A lot of websites have sprung up to help people find dog sitters, sites with names like DogVacay, Rover, and SitterCity. Under ideal circumstances I would recommend finding any service that you leave your dog with via a personal recommendation from a friend, colleague, or your veterinarian, but this is not always possible. So in some cases people may find themselves turning to these websites, like I did. And my advice would be to do so with caution.
When I travel for work I want to leave my dogs with a sitter who takes dogs into her home. When my previous sitter moved away, however, I asked around and could not find a replacement. So with some trepidation I turned to a website. In my case I found a very good sitter who has now cared for my dogs several times over the last year. But I also saw people advertising their services through the same site who were clearly inexperienced or who followed procedures that I would consider questionable at best.
My personal recommendations to minimize the risks of finding a sitter through a website would be:
1. Never assume that being listed on a website means a sitter is competent or safe
Sitter sites do only two things: List people offering a service and provide some information about them such as verifying that they are insured, and allowing their clients to leave reviews. In most cases they do not inspect, fact check, or do background checks. As such, their listings should be approached with the same skepticism as any online advertisement — with extra caution because you are putting your dog’s safety on the line here. Other than basic search parameters like how the dog will be housed (to be confirmed by a meeting later) the main thing I look for is reviews. I look for long-term customers and reviews that give specifics rather than generic praise and I always ensure that the site only lets confirmed clients post reviews.
2. Decide what your non-negotiable requirements are in advance
Other than the obvious minimums (a competent sitter and a safe environment) each dog owner has specific requirements. I require that my dogs not be crated and be constantly supervised when with other dogs. I also absolutely require a sitter with long-term experience and a track record. I know that every sitter has to start somewhere, but frankly as a client that is not my problem. I want the old hand, not someone who is still “learning on the job.” I also require someone who knows how to deal with my dogs’ behavioral and health quirks. And in order to get that I had to expand my range in terms of the amount of money I would pay and the distance the sitter was from my home.
3. Do your own inspection
It is vital that you are comfortable with the sitter, other pets and facility (normally a home). And it is even more important that your dogs are also comfortable. So the first thing to do is to schedule a meeting to ask questions and feel things out. No matter how friendly things might be, this is a business relationship, so do not hesitate to ask questions about everything, from how many doors are between your dogs and freedom to how hygiene is handled. Always ask if your dog will mix with any other dogs and people and how this is managed safely. Make a list of questions before you go and write down the answers to ensure you cover all possible concerns. If things look favorable, it is a good idea to ask if they have long-term customers who would be willing to give a telephone reference.
4. Watch for warning signs
At every stage I look for clues that suggest someone who is dishonest, callous or clueless. Do they suggest being paid off the books? Does the description on the website match with what you see? Do they seem to lack “dog sense” or seem to be uneasy or overly rough with your dog? Are they thorough in ensuring your dog is vaccinated and getting details about any special needs and your veterinarian’s contact details? Are any of their responses vague or evasive? Do they actually listen to the specifics of what you are looking for and respond knowledgeably? Do they seem like they will follow your instructions or decide that they know better? Do they even seem like they like dogs?
5. Listen to your instincts
You don’t have to agree on the spot or sign up with the first sitter you visit. Once you have collected all the information you can, let it sink in. Don’t just look at what boxes you can tick, but decide whether you really feel this is a good place to leave your dog. You unconscious mind will tally up things you don’t even realize that you saw. So if it just doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If push came to shove I would rather have my dogs in a secure but barren kennel for a day or two than a nice house where they might be mistreated. Even if you feel comfortable proceeding, you might begin with a short trip that does not take you too far away, or even a practice visit when you are not leaving town at all.
The bottom line is that meeting a sitter through a website is like meeting someone at a party. All the venue has done is put you in touch, and you still have to do your due diligence in checking them out. After the first stay you can see how your dog reacts to return visits and develop a relationship with your sitter as he or she demonstrates increasing familiarity with your dogs and their quirks. My dogs now clearly see their visits to the sitter as great trips to stay with a friend, and the pictures she sends makes me wish I was going with them!
About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).
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