With no brick and mortar storefront and no white coat or clicker to identify us, how does the average pet parent know they are working with a pro?
OUT OF THE WHELPING BOX
Its obvious that pet sitters have their roots in informal, across the fence arrangements with neighbors, friends, family and even the kid next door. This birth is not unique to the pet sitting industry, and its definitely not unique to me personally. My former career was in archaeology. I’d guess that 50% of all professional archaeologists did a little pilfering of artifacts along plowed fields or shorelines when they were kids, sparking an interest that grew into a passion and eventually a career – one in which they have all sworn an oath now, to never “loot” any site again. Why? Because the private collector learned through education and experience that the value of shared knowledge outweighed the value of the self-serving destruction of that knowledge. In archaeology context is everything – and once you’ve ripped through the soil to get at the artifacts you have destroyed the context and it is irrecoverable. It is only through systematic, documented removal of data (the artifacts, the soil features and their associations and relationships to one another and to other sites throughout the region or world) that we can continue to learn about the unrecorded past.
Believe it or not, the Professional In Home Pet Sitter has a similar genesis. Many began under the table, informally, but through education and experience, have learned how to maintain and in many cases improve, the the health and well being of the pets under their watch. The genesis of this Industry from the domain of the kid-next-door, to true professional status has raised the bar for pet care across several sectors (I can even argue quite effectively to include the veterinary industry, and I will, in a separate post) and created a thriving market where once there was none. I wonder how many jobs have been created by professional pet sitting and dog walking businesses over the past five years, which by the way, not that I have to remind anyone, have not been the best economic years in memory, but I digress!
The Industry is negatively impacted by the consumer’s inability to accurately identify a true professional and this is an area where each individual and business practicing has an obligation towards public outreach and education. If a consumer on the caliber of Nancy Kerns, editor of The Whole Dog Journal, can be confused by and unable to identify a true professional in our field as evidenced in her recent blog post, then we clearly have a big problem. The damage that sub-standard methods of care and over-casual attitudes delivered through the inexperienced layperson (no matter who they are) can be directly linked to the misunderstanding that a large sector of potential clients have of who we are. This damage is caused by, but not limited to, the acceptance of inappropriate pets, people or arrangements conducive to a successful – stress free – project (eg. taking on a dog who suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder); disruption of the pet’s normal environment which is the key factor to a successful In Home pet sitting project (eg. introduction of a new pet, not-of-the-household to the environment); lack of steady construction of a timed, consistent, reliable routine with the same people performing the same tasks which the pets quickly learn to predict, find comfort in and thrive on. The minutia that a professional pet sitter or business manages, once you have experienced one, will astound you. Sure, I can get grandiose and over-dramatic, but for the purposes of making my point I liken it to the seeming simplicity of an Olympian, which you know full well has spent endless hours in practice and recovery to get to where they are, to make what they do seem so effortless. So, let’s help you make the right choices by arming you with the knowledge that you need before you hop in that Red Top Cab bound for IAD on a prayer that all will just “be okay.” I want you to hop in that cab with quantifiable, qualifiable Quality Control measures which you know the caregiver possesses and will apply and which you can access during your active project as proof that your pet is getting the very best of care with their best interests as top priority! Let’s get started!
The Industry is about 30 years young. In Industry growth terms, and in my opinion based on Nancy’s knowledge of us, we are still pulling ourselves from the whelping box, repeatedly, and that ain’t right. There is no mandatory licensing board, but there are several professional pet sitting industry associations. As with any Industry, one of the goals of an association is to set a standard, ethic or code of conduct for all to follow. Now, there are true professionals who are not members of any of the Industry associations, and I personally know of several who I regularly refer clients to, but the consumer can look to these associations as a starting point in their search for a professional who cares enough to align themselves with evidence for the minimum threshold for professionalism. While the general summary of what membership means includes that the business has a formal contract for services; holds “care, custody and control” liability insurance specific to the pet care industry; is a legally registered business with their local, state and federal income tax offices; abides by all of the applicable animal codes of their locality; appropriately interviews, hires and manages their work force (as employees or ICs); and conducts themselves in an honest, courteous and professional manner. Membership in an association alone is no guarantee of a successful experience. You can and should explore the standards of the three largest Industry associations (NAPPS, PSI and APSE) in greater detail through the following links:
This is the closest thing this Industry has to formal licensing. Each of the three associations above offer Certification Programs comprised of board developed coursework & examinations to educate and identify an even higher level of professionalism of a business or individual. Typically, certification is identifiable by the consumer through a badge or other documentation on both the business’ profile page at the Association website and their own website. Loyalty® is a NAPPS Certified business and I can attest that the coursework and examinations are thorough and well developed, setting the stage for the In Home pet care professional to assess and monitor the baseline wellness of each individual species they offer care for. Part of the reason I chose to go with the NAPPS Certification was because members of my local Arlington County Public Schools System utilize the NAPPS Certification Program in their Animal Sciences Vocational program and they fought hard with the Education Board of the Commonwealth of Virginia for this particular program in spite of costs, because it provided the correct – verifiable – education for their own coursework. This is a good thing for a business to have, but again, its not everything and even this plus membership is no guarantee of a successful experience.
PET CPR & FIRST AID CERTIFICATION
As a Certified PetTech® Instructor (CPTI), I insist that you should expect any potential care provider and all of their employees or independent contractors (ICs – I will discuss the difference briefly in a separate post, because it is relevant but not central to your decisionmaking process when choosing a business) be not just Certified in Pet CPR, First Aid & Care, but know how to prevent emergencies from occurring and be well practiced in an established protocol that all agree to follow in the event that an emergency does take place with your pet. From experience, all professional pet sitters will encounter an emergency situation and it is only a matter of time before it happens. This is not because our work is riskier for the pet than say, boarding or kenneling, it is because our pets do develop health concerns in their lifetimes, which because they are animals, oftentime mask the symptoms until the very last minute. All Loyalty® employees are full PetTech® PetSaver™ Certified and I have written and practiced emergency protocols in place for every individual pet cared for in our practice. This is a simple step to take that creates confidence in all involved parties – the business, the workers and the customer, and therefore reduces risk. How do I mean? Anytime you plan for emergencies, you raise awareness of environmental risk factors and thereby reduce the occurrence of the emergency taking place at all. A prepared business will also be well versed and able to point out risk factors to you, the client, in the In Home meeting – providing you significantly higher value for your dollar. Most importantly, your pet care professional must understand what a healthy baseline for the species with which they work actually looks like as well as service specific protocols so that the care delivered, no matter who the provider is, is of a consistently high quality for the business as a whole. Finally, the PetTech® program is particularly unique in that we also train with the basic life saving skills a protocol called Knowing Your Pets Health™ or for short “The Snout-to-Tail Assessment.” The Snout-to-Tail is designed to teach the pet guardian how to practice, document and learn their pet’s baseline health from, you guessed it, snout-to-tail, but at the same time you are practicing taking their vitals and learning what your pet’s unique baseline is – you are also conditioning your pet to not just tolerate, but enjoy being cared for – making your veterinary professional adore you, but best of all, you are reducing your pet’s ability to hide illness from you because you will become so intimately familiar with their baseline you will be able to tell at a glance if something is “off.” If you combine association membership, association certification and pet cpr & first aid certification and protocol, you are well on your way to identifying a great candidate for hire, but that’s not nearly all you need to take into consideration and even still, will not guarantee you a successful experience.
NOT A FORD ASSEMBLY LINE
Remember, no matter how much we, the Industry, want to standardize ourselves for the betterment of all, this is still a personal service and a trust-based business. For you to succeed at employing our services you must be willing and able to establish and build a long-term, cooperative partnership with whichever business you select. Likewise, the business or individual you move forward with must approach you with the expectation that you will be a repeat customer, will repeatedly go over their policies and procedures with you prior to moving forward, and talk you through anything that you do not understand. But it is also critical that you understand and accept the fact that our policies are in place for very specific reasons and that to ask us to bend the rules on any given policy places not just our relationship but your pet at risk. We are going to provide our highly personal services for your individual pet, home and expectations within the structure of our policies. Respect the policies, know what they are before you move forward and ask the questions you need to ask early. This is all for the benefit of your pets, who will only become more secure and reliable at being sat when their care is delivered in a consistent, predictable routine with individuals with which they can establish relationships. Allow us the time to build a relationship with you and with your pets. For more on the minutia related to this topic, please see my post on shared sits and e.o.d. visits.
Being a trust-based business is a bit trickier to define for you – the obvious is that we have access to and perform our services in the privacy of your home and our workers are in most cases unsupervised in the traditional sense. Let me be perfectly clear here, “unsupervised in the traditional sense” does not mean unaccounted for. You should anticipate that the business has in place very specific and redundant Quality Control measures that are employed consistently by all workers to assure the administrators of the business and yourself that your pet is being well cared for in your absence. How do you know what the measures are? Ask the business during the interview process. What are good examples of these kinds of measures? Great question, and the easiest answer – but not the only answer – I have, is does the business employ a professional pet sitting software to manage client data, staff schedules and project invoicing? There are several on the market that have, over the past decade or so, been developed that really do wonders to create an efficient system and process of documentation, verification and you guessed it, Quality Assurance that visits are completed, as required by YOU, at the times agreed upon. Loyalty® employs Power Pet Sitter. I personally have less faith in any business larger than a sole proprietorship (one person outfit) that does not employ a third party vendor like Power Pet Sitter to support their operation. But that can’t be the only measure and redundancy is essential to any QC program. My team are required to maintain paper schedules of all assigned projects and to check off their visits in both the online software via smartphones as they complete their visits (for me to manage remotely via Power Pet Sitter) and in their paper schedules. At the home, my team complete a Journal of visits, with each visit dated and timed and a detailed record of the visit events and results completed. This is important not just for you on your return home as evidence of the relationship we are building and maintaining with your pet, but it is also important as a benefit to the baseline health and well being of your pet and moreover it is critical to us as the caregivers who work with mutiple pets in a given day, as a record of where things may start to be stressing a pet or signs of illness crop up, should they, during your project. Again, please see my other post on shared sits and e.o.d. cat sits for more detail on our tracking of baseline health. During active projects where clients travel, you have access to your primary sitter during our normal business hours to check in, either via cell phone, text message or email. We can and will document for you our visits with photographs, emails or text messages at request – we don’t do this as standard procedure because we do not want to interfere with your trip, but we do want to provide them should you wish to have the additional relief. We always, always encourage you to reach out to your primary sitter anytime you are wondering how things are going. We don’t want you for one moment to be concerned or worried and the easiest way to resolve that is to just ask.
Finally, one of the most important ways in which we ensure successful sits is through a policy of “100% disclosure”. We are going to tell you if your pet is under stress. We are going to limit project duration and not permit you to book services again if we find that your pet does not do well being home alone. We will recommend other types of services should this occur. If your pet is ill, you or your emergency contact will be the first to know. Pets can be accident prone, unpredictable – and of course we feel they are sentient – beings, and we are in no way going to mask or ignore any issue that is present. We make a promise to you to, like your veterinary professional, do no harm and keep their best interests as our first priority.
A MATURING INDUSTRY
As with any Industry, if people are involved we must create philosophies to operate by. This kind of categorization helps us to clarify boundaries not just for the potential customer but also for the potential member of our workforce. At the very heart of the Professional In Home Pet Care Industry sits the mantra “an extension of you.” This mantra means that as professionals, we will deliver our services to your pets as directed and instructed by you and we will LOVE and serve them as an extension of you in your place when you cannot be there. While I do believe that the sentiment “extension of you” has a place in my practice, Loyalty® additionally outlines to the potential client and more importantly the potential worker that the focus of our business is in the Force-Free, Positive-Reinforcement based realm, exclusively. As a component to our mission statement, we refrain from engaging in any use of positive punishment, or the tools & devices that prohibit the strengthening of the human-animal bond through pain & intimidation. We have, in our years of operation, experienced too much evidence on the side of force-free, positive reinforcement based techniques to benefit our customers – the pets and the people – to ever agree to perpetuate ineffective methods of “control.” With the help of our newest, non-core association membership in The Pet Professionals Guild, we have been able to more accurately advertise our business as being force-free, dedicated to strengthening the human-animal bond, while creating a safer community of pet guardians in everything that we do.
ENOUGH ABOUT US, LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIONS
Hopefully I have helped put the Industry into better perspective without delving into everything we are not, but it is always important to keep in mind this is my opinion. You are going to use what you know to determine a good provider for you and in Step 3 I will get into the nitty gritty on how to do that – a worksheet for you. In the meantime, let’s sort through your options for care with a summary of what options you actually have, since we may in fact refuse to provide you service!
Coming Soon: Hop to Step 2. Determine Which Professional Pet Care Services are Right for YOU