Authors: Lindsey Grant
I compiled photos I'd taken of Blondie and Buster into a collage with dialogue bubbles declaring how much they'd missed their owners, and how much fun they'd had with me in the meantime. I left it propped on the kitchen island against Buster's economy-sized pill bottles.
It was only after the neighbors returned that I learned Blondie and Buster had regular dog walkers, a husband and wife team who lived a few streets over. They didn't offer overnight pet care, and they were looking to contract with someone who could provide
this service for their clients, just as I'd been doing for the past couple of weeks.
I can see, in retrospect, why I was such an appealing solution to their problem. I showed up for my interview at Tom and Patty's house, a classic northern California bungalow with an adobe-shingled roof and fruit trees dominating the postage stamp of a front lawn, wearing Crocs and my favorite Big Smith overalls. When they opened the door, I greeted their two massive German shepherds first, kneeling before them to receive their exploratory sniffs and licks.
Tom and Patty later confided that this instinct on my part, greeting the dogs first, was more important to them than anything else I did or said in the hour-long interview that followed. In that meeting, conducted on their Southwestern-patterned couches in the dimly lit living room, I learned about their decade-old business, founded after they quit the rat race of corporate America to pursue their passion for animals. They shared with me the basic requirements of setting up shop as a professional pet-care provider, which, as small business ownership goes, had fairly low overhead. They primed me on which services were in high demand and the going rates for each, and where I might fit into this rapidly growing industry. Apparently, while plenty of pet-care providers would do end-of-the-day visits to tuck their clients' dogs and cats in, next to no one stayed the night. It was this highly sought service that would be my niche: the sleepover.
Of course, I would supplement these overnight stays with daily walks, helping lighten the load of Tom and Patty's packed client roster by picking up those neighborhood walks and drop-in pet-sitting visits they couldn't get to. Tom specialized in the group off-leash walks, so it was primarily Patty's portion of the daily walks I'd help with. I was not interested inâor rather, I was completely daunted byâthe prospect of managing five or so off-leash dogs at once. They
agreed that, as a beginner, I was better suited for the leashed walks with one or two dogs at a time. They'd have primary contact with their clients and would manage the billing; I'd do the work, taking home a contractor's percentage of what the client paid.
Beyond the business license, liability insurance, and a small inventory of basic supplies, I would need a few clients of my own. For tax reasonsâto distinguish my role from that of an employeeâmy individually established business needed to have an altogether independent client list. This took a touch of extra explaining, as I was a comparative literature major to their combined double MBAs. The immediate takeaway, though, was that subcontracting meant that I could jump right in to working with them while figuring out my own marketing strategy and ramping up my business in parallel.
I had my marching orders, and an all-new plan.
Beyond my sheer delight at the prospect of spending my days, and many nights as well, in the company of so many different, affection-seeking animals, I was also enthusiastic about the business side of things. I'd always loved playing secretary, hoarding various types of ledgers and notepads. I got an adding machine for my eighth birthday and loved nothing more than accompanying my mom to Office Depot. Where most kids threw fits over candy or Barbie dolls, I'd beg for inane office supplies like carbon copies or the pink “While you were out” pads. For the life of me, I couldn't understand why my mom wouldn't let me play with her checkbook.
That I'd need to make business cards, track my mileage and gas expenses, file all work-related receipts for tax purposes, and submit invoices at month's end all sounded like too much fun.
In the very beginning, I only had one client I could call my own. He was Chase, a four-month-old cockapoo, which is a terrible name for a cocker spaniel/poodle mix. Chase's family lived in
the neighborhood and knew Annie's boys through school. While Chase was undeniably adorable, with the giant heart-melting black eyes of a puppy and floppy brindle fur that was silky soft, he also had razor-sharp puppy teeth that he used early and often on the kids. According to the owners, he loved nothing more than a hand or an ankle to gnaw onâthe younger, the better. His tendency to bite and chew extended to electrical cords, shoes, rugs, and anything else that came within reasonable range of his insatiable little mouth. Understandably worried about an accidentally electrocuted pup, and with the rate at which they were going through Band-Aids, they needed help training that puppy instinct to chomp, maim, and destroy right out of him. They were also very interested in the idea that I could leash train him and help teach him some of the more basic commands: come, stay, sit, no.
Because Chase was still brand-new to the leash, our walks were short. I did my best to teach him to heel and was careful not to pull back on the leash as he strained his way forward down the sidewalk. A firm believer in positive reinforcement, I came armed with ample edible rewards to dissuade him from asphyxiating himself on the other end of the leash. He was still so little, it was easier to simply scoop him up and address him face-to-face. But not especially effective.
The thirty-minute visit was filled out with backyard time, where Chase alternately attacked the fallen oranges from the citrus tree and nipped at my shoes. I threw a tennis ball as big as his tiny head from the safety of my perch on the picnic bench, my feet tucked up and out of range.
He was excellent at the chasing and biting part of fetch, but less so at returning his prize. I had to risk my fingertips as I wrested the ball away from him. If his sharp little teeth hurt that much when I played with him, there must have been some tears from the kids.
I was relieved to see some progress with the positive
enforcement training, especially with the “sit” and “leave it” commands. While I held a treat aloft, he'd settle on his haunches, the ball momentarily abandoned at his feet. Head cocked, he followed the morsel with his bright black eyes.
Unfortunately for me, when I praised him and offered him the snack, he chomped down on the treat and my fingertip together. At least I was able to sneak the ball away from him with my other hand.
After my visit with Chase, I continued on to clients of Tom and Patty's in the neighborhood. Thus far, they were all daytime walks or pet-sitting visits, as I had yet to start any overnight stays. I was grateful for the intro course of regular walks and house visits before what I felt was the advanced level of spend-the-nights, relishing the new rhythm of my days with the assortment of dogs I saw.
Next on the list was a favorite of mine. Pearl was a golden retriever and poodle mix, a golden doodle, just like my Biscuit was. Of course, back then, Biscuit was just a mutt with the smarts of the poodle and the loyalty of the retriever. Breeders have since caught on to the exceptional blend of qualities, and this mix has become a boutique breed with a hefty price tag attached. Where our dog was free, offloaded on our delighted family by a grateful neighbor whose retriever got knocked up by a local poodle, I am sure that Pearl cost a couple hundred bucks and was the result of a planned coupling.
Pearl looked so much like Biscuit, long-legged and fluffy, her curly cream-colored fur hanging down in her big brown eyes. While she retained the notorious gentle and sociable nature of the mix, she didn't quite live up to the reputation of golden doodles for being exceptionally smart and thus highly trainable. She struck me as being on the slower end of the spectrum when it came to intelligence, though she more than made up for this with her inherent sweetness.
And, though I'd never met them, her owners displayed some evidence of that, too. I could not figure out why they got a dog when
they did. And this dog, too, needful as she was for interaction with and stimulation from her owners. Pearl stayed crated all day in the dining room and then had to wear a cone around her neck because she gnawed on herself, which they never took the time to train out of her when she was a puppy. At two, she needed exercise and contactâlots of bothâand it hurt my heart to see her cooped up in that crate all day, every day. The chewing was probably just as much a symptom of boredom as anything else.
“Hi, cutes,” I called to her as I entered, propping the Plexiglas door with my foot as I worked my key out of the old lock. I was quickly finding commonalities between the houses in the area, one being that the locks were old and the doors even older. Many of the houses were split-levels, renovations and updates seemed infrequent, and there didn't appear to be much turnover. A
sign was a rare sight indeed. People came and settled along the wide tree-lined boulevards, raised their families, and there they stayed for decades to come with seemingly little need for upgrades.
This family seemed to fit that pattern. From what I'd gathered, they had a little boyâblond curls and smiles from the pictures on the mantleâand there was another on the way, based on the furniture reorganization going on upstairs. I only went up that narrow staircase when I needed to use the bathroom. I tried to avoid that, though, because the toilet ran, and once I almost broke off the door handle from the inside. Getting stuck in a client's bathroom would surely be bad for business.
Pearl's crate was in the open living room/dining room to the right of the front door, but it was situated behind the dining room table, so I couldn't see her until I was almost upon her. As was her usual, she sat facing the crate door, the cone half obscuring her adorable face. Her expressive eyes were barely visible behind her untrimmed doggy bangs. She wagged her tail, a
on the base of her crate that was one of the most comforting sounds in the world to me.
But I had to be ready. The minute I sprang the latch on her crate, she'd be out and past me faster than I could ever get used toâI'd been clipped by that cone more times than I cared to recall. She got so excited about her release that she often peed a little on the floor before she made it out the back door to the yard.
I was slowly learning some tricks, though. It appeared that I was trainable, too. But, like Pearl, maybe not exceptionally so.
“Be right back,” I said to her.
She whined a little as I dashed down the stairs from the kitchen, through the playroom, and to the back door, which I unlocked and opened in preparation for her mad dash.
It was a good move, too, because the minute Pearl made it beyond the threshold, she squatted. She wasn't even on the grass when she let loose a stream on the paving stone right outside the back door. Not ideal, but far better than the playroom floor.
When she finished, she shook her butt in what I read as delighted relief and then trotted over to me, trying to lick my hand and instead mauling my thigh with the hard edge of her cone. I removed it for our visit so that we could have some productive ball time, and I spent a good while scratching her neck where the collar had been.
For the next thirty minutes, we threw the tennis ball and I taught her about sitting and waiting for the ball toss. It took her longer than most dogs to get the hang of it, but by the end, she was returning to me with the ball in her mouth, if not yet dropping it at my feet. After replacing the e-collar, and before returning her to the crate, I was sure to give her a prolonged full body scratchâan apology of sorts for subjecting her once more to the cone of shame and then locking her up. That was a mean one-two combination.
She moaned a little, a low guttural sound that Biscuit used to make during belly rubs. Doggie ecstasy. She tried to lick my hands and legs in gratitude but just further bruised me with hard plastic. Pants were probably a good idea for my visits with her, in spite of the warm Indian summer sun that made me sweat and her pant.
My first overnight gig was in less than a week. The assignment was a five-night sojourn with two dogs and seven exotic birds. In the meantime, I'd secured my business license and liability insurance and had filed my DBA with the local paper. I'd also joined an association of pet sitters and dog walkers. They were in need of a secretary to take down the minutes at the monthly meetings, so I'd offered my services there as well. I had business cards, a new email address, and an established scale of rates for my various services. But I had little idea of how to prepare myself for such a complicated client as this, with so many different breeds of birds, each with specific dietary and environmental needs. I had limited experience with birds of any kind as it was, much less with the large talking variety. Ready or not, though, I was poised to become a professional purveyor of the pet slumber party.
Journal entry: Tuesday, 8:00
Looks like all that note-taking during episodes of
Head of the Class
and all those sick days spent playing secretary are finally going to pay off! I can now officially add Secretary, capital
, to my titleâthe kind that sits on a board, though, not behind a desk. I'll be taking down and presenting the minutes at each meeting of the local pet-sitters' association, and I get to include official-sounding things like, “Respectfully submitted.” Just like Kinsey Millhone! Dream realized. My pencils are sharpened and my new notebook is ready for tonight's meeting. Maybe I should get a clipboard, too?