Monday, April 30, 2012

• April Rodent Recipe Challenge

Maggie bypasses once . . . 
I'm going to squeak under the wire for the April Rodent Recipe Challenge. It's 11:10 p.m. on April 30, the recipe is made, and Maggie will eat (or not) in the next 50 minutes.

April's ingredient is carrot. I "made"—I use the term loosely, as it took under two minutes to mash together two ingredients—carrot hummus: two garbanzo beans (all I had) and a smidgen of cut-up carrot strips. Mush together with your fingers. It needs oil to look like real hummus, but I don't think hamsters are supposed to eat oil.

. . . and disappears into the tube.
Ordinarily I would place food for dipping—cauliflower, carrots, broccoli—beside it, but I wanted to see if Maggie would eat the hummus. Therefore, it is naked.

I dropped it on the rug when I was turning on the light. Carpet fibers: yum! But Maggie often chews carpet trying to tunnel somewhere; I doubt he'll mind. (Yes, Maggie is a boy.)

Was it because I was so nervous about time that he didn't eat? C'mon, eat it, I was thinking. I moved the plate here and there. C'mon, sweetie, eat!

Maggie didn't bite.

• "Z" is for Zim the Hamster

My shy boy Zim was several hamsters ago. He was, arguably, the least memorable of my hams. He didn't crawl vertically on surfaces the way Rufus did. He was too scared to play "get in the shirt," like Doodlebug. As he declined, I didn't keep a daily diary, as I did for Juliet.

When he died, I wrote an online memorial for him at Pet-Memories, which is free. As I wrote, I felt he was still with me, as though I was doing something for him. I would light a virtual candle for Zim and read other memorials on the site. And despite the fact that I, with guilt, think of Zim as least memorable, I haven't done an online memorial for another hamster.

It was the smallness of his life, the narrow boundaries through which he never escaped, that endeared him to me. My little boy, I would say to him. Mom loves Zim.

Mom loves Zim. Say it fast and it will make sense.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

• "Y" is for Yellow Snow

You know, as in, "Don't eat the . . . ." Yep, I'm going to talk about number one and number two.

If you're a pet owner, as I am, you know how much attention you pay to your pet's output. How often? How much? Did it look OK? Smell OK?

Pee and poop are two ways we keep tabs on our pets' health. As a pet sitter, I try to be aware when a dog deviates from the norm. The first time a dog has diarrhea I make a mental note. The second time I make written notes. Time, amount, color, consistency—things an owner or vet will want to know.

When do I notify an owner of an irregularity; for example, diarrhea?
• If I'm in daily contact I mention a problem the same day.
• If an owner isn't contacting me regularly, I use my judgment. I don't want to cause worry, but an owner knows its animal best and can judge if its behavior is routine or if something is off. While I'm deciding whether or not to call, I make written notes. Is the animal eating regularly? Did I feed it extra treats or food from my plate? Is it lethargic? Is it drinking the usual amount of water?
• If an owner is unavailable I call the vet at the point I would call the owner.

If clients are going to be gone a week or more, I ask them to tell their vet I'll be caring for their animals. I also ask clients to fill out a veterinary release form before they go away. (Some vets have these on their web site.)

The story wouldn't be complete without me telling you about the time I cared for Arlo (above and right) when he suffered from a urinary tract infection. One morning he yelped when he peed. That wasn't unusual, his owners said that night. The next morning he yelped louder and longer. That afternoon he yowled so long I looked at my watch and counted the seconds. Poor Arlo. I took him to the vet soon afterward.

Arlo and his partner in crime, Darcy, made a heck of a lot of yellow snow during Snowmageddon (February 2010, above). And just so you know, the snow Arlo is licking is white. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

• "X" is for Xeriscape

Riding Vegas near Prescott, Az., in a natural landscape
Is there anyone doing the A to Z Challenge who didn't have to look in the dictionary for a word beginning with the letter "x"?

Xeriscaping and pet sitting. How in the heck can I make that connection?

I pet sit in Northern Virginia and plan to move to the Southwest, which, for the most part, is dry, dry, dry. So "lawns" are Xeriscaped, a method of landscaping used to conserve water in arid or semi-arid climates.

For the past 40 years I've done no landscaping, as I've lived in apartments. You could write a book on what I don't know about Xeriscaping. But what I've seen, I liked. I won't need to mow. It shouldn't need much water.

When I move to the Southwest, I want to get a dog. I'll need to teach it to stay away from cacti and rattlesnakes. And I'm thinking of running a doggy daycare. Would I need to teach all the dogs to stay away from cacti and rattlesnakes, or would their owners? (I know I'd be the one driving them to the vet with a nose full of spines.)

Coco, whom I pet sat in Prescott, Az., in a Xeriscaped yard
I've lived in Virginia all my life. I know a little about the grasses, trees, plants, and flowers that grow here, and how rain and bugs and insecticides affect them. I have a felt sense of what kind of upkeep a yard might need.

As for Xeriscaping? I'm clueless. Maybe it's like pet sitting. Eight years ago, when a friend asked me to keep her dog company when she and her husband went on vacation, I had no clue that live-in pet sitting would become my occupation. I had little idea of what the profession entailed. With each job and each bout of continuing education, I learn. I can learn Xeriscaping.

Southwestern folks, clue me in! What else besides open blue skies and great salsa awaits me and my dog and horse? Scorpions? Lower vet bills? Chupacabras?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

• "W" is for Walkin' the Dog

As a pet sitter, I walk dogs, but it's not as easy as it used to be 'cause of a new man in my life: Mr. Arthur-itis. He's set up shop in my knees. It's a family affliction—many of my aunts and uncles sport titanium knees—exacerbated by my extra weight.

Stairs are the worst. I can walk up and down stairs, but after a day or two I'm in a lot of pain. So. I'm a live-in pet sitter who can no longer stay in a home unless it has a bathroom on the first floor.

The good news is that, for the most part, it has little affect on walking dogs. I walk more slowly than I used to, so small dogs are easier. Large dogs that behave on a leash are no problem.

The thing is, I have to tell pet owners. I hate it. People who have arthritis are old. They are grandparents, ready for the old-folks home. People who have arthritis have canes that they wave and yell, "Get out of my way, sonny!"

I have a cane. I bought it when I pulled something in my knee a couple of years ago. It's in the trunk of my car. Thankfully, I can't remember the last time I needed it.

So, if you're thinking of hiring me, I have arthritis in my knees. But it doesn't keep me from getting down on the floor to play with your dog or cat. I can feed your animals, clean their litter box, pick up poop in the yard, throw a tennis ball or Frisbee, and trundle your trash cans out to the curb. As long as your big dog doesn't pull on the leash, I can walk it.

But as long as I'm being completely honest. . . I can't throw a tennis ball or Frisbee very far.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

• "V" is for Videos

This is a still captured from a video.
I fell in love with the Flip Video when I borrowed my friend Brenda's. Naturally, I had to have a Flip of my own. I find the Flip fun when pet sitting. I captured terrier Shelly's surprise when she saw "another dog" in the reflection of a car. When Shelly and Lily's human mom was away during the holidays, we made a Christmas video for her.

Video was useful during a recent pet sit when Samoyed Arlo was doing something strange with his mouth. I wondered if he needed to go to the vet. I filmed Arlo, saved it on Vimeo, and sent Brenda (his human mom) the URL. Brenda had reported the behavior before to Arlo's vet, who had said it was nothing to worry about. It took a load off my mind.

When I pet sit, I post photos and videos on Facebook or Twitter, or send via email. Clients enjoy seeing their pets safe and happy. After a pet sit, I make a longer video or an online blog for the pet owner. There's no extra charge. Frankly, it's a labor of love, and I always want to give pet owners a reason to hire me again.

Unfortunately, my Flip shows signs of old age and they're no longer being manufactured, so I'll have to find other technology. Don't I sound blasé? You have no idea the trauma I go through, making a decision to buy new technology. Brenda had to go with me to Target to buy my Canon A560 camera. Really.

If you're not tired of videos, check out the Potomac Valley Samoyed Club's annual winter walk! Can you guess which one is Arlo?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

• "U" is for Underwear & Other Things Left Behind

I'm a live-in pet sitter. When I come to a client's house, I bring everything I need to stay one or more nights. When I leave, occasionally I forget something.

The underwear in question was a lacy black bra I left at the home of my friend Brenda. "Please, please find it before John does," I begged. "Or Arlo." What would be worse: her husband seeing my bra or her Samoyed, then a puppy, ripping it to bits? Luckily, Brenda found it and brought it to me one day at lunch.

After caring for Maltese BudDee and Maltese-mix CeCee, their mom, Marcia, sent me an email. "Do you own a pair of blue slippers? I found them wrapped up in the sheets." When my feet are cold at night I put on slippers or socks. Inevitably my feet get warm, I nudge off the footwear, and forget it. My next job, I found the slippers wrapped in tissue paper in a jaunty little shopping bag.

A similar mishap befell my earplugs when I spent two weeks with miniature Poodle Coco, in Arizona. (I pet sit for free in the Southwest and other locales.) Coco's mom, Gloria, found my orange plastic earplugs, which I wore when I had a hard time going to sleep, wrapped in the sheets. I told Gloria she didn't need to mail them but she insisted (at a cost of $2.70). God bless her.

I used to find this trait endearing: Silly me! But it can be a pain for my clients. They need to deliver, mail, or find a place for whatever I leave behind. So I try—I really, really try—to take everything home with me.

Despite my best efforts, I don't need to take facial cleanser to my next visit with Shelly and Lily: It sits in Chris's bathroom, where I left it two weeks ago.

Monday, April 23, 2012

• "T" is for Trust

As a pet sitter, I deal in the commodity of trust. Trust is not easy to earn. Trust can be lost in a second.

Clients trust me to show up when I say I will and take care of their pets as they ask me to. They trust me to respect their possessions.

Some pets immediately trust everyone. Some need proof that a human is trustworthy. I can see doubt in their eyes: Will she yell at me? Will she hurt me?

I can't tell you how much I appreciate my clients' and my charges' trust. I work to earn it and I work harder to keep it. But when pets press my buttons, it's not always easy to keep calm.

At one client's, the dog barks when anyone leaves the house. It's a loud, high-pitched, sharp bark that can be heard a house or two away. It's not too bad if you make a quick exit, but my key often sticks in the door, as it did recently. Arf! Arf! Arf! I jiggled the key. He was inside, I was outside, but his bark was piercing. Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf! Muttering, I jockeyed the key from left the right. Arf! Arf! Arf! "Rover*! Hush! I'm still here," I stage-whispered, knocking on the window, despite the fact that I knew it would make things worse. Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf! With sweat dripping down my face, I gritted my teeth, cursed, and took a deep breath. The key didn't budge. Arf! Arf! Arf! "Rover! Shut up!!!"

I regretted the words the second they were out of my mouth. Some dogs would lose their trust of me if I yelled. Rightly so. Lucky for me, Rover isn't one of those dogs. As a highly independent breed, he often ignores his human parents no matter how loud they yell. Arf! Arf! Arf! Arf! Eventually, the key slipped out.

Rover greeted me as effusively as ever—Arf! Arf! Arf!—when I returned. Trust was intact. Still, I felt bad. I told Rover's human dad about my reaction to the incident. "Isn't it annoying when he does that? I'm always, like, 'Shut up, Rover!'" he said, shaking his head.

It scares me that I could lose a dog's trust. As a pet sitter, I want animals in my care to feel secure. And I want to live up to the trust that pet owners place in me. In Rover's case, I was lucky. Next time . . . well, I don't want there to be a next time.

*Names have been changed

Saturday, April 21, 2012

• "S" is for Statistics (Yawn)

In my working days

The last few years I worked in the nonprofit world, there was considerable discussion of "metrics." We measured the reach, impact, and visibility of projects. Sometimes the criteria helped; sometimes it felt like busywork.

As a pet sitter, I manage several online sites, all of which give statistics. If I were so inclined, I could use them to measure the reach, impact, and visibility of my social media presence.

Gag me with a spoon.

That sounds way too much like work. I'd rather post photos of animals or articles or funny cartoons. At the same time, I look at my stats and think, shouldn't I learn something from them?

My Facebook page counts the number of people who Like me, the number who see a post, the number who click on a post, and the number who engage. These stats are delivered in colorful, peppy graphs I can manipulate with the touch of a button, which would make some of the people I used to work with very, very happy.

I check the purple line and balls (number of posts per day) on the timeline, and survey the hills and valleys of the green and blue lines. If a line pops up like a prairie dog it means people liked something. My web site for my pet sitting business and my blog have similar displays and info. Twitter can be heady. I have 285 friends, including one in China! One in Russia! When I Tweet something funny and someone Retweets it, I feel validated. (I know, it's pitiful.)

Ostensibly the purpose of these sites is to attract pet-sitting clients, but I'm not going to pet sit in China or Russia; most people who Like my Facebook page are flesh-and-blood friends.

At work I could scratch my creative itch. (And you thought I didn't like any part of my job!) Now social media feeds my urge to write and take photos, and occasionally get kudos. It's a great way to get and pass along information on the pet industry. Most of all—it's fun. Measure that!

Friday, April 20, 2012

• "R" is for Recall

"Recall" is the fancy term dog trainers use when they ask a dog to come. When I was growing up we called it "come".

When I was growing up no one took their dog to a trainer. If a dog pee-peed in the house you rolled up a newspaper and swatted the dog on the behind (in the South, put the emphasis on the first syllable: be-hind). We had newspapers because there was no Internet. In Fairfax, Virginia, we got two newspapers a day. The Washington Post reported what went on the previous day and overnight; the Washington Star filled you in on what had occurred that day.

When I was growing up some dogs obeyed and some didn't. The bad dogs lived their entire lives in fenced-in yards. These snarling, irritable beings barked incessantly at children. The situation would have been better if we children walked on the other side of the street, but, confident in the knowledge that we were safe, we preferred to antagonize dogs. Owners did nothing but yell at those dogs. Those dogs never went to a trainer.

No one told us our collie, Sheba, had "separation anxiety" or "inappropriate elimination." We just shut her upstairs when we left so she would pee on the linoleum steps and not the living room rug. "That god damned dog!" my mother fumed when Sheba ate a couch cushion. Instead of asking a dog trainer to rid Sheba of her "destructive behavior," we thrust her nose in the flaky foam and swatted her with a newspaper.

When I was growing up, no one bragged about getting a dog at the pound. That's just what you did. Hardware stores sold leashes. Grocery stores and feed supply stores sold dog food. How my parents, especially my father, would have laughed at the idea of socialization classes for puppies or canine hydrotherapy.

It wasn't the good old days: it just was.

I'm glad that today we know better than to stick a dog's nose in urine or to swat it with a newspaper. I'm glad that animal shelters are accountable and that more and more people emphasize the importance of animal rescue. When I worked for a veterinarian, in 1978, we put to sleep an otherwise healthy two-year-old dog because there was no cure for hip dysplasia. Now veterinarians achieve miracles. And dog owners can find advice on the Internet or get help from an animal trainer.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

• "Q" is for Questions from a Pet Owner

If you own pets, you've probably read articles such as Finding the Perfect Pet Sitter. But pet owners have other concerns—and who better than a pet sitter to answer?

Q) Do I need to buy food or drinks for the pet sitter?
A) I bring my own. I don't expect anyone to leave food, but it's nice when they do. Some clients mention specific foods, which means it's OK for me to eat those foods. (e.g., "In the refrigerator are tomatoes from my garden and leftover Chinese food.") Some tell me to help myself to anything.

Q) I'm worried about a pet sitter having access to some of my personal things.
A) As we toured his home, one client waved a hand at the room that served as his office. "You probably won't need anything in there," he said. Translation: He did not want me to go in the office. You can also lock rooms or move valuable or personal items to a safe. In case of emergency, make sure a neighbor has a key to a locked room.

Q) The pet sitter wants to bring his computer and log on using my WiFi password. Will he be able to access my computer files?
A) I couldn't—I don't have the technical know-how! But yes, I think someone can access your files. Have your service provider set up a guest account with a different password than yours.

Q) I'd like to hire a live-in pet sitter, but the thought of someone sleeping in my bed sort of creeps me out, and I don't have a guest room.
A) I've slept on couches, fold-out couches, and even my own inflatable mattress. If none of those options would work, you can ask sitters to bring their own sheets.

Q) I liked the pet sitter I interviewed, but she's young. I'm worried she may invite friends over for a party.
A) Say directly, "I would rather that you, and only you, are in the house while I'm away. Will that pose a problem?" Ask one of your neighbors to keep an eye on the house or even drop in unexpectedly.

Q) The last time I had a house guest they ordered $50 worth of Pay-Per-View TV. How can I politely ask the pet sitter not to do that?
A) "You understand that not all movies or channels on my TV are free. Some movies can cost of much as they do in the theater. I have more than 100 free channels; I imagine that should be enough."

Q) Do I need to tip the pet sitter?
A) I've seen this question a few times, with answers both pro and con. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary. What I find far more valuable is if a pet owner writes a testimonial, agrees to act as a reference, or passes my business card along to friends.

Do you have a question? I hope you'll leave a comment!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

• "P" is for Photos

My best shot—Arlo (left) and Darcy
Photos of pets, that is. One way I try to distinguish myself as a pet sitter is by shooting photos and videos of clients' animals.

Sometimes the task is big. I made a daily blog of two shelties for clients who went on a month-long cruise. Although they said the blog was one of the highlights of their cruise, I think they were being very polite.

Sometimes it's a piece of cake. I usually post photos and updates on Facebook or Twitter, which serves two purposes: Clients see that their pets are healthy and happy and, hopefully, the exposure draws new pet sitting business.

Many huzzahs later, I started to think my pictures were hot stuff, so hot that I agreed to photograph two Cavachons to illustrate a book. Boy, was I in over my head.

Oops . . .
I'd read the book and listed shots that would be helpful, but my plan was no match for reality. Bubbly, exuberant, sparkling—however you choose to describe the two dogs, they wiggled and moved nonstop. When they ran on a zip line, all my shots were blurry, even with flash. With no fenced-in area in the yard, the owners quickly cordoned off a space with baby gates. I was nervous and the dog owners, one of whom wrote the book, were nervous and exhausted.

It wasn't the fault of my camera, the Canon PowerShot A560. Yep, I'm one of those people too impatient to read the owner's manual! After the photo shoot I found several features that would have helped. After the shoot.

I have a lot to learn. Oh, wait—could you hold that pose?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

• "O" is for Orange

Orange is the color of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Month—April—sponsored by the ASPCA. If you see people on the street in orange T-shirts, as I did last year, they're probably spreading the word about this initiative. My 2011 post on the subject mentions ways you can take action.

You don't have to look far for examples of animal cruelty. A woman contacted me on Twitter several months ago. Every day she drove by a dog sitting in its yard, but never saw people in the yard. She assumed the dog had food and water, but still, it didn't feel right. Should she do something?

Report it to the local animal welfare agency, I Tweeted. I'm not sure there's anything wrong, she replied; her gut told her the dog was being neglected. Call animal welfare, I wrote. They'll check into it—that's their job.

In a much more serious incident, my stomach sickened when I read a news story about a drunk man who cooked his roommate's hamster in a skillet. I felt overwhelmed with grief, especially since I've owned these gentle rodents for nearly a decade.

It's easy to feel defeated at the scope of animal neglect and cruelty. In recognition of this, Be the Change for Animals highlights one issue a week. Its goal is to "ignite and accelerate the change we can make as individuals at a pace that doesn’t overwhelm."

I hope the woman who Tweeted me took action. I hope she changed that dog's life. That's how it can happen: one small action at a time.


Monday, April 16, 2012

• "N" is for Neatness

If my mother were alive she would tell you I'm messy. She would be right. When I come home I shuck off my coat, kick off my shoes. Where they land, they land. Mornings often find me staring at the previous night's dishes, soaking in the sink. I lose my TV remote under magazines or bills.

But when I pet sit, I try to keep up the house to the homeowner's standards, and most homeowners are neat. I do this for two reasons.

Neighbors occasionally drop by and homeowners can come home early. I think of it a surprise inspection, and I want to pass.

The other reason I clean up while I'm pet sitting is that it clears my mind. When the house is messy I feel scattered. I straighten up room by room, and as I do so, I check off a mental list. Make the bed, hang up my clothes, put my shoes in the closet so the puppy won't chew them.

Alongside my mental cleaning lists, another list always arises: what I can do for the animals. Try a different chew toy so Teddy won't get bored. Instead of our usual noon walk, take Coco downtown to the courthouse for a walk and a picnic. Put fresh water and an ice cube in the water bowls. Sit on the floor and stroke Lily for awhile; she's feeling left out because I've had to pay so much attention to Shelly.

If I hadn't experienced this phenomenon only yesterday, I might think this is a lame post. I have no clue why my mind works this way. What I do know is that the animals benefit. That's what counts. What are your challenges, as a pet sitter? Do you struggle with being neat? I'd love it if you would comment.

Now, where is that remote?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

• "M" is for Mrs. Emma

I am in love with Mrs. Emma, who is a bit of a You Tube star. Her family devised a winning formula to showcase their curvaceous, blonde beauty. Each video begins with Mrs. Emma's squeaky, yet husky, voice:


Mrs. Emma is European, so there's a smidgen of an accent. Then her catchy theme song follows. "Da - da da dan - da da dan - da da da da dan da . . ." The videos are amateur, but this lady is more in tune than most of the Real Housewives.

If you don't believe me, check her out for yourself—she's so cute. Mrs. Emma can even swim! After a workout she usually takes a nap. What—you don't think Mrs. Emma is really singing? See for yourself. She's no Milli Vanilli.

And now, as this post closes, a smooth jazz riff carries us into the sunset. Auf wiedersehen, Mrs. Emma.

Friday, April 13, 2012

• "L" is for Love Isn't Enough

Just so you know? If you want to be a pet sitter, love isn't enough.

"I'm sure you're a great pet sitter, Emmy. You love animals so much." I smile when people say this, but don't usually tell them what I'm thinking: Pet sitting takes a whole lot more than love.

Please, some of you are thinking. It's not rocket science. No, thank goodness, it's not. But if you're thinking of pet sitting, you should know a few things.

• Do you know what to do if an animal is injured or gets sick? You are that animal's 911. Do you know animal first aid? Own a first aid book and kit? Do you know the route to the homeowner's vet? Do you know the emergency vet (because pets never get sick during business hours)? Did the homeowner sign a veterinary release form? Did you talk to the homeowner about how to handle a vet bill?

• If an animal goes missing under your care, you should be prepared. If you see the missing animal, do you know how to get it to come to you? Is the pet microchipped? Wearing its tags? Do you know how to make effective signs and flyers? Do you know who to notify?

• If there's a natural or other type of disaster, do you have an evacuation plan? Have you bookmarked a web site that explains the steps you should follow?

• Do you have a list of foods, household items, and local plants and flowers that are toxic to pets? Do you take any medications that animals can get hold of? Are they toxic to pets?

• A good percentage of the job of pet sitting is the relationship with the pet's owner. After all, the pets aren't the ones who pay you! Are you professional? Do you have good judgment? A pet owner is going to give you the key to their house—access to all their possessions—and entrust you with the care of a beloved (four-legged) member of their family. Are you trustworthy?

And, of course, love.

Will you love the animals that throw up or have diarrhea on the rug? Will you love the puppy that barks at 4:00 a.m. because he wants to chase the squirrel in the yard? Will you love the Rhodesian Ridgeback when she hogs the entire bed and growls—really growls—when you try to get in? Will you love the cat that escapes out the back door at bed time, when you're exhausted? When you finally catch her, will you love her when she thanks you with her claws?

At the time, all of these situations sucked. Looking back, yeah, I can say honestly that I loved those animals afterwards. I guess that's why I'm a pet sitter.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

• "K" is for Kindness

My father
When my father lived in a home for the elderly, one of the men, a former colonel, relentlessly taunted another man. Long-ago accomplishments omnipresent in his mind, the colonel berated the poor fellow for being uneducated, blue collar, and shorter in stature.

Sick of the bullying, I spoke firmly to the colonel one day. "Anyone can apply themselves in school or rise in the workplace, but the true test of a man is his ability to be kind." (Yeah, I climb on a soapbox when I'm angry.)

You guessed it: Instead of recognizing my wisdom, the colonel completely ignored me.

Despite my self-righteous anger, I think I was right. It takes wisdom, compassion, and—at times—restraint, to be consistently kind. One of my favorite fictional characters is Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill a Mockingbird. From his children to the mentally challenged neighbor to the Black community, Finch treated everyone with unfailing kindness and respect.

Me and Honey
As a pet sitter, kindness and patience are two of the most important attributes I can bring. The first thing I do during any pet sit is sit quietly with the animals. Some are nervous, but if they allow it, I stroke them. In a soft voice I explain that I'll be staying with them for a few days. Everything will go on as usual. I won't let anything bad happen to them. Their "mom and dad" will come back soon.

Note that I say that kindness and patience are the two of the most important attributes I can bring. Kindness is my natural inclination. But after several days in someone else's home, I can have moments of frustration. I can't find a can opener. I run out of clean underwear. A dog scratches me with long nails. The cat wants in, the cat wants out. In. Out.

It's more important than ever—then—to be kind. Animals have a reason for everything they do. Everything. I'm not a trainer, so I can be clueless about why an animal behaves as it does, and it's not my responsibility to change its behavior. My responsibility is to be kind.

Isn't it funny that it all comes down to the Golden Rule? Treat others as you would like to be treated. With kindness.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

• "J" is for Jacobson's Organ

Let me say straight off that I did not know—before I checked the dictionary—the definition of a Jacobson's organ. But I identified with the TV commercial that mentions it.

Three young women are talking about cats. The first two ooh and coo over how they love cute, cuddly kittens. The third pipes up. "And cats have the Jacobson's organ," she begins, then proceeds to overwhelm her ditsy companions with obscure facts.

I like that woman. She loves animals, I love animals—everything about animals. I want to hang out with her, exchange geeky animal trivia. Rats are revered by Hindus. What are the cats with six toes called? Polydactyl. Hamsters came from Syria. When a farrier trims a horse's hooves, give leftovers to the dogs—it's good for them.

The Jacobson's organ reference isn't the best, as I'm much more interested in dogs and horses than I am in cats. But the sentiment conveys. Animals geeks, who's with me?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

• "I" is for Information

Information? Yawn. But as a live-in pet sitter, information is the backbone of my work.

I'd like to link here to an online client form, but I don't have one. My web site—self-created, to save money—is on Blogger, for heaven's sake. So I do things the old fashioned way, with the template of a Word document that I fill in.

I get information at my initial client meeting. About halfway through, the client usually gives me a puzzled look. Why does a pet sitter need to know the location of the main water cutoff? That's because I want to be sure I can take care of anything when I stay at the house, despite the fact that the thought of a major water leak makes me a nervous wreck.

About the House: Questions I Ask
• May I have names and phone numbers of neighbors? Is there anyone I can call if something breaks?
• Is there a spare key? Do any neighbors have a key?
• Where is the fuse box? Main water cutoff? Spare light bulbs, flashlight, batteries, toilet paper, etc.?
• How do I operate the heat? Air conditioning? Alarm system? Oven? Dishwasher? Washer/dryer? Phone? TV? (Very important!!)
• What day is trash day? What do you recycle?
• Do plants need water? How about the yard?
• Do you have Wifi? What's the name of your network? Your password?
• Should I answer your phone or let it go to voice mail?
• Do you want updates on your pets when you're away? How often? Via phone, email, Facebook, Twitter?

At that meeting I make sure I know how to work the key and TV, and can get online with my laptop.

About the Pets: Questions I Ask
• What is their schedule? (Potty breaks, walks, meals, treats, cleaning litter box)
• What do they eat? How much? Do they get treats?
• Do they take medications? Have medical issues? Do you give them dental care?
• Where do you keep their leashes? Grooming brush and comb? Extra poop bags? Towels for when it rains?
• How do the pets get along with each other? How do they react to other dogs? To people? Is there anything they're afraid of? (Thunder, vacuum, being touched on the neck)
• May they get on the furniture? Where do they sleep at night?
• What commands do they know? What should I say or do if they misbehave?
• Are they microchipped? Where is that information? Do they wear their tags all the time?
• Who is their vet? Emergency vet?

I ask homeowners to fill out a veterinary release form. I also use MapQuest to map the route from the homeowner's to their vet and emergency vet, and print it out. In the event that a pet goes missing under my care, I bookmark the Web sites of the nearest animal shelters.

I put all of this information in my Pink Notebook, which will probably be its own A to Z Challenge post.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

• "H" is for Horse

When I was a little girl I wanted a horse. People would chuckle and nod when I said I wanted a horse, but it demeaned my dream when they said, “Every little girl wants a horse.” It made me angry. I wasn’t “every little girl”: I was me, the most important little girl in the world, and I wanted a horse.

I knew nothing about the practicalities of owning a horse. I didn’t care. I wanted a horse.

To scratch the itch, my father took me horseback riding once when I was nine or ten. The owner leaned against the corral fence and my father stood next to him with his hands in his pockets. My father was not a man who leaned. They talked easily. My father grew up on a farm and loved the land.

I had ridden at camp in groups with a leader, but I’d never ridden alone. Head down, the horse wearily followed the path through the woods. I bumped along, holding the saddle horn when I was out of sight of the adults. I was supposed to be enjoying the ride but I was scared. But I couldn’t tell anyone I was afraid to get on a horse. I would have lost face.

As we exited the woods the horse caught sight of the barn, in the distance. Its pace increased. I was used to the horse by then and I smiled, ready to practice posting if he trotted. Throughout the woods I had kicked the horse to no avail. I kicked the horse now, on the open trail, and it broke into a gallop toward the barn

My heart leapt into my throat. I clutched the saddle horn and tried to hang onto my reins. The stirrups bounced against the horse’s side and my small sneakered feet flew free. I held on, as they say, for dear life, but it was not to be.

Before we reached the barn I landed with an Oof on the hard, dirt-packed ground. I could see my father and the horse’s owner laughing heartily. My feelings were hurt. How dare my father laugh at me? He never did that. And my backside hurt. I stood up. My legs quivered, as they always did when I dismounted. In addition, I was shaking “from stem to stern,” as my father would say.

“I’ve got him,” said the owner. “He loves to run to the barn. I thought your daddy said you rode before.”

I hung my head and didn’t answer.

“Well, here he is. I’ll hold him while you get on up.”

I shook my head.

“You know what they say: fall off a horse, get back on.”

“Don’t you want to get on again? The hour’s not up,” said my father. I was close enough to him now that I could see his eyes were kind, concerned. He wanted me to have a good time.

I would not ride that horse again.

I didn’t ride for another ten years, at least. Then, occasionally, I would go to on a trail ride, which many dismissively call “nose-to-tail” riding. I was driving across country with a man I didn’t know very well. In a campground outside Amarillo, Texas, we met another couple that wanted to go horseback riding. The next day the four of us rented horses in a place where we had a thousand acres in which to ride. A thousand acres! I grew up in Virginia, where no one had that kind of land. I was giddy with the possibilities.

The man I was with the woman in the other couple wanted to keep a walking pace. Her boyfriend wanted to canter. I want to canter, too! I claimed, citing the wide-open landscape spreading out impossibly around us. He kicked his horse and I kicked my horse and we began to canter through land that, to me, epitomized the Wild West. A few second in, however, I began to bounce crazily on the beast’s back. All thoughts of enjoying myself ended. I grabbed the saddle horn and held on for life. A horse is a pack animal and it will follow its pack; I knew that. I knew that the horses of my friend and the other woman, who had the courage to admit they didn’t want to go fast, would run. By that stage of our cross-country trip I disliked the man I was with. When we stopped I didn’t admit I was afraid and I didn’t admit I was happy to see my friend suffer. He and the woman were angry, rightly so. I didn’t care, and I didn’t admit I was afraid.

When I was 50 I decided I was ready to retire. Since I was several years away from being able to do so I had time to hone my plan. I knew I wanted to live in the Southwest. I loved the sand and sage colors of the land, the sunset skies shot with orange and cerise. As the dream gradually took shape, I gradually realized that I wanted a horse.

I want a horse.

I am 58, I am overweight, I don’t exercise, and I have a host of minor physical problems that flare up when I exert myself. I can’t run, I can barely bend over, I can’t climb stairs without pain, and I can’t lift a bale of hay. People more practical than I have suggested ways I can get my “horse fix” without the effort and expense—which I have learned are considerable. Volunteer at a therapeutic riding center. Lease a horse. Work part-time at a stable. And so on.

I listen to them but I haven’t lost the dream. I want a horse. I’ve taken grownup steps to get there. I took an intensive riding workshop and admitted I was afraid. My goal was not to fall off. I didn’t. A woman said I could visit her Arabian farm and I learned to take care of her horses. I ride occasionally with—as they call it in yoga—beginner’s mind. I am learning, gradually, to “speak horse,” to read their ears and eyes, to follow the shift of their barrel and the direction of footfall.

I want a horse.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

• "G" is for GMAFB

"Adopt me already! GMAFB!"
GMAFB. It's short for Give Me a F---ing Break. It's pronounced "G' Maf Bee." Sounds a little Australian, you think?

Suitable when you're running late and the car in front of you stops at the beginning of a yellow light.

Suitable when you're planning to sneak out a little early on a Friday afternoon and your boss schedules "a quick meeting" at 4:30.

Suitable when the dog you're pet sitting has diarrhea on a rug. A nice rug. A nice white rug.

I was going to write exclusively about pet sitting topics for the A to Z Challenge. Today I'd scheduled Grief, but it's too sunny and I didn't feel like it. In fact, I said, "GMAFBE, I'll write what I want!"

What's your GMAFB?

Friday, April 6, 2012

• "F" is for Facebook

I post photos of my charges on Facebook
I tell my accountant that 50 percent of my computer time is dedicated to my pet sitting business, but it feels like a lie. The social media I use for Emmy the Pet Sitter, including its Facebook page, is so darn much fun it never feels like business.

My original purpose for creating a Facebook business page was to attract new clients. As the page evolved, I've posted material for existing clients, people with pets, and other pet professionals. Posts include:
• When I'm pet sitting, real-time photos or videos of my charges (the pets) for my clients (the people)
• Local activities for people and pets (pet expos, adoption events, charity events, "yappy hours," doggie ice cream socials, Pups in the Park)
• Special offers on products or services from local businesses; low-cost spay and neuter clinics
• Pet-related news (warnings about dog food, chicken jerky treats, Lyme disease, rabies shots)

Got great stats on Facebook
I try to foster a spirit of community. Some of the 79 people who subscribe know each other and each other's pets. I hope the "Twitter effect"—of strangers becoming friends—rubs off. When a pet of someone in the community dies, I mention it. When a friend of a friend's Samoyed gave birth, I linked to SamCam, hoping it might lead Samoyed owners to the (Friends of) Potomac Valley Samoyed Club Facebook page.

Is my Facebook page useful? Sometimes. But the March post that had the highest "reach" and "engaged users" was a picture of me kissing a French Bulldog. A picture (not mine) of a guinea pig deep in clover had the most "virality."

Fans are great. Good statistics are great. But the most important thing for me, as a pet sitter, is the pets. So I'd better grab the leash and take Teddy (see "D" is for Dachshund) for a walk.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

• "E" is for Emmy the Pet Sitter

Darcy models the Emmy the Pet Sitter T-shirt
"Emmy the Pet Sitter" is the name of my business. I did no market research and, as I recall, asked the opinion of only one or two friends. On good days I like the simplicity. My name is Emmy. I'm a pet sitter. On bad days it brings to mind a certain self-important someone: "I'm Popeye the sailor man!" Thump thump of chest.

I'm a sole proprietor and I plan to stay that way, so the "Emmy" part is applicable. For 32 years I worked in a large organization, and while there were many things I appreciated, it's a relief to be on my own.

When I tell people what I do, nine times out of ten they'll say, "I know someone who's looking for someone to walk their dog," but I'm a live-in pet sitter. You leave your house to go on vacation and I move in to take care of your animal(s).

My friend Brenda sometimes refers to me in the third person. "Look who's here—it's Emmy the Pet Sitter!" she'll say as she opens her door and her dogs, Arlo and Darcy, rush to greet me.

It's giving me a bit of a swelled head, but I guess that's OK as long as I don't start thumping my chest.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

• "D" is for Dachshund

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt
Can you spell "Dachshund"? I couldn't, until I cared for a sweet girl named Jenny. Jenny has crossed the rainbow bridge, but this very minute I'm caring for Theodore Roosevelt, a.k.a. Teddy, the second Doxie of the family that owned Jenny.

Jenny was an elderly matron when I met her, stiff on her pins, nearly blind, nearly deaf. I have a bad video I took of her as she tentatively circumnavigated the kitchen, a path she took many times during the day for the promise of crumbs. She bumped into cabinets but didn't care. I carried her out into the yard six times a day—she could no longer handle steps—and watched her sniff dandelions and clover. Her family put up an angel fountain and a plaque with Jenny's name in a corner of the yard.

Teddy pays no attention to Jenny's monument. He's not keen on being in the yard unless his human mother is around. Teddy is a momma's boy and proud of it. His "mom" apologized that he doesn't like to go for walks with anyone but her. As a "professional" pet sitter, he'll walk with me, my ego said. Ha! For two days I leashed Teddy, who then engaged with me in a gentle tug of war in my attempt to go beyond the boundaries of the property. I think you know who won.

Teddy and Jenny's monument
Yesterday Teddy ventured farther, taking me on the strangest "walk" of my life. He jogged a few steps, sniffed, and looked backward toward the house. "Come on, Teddy!" I said in a voice an octave higher than usual, and pulled lightly on his leash. He came—on his own terms. Walk forward, back toward the house, walk in a circle, stop to sniff the grass or a bush, head back across the street and stand stock still. . . considering his tiny legs, we were about four houses away from where we started.

And for reasons known only to Teddy, he stopped dozens of times. Dozens. I didn't want to be frustrating by our meandering walk. I told myself it was wonderful that Teddy let me walk him at all. It was good he could enjoy sights and smells beyond his yard.

At that moment Teddy lay down in the grass. He may have been tired, but I think it was more that he wanted to sit in the warm sun, as people do. He gazed at the people hitting golf balls in the church yard, at the boys on bicycles, at cars. You might be asking why I didn't sit down and enjoy. I made the mistake of sitting in the yard sans bug spray my first day on the job and scratched for hours afterward. I gave him five minutes, then tugged on the leash. "Come on, Teddy!" Nothing. You have no idea how much force something that weighs 20 pounds can exert. Finally, I picked him up and carried him back to the house. I plunged my face into his soft, cinnamon-colored fur and sniffed deeply.

Teddy is loving boy who doesn't know why the five people who share his house have deserted him. He may be wondering if they'll ever come back. I'm certain that I don't do anything—from serving meals to scratching his tummy—the "right" way.

I've just realized an ugly truth: I want pets to be happy because of me, because I'm such a darn fabulous pet sitter. "Jenny loves you," Teddy's family gushed years ago. I've been hoping to earn the same praise in regards to Teddy. Luckily I have five more days to try to make Teddy as content and comfortable as possible for his sake.

It's almost time for the afternoon walk. I'll take bug spray.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

• "C" is for Cat

This is a good cat—not the cat in this post.
I knew something was up when Mary (all names have been changed) offered me $500 to stay with her cat for a week. This was back in the day when I charged $25 a night for pet sitting.

There were good reasons I should have turned down the job. For one, I'm allergic to cats. Yep. But if I have minimal exposure, avoid touching them, and wash my hands afterward, I'm OK. Second, Mary lived in Washington, D.C., and didn't have a parking spot and neither of us knew about getting a temporary permit for my car. So I parked at my office and lugged my suitcase and groceries for a long, sweaty four blocks to Mary's.

But the primary reason I should have turned down the job sat before me, mewing, dark and slender, in Mary's living room. In what I perceived as a sweet welcome, Cat wound himself around my feet. "Hi, sweetie," I said. As I loaded groceries into the refrigerator, Cat hugged my ankles and mewed more pitifully. It was too early for dinner. "What is it, sweetie?"

Ramrod stiff, Cat looked up. "Mrrrowwl," he cried more loudly.

Dinner was served.

I sat on the couch with a frozen dinner in my lap. Cat cuddled up next to me. Gently, I stroked his head with my elbow. The minute I stopped Cat placed a paw firmly on my forearm. Half an hour later he jumped down and looked up at me. "Mrrowwl."

"What? You had dinner." I found Mary's instructions. Ah, he wanted a treat. As he chewed I put away my clothes and set out my toiletries in the bathroom. Per Mary's instructions, Cat required a small bowl of kibble be available at night. I filled the bowl and refreshed Cat's water. He was snoozing in the living room. I walked as quietly as I could from the kitchen into the bedroom, hoping he wouldn't hear me.

"Mrrrowwl." Cat stared at me from the bedroom door.

"Good grief," I muttered. "Sweetie, do you want kibble? It's in the kitchen. Look, here it is."

Cat sniffed at the bowl, then dismissed it. At least he was quiet.

"He'll want to sleep with you in bed," Mary had said. I set up the way I like to sleep: lying on my side with a pillow between my knees, a pillow clutched to my chest, and a pillow under my head. I felt Cat jump up on to the bed. His legs plunged silently into the bed along my legs, then my torso. Suddenly, whiskers and a wet nose poked my face. "Ack!" I wiped my nose and turned over.

If this were the New Yorker and I were a better writer, I'd treat you to every detail, but I'll make it short: Cat had to sleep on my chest. No bedspread, no blanket, no sheets. Just me, my nightgown, and a hot, hairy, saliva-and-dander-generating beast less than a foot away from my face.

I got $500, bronchitis, and a week of sick leave. You know how, at the end of your life, people ask if you have any regrets? Yes, I do.

Monday, April 2, 2012

• And Bingo Was His Name-o

A younger Emmy, Pootie (left) and Bingo
"I have a surprise," said my brother. "I want everyone to come into the living room." He went outside, letting the front door slam.

I sat. No one ordered my mother around, not even her 6-foot-1-inch son, but she sat. My father and sister sat.

My brother opened the screen door. Behind him slunk a big skinny dog, belly touching the floor, eyes darting wildly about.

"Keith!" shrieked my mother.

"Oh my God," said my father.

"Sit still. He's nervous around people," said my brother.

"You didn't," said Mother.

My brother grinned. He held the dog's leash firmly. That dog wanted out of our house in the worst way.

"Can I pet it?" I asked.

"It's 'May I?' and no you may not," said my mother. "It's filthy. Keith, you can not keep that thing. There is no way I'm going to have that dog in my house."

"I can't believe you, Keith," laughed my sister. "It'll eat Pootie alive."

I caught my father's eye and we both smiled. That wouldn't be such a bad thing.

"Down," murmured my brother. Slowly, the dog placed each of its four limbs stiffly on the floor. I could feel the tension in its neck.

"What's her name?" I asked.

"Bingo, and it's a he. See, he's calming down. Nothing to worry about."

"Look at him! He probably has fleas. Get him off my carpet, I just vacuumed."

"He's been hanging around the radio station for a week. We mentioned him a couple of times on air but nobody called. We've been feeding him. He can eat six cans of food a day." My brother chuckled.

"Six cans!" said my sister. "He's going to be as big as a horse."

"Is he hungry now? I'll get him something to eat." I jumped up from my chair. The dog lunged. All I saw was snapping, white teeth. Luckily, my brother had a firm hold on the leash.

"I told you to sit still. He's not mean, just scared. Give him time."

"Bingo. What kind of a name is that? 'And Bingo was his name-o,'" my sister sang off key.

"Keith, this is the last time you pull a stunt like this. I'll tell you this, he gets two cans a day and no more. And you keep him away from Pootie."

In. The dog was in!

I smiled. Sitting very still, I looked into the almond-brown eyes of the scared, lonely dog that would become my best friend.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

• "A" is for the A to Z Challenge

"A" is for the A to Z Challenge, one of the never ending ideas for promoting ourselves in social media. I make fun of online self-promotion, but that's part of why I signed up for this challenge. More importantly, I wanted to challenge myself.

As a pet sitter, I follow blogs about dogs, cats, ferrets, hamsters, animal advocacy, pet health, pet training, pet products, pet books, pet photography . . . you get the point. Sometimes I join the Saturday Pet Blogger's Challenge, which always includes more than 100 participants. Bloggers hold contests, raise funds for animal organizations, and passionately speak to controversial issues.

I wrote about my hamster's second-place finish in the Petco hamster ball derby.

The GoPetFriendly blog, Take Paws, does it right. They post on the same three days every week. They ask other bloggers whose posts they like to write guest blogs—including me! They have sponsors and run ads. Every Friday they hold a photo challenge; winners get a GoPetFriendly calendar. In 2012 they're holding a March Madness-style contest for the most pet-friendly city, for which more than 64 readers suggested cities (mine, Prescott, Arizona, lost in the first round). Several hundred people vote, and winners will get GoPetFriendly T-shirts, dog bowls, and a gift certificate. The blog is just one component of the GoPetFriendly site, which is rich with resources for pet parents who travel.

Niche blogging is a very good thing, as is blogging regularly. Because I'm a pet sitter, you'd think most posts would be about pet sitting. Some are. But I've also written about a pet expo, pet photos with Santa, and recipes for rodents.

"Grownup" blogs are dependable, focused, well written, interactive, visually appealing, timely, and interesting. Many bloggers generate income. In terms of my age, I'm definitely a grownup. In terms of this blog, I want to turn it up a notch. Forcing myself to post every day is a start.

Thus, the A to Z Challenge. Tomorrow—yikes!!—is "B."