Archive for the ‘Pet sitting adventures’ Category

My newest, don’t-leave-home-without-it, dog-walking equipment consists of a small, pocket-sized weapon of great strength – a little canister of pepper spray.

I acquired it after a stray pit bull attacked my own dog while we walked through a nearby neighborhood (“Neighborhood heroes save the day,” Sept. 2011). It was purchased at a flea market in a booth that also stocked more exotic wares like throwing stars, daggers and swords.

This little gizmo has a safety catch that can be unlatched in a nanosecond, and it fits into any pocket. Fortunately, I haven’t had to use it, so can’t testify to its effectiveness. Some of them come disguised as lipsticks, some come on keychains and some come with pouches to carry them in.

It certainly has a positive impact on my confidence. I carry it whenever I take a walk through the national park and when I enter a client’s house. It’s reassuring to feel my hand gripped around that tiny but mighty weapon, waiting in a pocket, when I return to an empty house with a dog that might be too shy or too small to fend off an intruder.

The clerk who sold it to me offered one piece of good advice, although it might be hard to follow in a moment of panic: Make sure you aren’t downwind when you spray.

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One of the hardest things to do as a pet sitter is turn down business. Until recently, I had never said no to a potential customer unless he or she told me their dog had bitten someone.

That’s an obvious, easy call. No second-guessing there. But this month there’ve been three occasions when alarm bells went off, once with a dog and twice with owners.

My boarding service is a little different. It’s in my home. No cages are used, and I take dogs from only one customer at a time. The customer’s dog (or in one case, pig!) stays with me, my dog and my cat as if he lives here. That means the run of the house and backyard, getting up on the furniture if the owner allows that at home and an extra dog rushing to the front door when someone arrives.

On that basis, my pets and I have hosted dogs of all sizes and age without any problem – until we met Jube.

She’s a female shepherd mix with issues regarding other dogs. She hadn’t bitten, so her owner brought her to the house for the meet-and-greet with me and my dog, Brownie, that every new customer does before any boarding is scheduled.

The first five minutes went fine. Then Jube’s owner bent down to pat Brownie. Jube erupted in a fit of jealousy and attacked Brownie. After a long and scary 10 seconds, we managed to get the snarling animals away from each other before anybody got hurt. No boarding for Jube!

The next situation involved a woman who called and said she had lost her apartment (through circumstances that sounded odd and vague), was living with her boyfriend’s mother, that her dog was kept in the garage and she needed a place for him until she could get settled elsewhere.

This sounded like a situation where I might end up with a dog dumped on me after the owner failed to come back for it. Her life wasn’t stable right then and her explanations raised more questions than reassurance.

I’m pretty booked up, I told her. It will be a long while (never) before there’s an opening.

Then a man called wanting a one-week stay for his 95-pound dog. That’s more than twice Brownie’s size. I didn’t consider it a problem until I asked him whether his dog got along with other dogs.

She’s very dominant, he said, but she’s never actually bitten another dog. The alarm bells started to go off.

Has she gotten into fights with any dogs, I asked. “Nothing terribly violent,” he answered.

That did it. I pictured myself explaining to Brownie’s vet that the dog who injured her hadn’t been terribly violent. It didn’t sound good.

So we passed on that job, too. The customer understood.

It might have cost us much-needed income, but the peace of mind is priceless.

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After seven years of pet sitting, it finally happened – a dog nipped me.

He’s a border collie, like the dog in the picture, named Jack.  He and his owner participate in agility contests, and the owner trains dogs in this sport, as well.

Border collies, according to websites devoted to them, are among the most difficult dogs to keep as pets. Their energy level is off the chart. They’ve been bred to work hard as sheepherders, which involves a lot of running around and occasional nipping at slow moving or wandering sheep.

Unfortunately for Jack, he spends most of the weekday in a crate while his owner is at work. When I arrive, it’s not to walk him, but to let him and the owner’s four other dogs into their back yard for a bathroom break.

Jack already had a habit that expressed his discontent. Whenever I entered or left the room where he and another border collie were crated, he’d attack his dog bed in a frenzy of biting, ripping, shaking and snarling. When the crate door was opened, he’d explode out of it like a missile.

Our routine included a treat after he had returned to his crate. This time, after dashing into the crate, he immediately ran back out, turned to nip me on the knee and then dashed back in. He left one shallow puncture and several raw scrapes. Bruises appeared the next day.

Websites I looked at for insight into border collies suggested that nipping is hard-wired into them, as is their need for a tremendous amount of exercise daily. Jack’s owner has decided to find him another home. Since he now has a history of nipping, this will be a challenge. Here are some of the websites I consulted:




I still visit his home almost daily to let out the other four dogs. He remains in his crate, without even that brief mid-day break. His dog bed has been eviscerated, its stuffing strewn all around the outside of the crate. It’s very hard to leave him in there while he watches the other dogs go out. I don’t blame him (or his owner) for taking out his frustration on me, but can’t risk letting him do it again. Next time might be a bite instead of a nip.

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Otis (bottom) and Zoie

Otis (bottom) and Zoie relaxing on their couch.

 Otis and Zoie had it all – doting owners, their own couch in a loft condominium in San Francisco’s Mission District,  even an acupuncturist. But Otis also had trouble walking and breathing. His owners, Steven and JR, faithfully followed a demanding regimen of diet, vitamins and exercise recommended by the vet. But when they wanted to take a two-week vacation, they couldn’t find anyone they trusted to maintain that regimen.

Luckily for me, they got my name from relatives here in Gary, Indiana who had boarded their dog with me. Their recommendation was good enough for Steven and JR, so I was hired.

They flew me to San Francisco, where a limousine driver met me at the airport and drove me to their condo. They spent that night and the next day doing whatever they could to ensure my comfort in their absence. They introduced me to friends, neighbors and their favorite local restaurants. They took me to the grocery store and loaded up a cart with enough food and wine for a month. They took me by the dogs’ vet. They arranged for one of their best friends to look in on me and show me around. They even left a couple of hundred dollars in cash, unasked, for extra expenses like cab fares.

Otis’ needs were exacting, but not overwhelming. In addition to his medicine and vitamins, he and Zoie ate nothing but fresh chicken and rice, made in batches every other day. They were walked four times a day, and Otis needed little red booties put on his back paws to help him with traction. The sight of him waddling along in those booties never failed to elicit smiles from everyone passing by.

In between walks, meals and medicine, I explored San Francisco on foot or by using its excellent BART subway system. My visit coincided with the city’s annual Gay Pride festival, one of the biggest in the country. It’s grown into a multi-day event that includes family activities, as well as a parade led by a contingent of lesbian bikers on the biggest, noisiest motorcycles available. Lots of people brought their dogs to the parade, many of them adorned in the rainbow colors symbolic of the gay pride movement.

At the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco

This kind of pet-sitting job seemed like a miracle, but lightning struck me twice. The next year, through friends of relatives, I was flown to San Diego to watch over two adorable Yorkies. They lived in a beautiful, sprawling home near the little town of Jamul in the hills east of the city. In addition to the pool, the enormous flat-screen TV, gourmet kitchen, fresh herbs from the garden and gorgeous scenery, I had my own quarters – a one-bedroom studio cottage just up the driveway from the main house. A big, round trampoline sat outside the cottage, and on warm nights I slept on it. It gave me a great chance to quietly observe the wildlife that became active after dusk, including coyotes, rabbits and raccoons.

The picture on the right shows a view from the patio, with me hard at work!

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On my very first pet-sitting visit to Hersh and Samantha, two big, old, black labs, I found a chewed-up pill bottle next to their food bowls.

The label, ripped and sodden, was mostly unreadable. I didn’t know what kind of pills they were, how many had been in the bottle, who had eaten them or how long ago.

Naturally, it was late on a Saturday afternoon, so their vet was closed. Neither of the owners answered their cell phones.

Hersh and Sam stood by, grinning and wagging their tails, while I called the ASPCA Poison Control Hotline. A consultant looked up what I could read of the medicine’s name, then told me it was a highly toxic medication for bone cancer, which was afflicting Sam. Get them to an emergency vet immediately, he said. Watch for vomiting and convulsions.

During the half-hour drive to the North Central emergency vet in Westville, Ind. I kept a nervous eye on the two dogs in the back seat, hoping I wouldn’t see vomiting or convulsions. Each happily had their head out of a window on either side of the car.

After a $500 visit at the emergency vet, the two dogs were sent home with instructions to keep a close eye on them. We were all greatly relieved when neither dog showed any signs of distress during the next several days. They had dodged a bullet.

I went on to make many more visits to Hersh and Sam before old age claimed them. But I’ll bet they thought the very first one was the most fun of all. They got to go for a long car ride, were fussed over by lots of people, then brought home and fed dinner. From their point of view, it was a great visit!

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