. We have a one star review on Google from a person that was upset that Lara's grandmother passed away and I wasn't able or willing to provide a last minute in less than two hours from when she called to cats that had been fed that morning. We got another complaint from a lady that was upset that one of our sitters fed her dog half the bag of treats that was left out versus the entire bag of treats (this was in the instructions and our sitter did miss it but it was her first time ever sitting for these particular dogs and I think a little leeway for a learning curve should be expected). We had a client upset that her dog partially lost her voice because she barked when Lara wasn't there. And we had someone never complain to us directly but also never use us again because I'm certain she came home to a mess because her dog pooped eight times a day. I know Lara will read this and say in three of those instances we could have done more and if we really are about open communication we need to be more mindful of even small issues that arise and let the owners know immediately, but I'm not sure that even that would have been enough.
One of the number one rules of business is not everyone can be satisfied and not everyone is your client. Lots of pet sitters in their early years will capitulate to the bad clients. Offer discounts or not enforce their policies and then pretty soon they won't be pet sitters anymore. Any professional pet sitting/dog walking business needs to be a niche within a niche. It's not just about finding people with pets that want in home pet care but it's about finding people that have pets, want in home pet care, and value the service that we provide in the manner in which we provide it. Avoiding bad clients is as simple as defining who your ideal clients are, what are their core values, and making your business infrastructure, branding, and marketing fill and speak to their need.
There's a lot more than can go wrong with a pet sitting/dog walking business and with the rise of on demand app based service providers there are going to be more and more people getting into the business that think it's all about playing with the puppies and kitties and then finding out it is much much more.