If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  I never really understood that exercise in basic philosophy — of course it does, I scoffed — until I found myself thinking along similar lines: If a pet sitter is taking good care of your dog but doesn’t communicate that fact to you, is it really good care?

My answer: I don’t think so.

A bit of background. I was away this past week in Portland, OR, on a travel writing assignment, and left Frankie, my insulin-dependent dog, in the care of Ruth (not her real name). Ruth,  who had worked for many years as a vet tech, had come highly recommended by a friend. During our initial interview, she had seemed extremely responsible. Nevertheless, I made it clear that I expected daily communication from her about Frankie.

Or I thought I made it clear.

Ruth didn’t phone the first night at the time we’d agreed upon, and when I called her, she didn’t answer her cell phone, but she did phone me back within half an hour. The next night she returned my call within a few minutes. But the following night…

As several of my Twitter pals who were privy to the drama that unfolded in the wee hours of this past  Saturday morning know,  I could not get hold of Ruth on Friday evening. I called and left messages on her cell phone until late into the night. I called my home land line — which, unfortunately, keeps its messages private, so I couldn’t shout at her to pick up the phone if she was within earshot.

I couldn’t sleep all night, worrying that something had happened to Ruth and picturing Frankie all alone, hungry and in need of insulin. I tried Ruth’s cell again at 5:30a.m. the next morning, which is when Frankie usually gets his first insulin shot. No answer. I then called my house and let the phone ring and hung up four times in succession — a clear sign of distress, I figured. Nada.

So finally, with the encouragement of my wonderful Twitter community, I called a friend at 6am — the one who had recommended Ruth as it happens — and asked her to go over to my house to check on Frankie.

When the friend got to my house, she phoned immediately to say that Frankie was fine. She handed her phone over to Ruth who, in contrast, was not fine. In fact, she was furious at the early morning intrusion. She’d left her phone at her home, she said — no biggie, she implied — and couldn’t believe that “I hadn’t trusted her” even though she’s a vet tech. I tried to explain that it had nothing to do with questioning her ability but that I was worried that something had happened to her, as a result of which she wouldn’t have been able to provide Frankie with any care, excellent or otherwise.

She wasn’t having it.

And although I was vastly relieved that Frankie was fine, my trip was ruined. I was exhausted because of lack of sleep, upset that I was being blamed for what had been, from my perspective, a clear mistake on her part.

Our final communication, which took place yesterday, was less than pleasant. I phoned to say I was coming back early, though not in time for Frankie’s evening feeding and shot. I asked her to stay afterwards, so I could pay her and she could return my keys. She said she couldn’t stay. I asked her to leave my keys. She said she wouldn’t — given how “things were between us,’ that she would give me my keys when she got my check.

I came home last night to find a full bowl of soggy food — including bits of cheese, which Frankie is not supposed to eat. This suggested to me that either Ruth gave Frankie his insulin shot without making sure he had eaten or that she had not given him his insulin. Her rather cryptic records indicated that insulin had been administered… who knows when. I decided to monitor Frankie’s water intake rather than trying to get an answer from Ruth who had indicated she wouldn’t be available.

This morning, I’m happy to report that Frankie is fine, and back on his regular food and insulin schedule. I’m still upset however, and tempted to change my locks rather than pay Ruth, who is holding my extra house keys hostage.

I’m a bit too close to this whole thing to impart much takeaway wisdom, except to add to my earlier post about finding a good pet sitter: Make sure to stipulate — in writing — exactly when and how you expect communication about your pet to occur. It won’t guarantee anything, but it will provide clarity.

P.S. Several of my aforementioned Twitter pals were pet sitters who were very irate on my behalf. And I’ve had excellent experiences with Frankie’s caretakers in the past. I consider Ruth an anomaly — but one who gave me the opportunity to make it clear how important communication with a client is.

32 thoughts on “Petsitting & Philosophy 101”

  1. Edie,
    How horrible for you. Of course your trip was ruined. I would be worried too. I’m glad to hear that Frankie is okay.
    We are renovating our kitchen, and when the electricians came, I told everyone that I have an indoor cat. I told each worker and the supervisor to keep widows closed and to be careful when going in and out of the house. They worked at our house for a few days. Each time, I told them about my cat. I was out for the day, and left them with Earl, my cat. I put Earl in my bedroom, with the door closed.
    When I came home, the kitchen window was wide open. Earl opened my bedroom door, went down to the kitchen, and jumped out of the window onto a car and was not found for a good 40 minutes.
    Fortunately, I found him in our backyard. It was scary. I called the electrician and yelled at her. I was mad, and she knew it. The message I got was one of confusion. I truly didn’t think they got it. Some of the workers thought I was just another crazy cat lady.
    Obviously, I have not and will not recommend them.

    1. Oh my goodness, Michele — what an awful experience for you, too. I’m glad Earl found his way home.

  2. That’s awful!! I can only imagine your stress, how could someone not recognize that was a big deal? I’m so glad Frankie is OK, and that you’re back to take care of him!

  3. Sorry to hear your wonderful trip was ruined. How horrible, both scenarios. I’ve similar problems.
    Now I have a dog sitter who is somewhat of a pain because she cleans out my closets and folds things and rearranges the pantry, etc. because she has a lot of “nervous energy” so she says. And always gives me unwanted advice about how to make my sink shine — like I give a damn.
    Sometimes she moves things and I can’t find them.
    Last time she told me she painted the outside of the toilet bowl. I didn’t even notice that it needed painting. Whatever.
    Bottom line — she takes really good care of my dog and loves Lily. The other stuff is annoying but she has my dog’s best interest in mind.

  4. Karyn, too bad we can’t trade. I have an Archie sitter who loves him, allows him to sleep with her and generally coddles him, so I shouldn’t complain, BUT every time I return home, something is broken, there’s a hole in the wall, the turquoise towels have giant bleach spots on them, the designer shampoo is all used up, etc. But as I always say, “It’s all about Archie,” the rest really doesn’t matter, and she’s excellent at communicating with me daily, even when I’m out of the country.

  5. Over the years I have had more and more problems with home and pet sitters — to the point I figure it’s just as well health and budget preclude out-of-town travel. There is NOTHING like coming home a few days early from a trip to give one the dreadful truth about what has been happening when you were gone.
    Number 1. When I lived in Seattle, I worked horrendous hours and traveled a lot. I had a full-time professional pet sitter on tap, who would come walk the (2) dogs and/or feed the dogs and (2) cats twice a day if I had to be out of town unexpectedly or work really late. When I was gone on a planned trip, she took my dogs home with her — even when I was out of town four days a week for a few months. But then she expanded her business. I went to France for a couple of weeks on vacation (half spent walking the Dordogne in the walnut and mushroom season, YUM!), but decided for various reasons to come home a few days early (i.e. Algerian bombers had Paris locked down tight). I called the pet sitter from Detroit to let E T. (not her real name) know I would be home late that afternoon, and would like the dogs delivered home, too.
    No answer. I continued calling from Detroit and Sea-Tac airport. No answer. I got home to find: my front door was unlocked. The security system was OFF. My houseplants were dead. And there was no sign of my dogs. E. T. called late that night, and admitted she had been sending an employee over to the house. She did not explain why there had been no one at her home or kennel for the past 12 hours, but did slip up and admit she had been kenneling my dogs rather than taking them into her home. She replaced (sort-of) the begonia that had been a gift from a lover. I never hired her again.
    Number 2. After I moved to Tucson I had an “event’ that required me to be in Tucson, but staying at a resort (hard duty 😉 ) for a week. I hired a pet sitter on the recommendation of a friend. Pet sitter was teen-ager, but she had Mom for back-up. I repeatedly told her, and left written instructions that reminded her, that I was reachable and could come home if needed.
    I did not hear a peep from the young woman, whose name I fortunately have forgotten. (WARNING: Gross material follows) But I came home to find lovely infestations of maggots in bowls of spoiled food in my kitchen sink. One or more of the dogs had had diarrhea on a carpet I had freshly cleaned the day before I left. No clean-up or stain removal attempted. When I confronted pet-sitter with these problems, she said the foul materials of every sort had already been there when she arrived.
    I cut her pay accordingly.
    Even boarding my dogs at my vet did not work for me — I haven’t tried it since both dogs contracted kennel cough during a stay at one vet’s facilities.
    Anyone out there have a system for vetting pet sitters that does work?

    1. Rebecca – I am so sorry you had such bad experiences! One of the reasons I will NOT hire a teenager is listed in your response. They’re just not adult enough to be reliable. I wouldn’t hire the next door neighbor’s kid or someone claiming to be a pet sitter at that age. They’re just not reliable yet.

      I hope you will give some of us another chance. There are some good ones out there. Check out Rob Nager , owner of Decadent Dog (Pet Sitter of the Year) – he gets it.

  6. Wow…I know that sleepless horrid fear that comes from being stuck in a place without a backup plan if all goes awry with your dog/house sitter. Happened to me, too. Stuck in Baltimore at a Organic Foods trade show. No flights out, all night awake. Couldn’t do my job. I am sorry you had such an experience–some people seem to be not only irresponsible sucky incompetents, but also entertain delusions of adequacy.

    Here’s what I see from what you related: She broke the contract and with bad intent–not in error–by not calling or even taking your calls after the first, and thought she could get away with it. She was telling *you* how she would do the job after you thought she agreed with your request, and when it was too late for you to do anything about it–you were already out of town–perhaps in her mind teaching you a lesson. I would change the locks right away given this level of aggressive behavior. Anytime you leave the house you’re subject to mischief, IMHO. Sheesh, what an ordeal!

    I wouldn’t pay more than administering shots would have cost. Be prepared for small claims court with your tweeples comments and yours printed out.

    1. One of the worst aspects of this was I *did* have a backup plan: I rent a guesthouse behind my house to a guy who’s usually very responsible (in fact, I leave my car with him so he can drop me off and pick me up at the airport). I couldn’t reach him either — either on his phone or his girlfriend’s! I had this vision of the pet sitter and my tenant combing the streets together, looking for an escaped Frankie, afraid to tell me the truth…

      Unfortunately, our contract wasn’t a written out legal one. I did send her a letter today mentioning that I found Frankie with a full bowl of food, in spite of his stipulated need to finish a meal before he is administered insulin. I wanted her to be aware that she was busted on that one too — thus undermining her “I am a professional vet tech, why don’t you trust me?” stance. I also suggested that she meet a friend for the check/key exchange because I didn’t want to see her again.

      Though I hate the idea of paying her for nonservices rendered and would like to penalize her for messing up my trip by at least deducting the money I paid for changing my flight, at this point I think I’ll take the moral high ground. If I pay her, she won’t be able to look like the party injured by the evil mistrustful dog owner.

  7. Hmmm, maybe consult a lawyer on advisability of paying anything at all. May create more mess than it solves. You should be able to get a free consult on this as it’s small claims and not all that involved in terms of written contracts to review etc.

    1. I know, nothing like blogging — or at least having a guest blogger post — about the importance of a written contract, and then not have one myself. I keep thinking of those sayings about physicians healing themselves, shoemakers without shoes, etc…

  8. We tend to bring the dogs wherever we go but if we can’t, we begrudgingly put them in boarding (PetsHotel since it is the only one we could find with truly private rooms where they’re not surrounded by noise and/or onlooking dogs). In a pinch, we’ve used a friend but we don’t want to put her out (cats are one thing, dogs are another!). We’ve been talking about getting a sitter. We’d never consider it if it weren’t for the security system (including cameras) we have in place. Sure, we’re nuts but when it comes to our pets that is a good thing 😉

    1. I love the pet cam idea! And I love this community of the pet-crazed — um, fond of our pets in a rational fashion…

  9. Oh, yes, the petcam! It is a great device to help calm nerves when you’re away. Urban Outsitters where we keep the Lake Shore shelter dogs has webcams everywhere, and it’s just the greatest!

  10. human nature being what it is, I have (finally) learned to expect that when people s— on me and I point it out to them that somehow I always manage to be painted as the bad guy.
    I agree, pay the person and get the keys asap – preferably through an intermediary – even maybe yours instead of hers, as someone she sends would likely have the ‘attitude’ you’d have to deal with too – and move on.

    Thankfully I don’t have the high anxiety that comes with an insulin-dependent dog. I used to use high school students who were cheap when I went out of town, to come over and feed the 3 dogs and the cat. the aggravation of their occasional unprofessional behaviors finally forced me (well, they have a way of graduating too) to find a professional pet sitter. Of course it costs more, but what a relief. we’ve been ‘together’ about four years now – there were a few misunderstandings, or miscommunications perhaps, in the beginning that were due to just not being used to each other but now I can go away for a week without worrying at all. I guess that the moral of this story is when you start off with someone new that if possible that it’s a good idea to break them in over time with some short trips so that some trust is built up. so much wisdom we are taught from the furry children!

    1. Yes I’m going to go the intermediary route — and, as you say, with an intermediary of my choice.

      And yes it used to be far less stressful getting care for Frankie pre-diabetes — though one pet sitter fed him so much that he threw up on every possible surface the morning before I was due to come home….

      I do have one petsitter that I like very much; she works for my vet. She wasn’t available this time but I’m going to try very hard to book her as soon as I know I’m going away.

  11. First of all I am so sorry that you had to deal with this, and so glad that Frankie is okay.

    You are so right Edie, it is amazing how far a little communication can go. The only thing more amazing is why some people just don’t get this concept. Everybody has experienced the frustration of people not communicating and so you think it would be easy to empathize.

    As for your pet sitter, I would call the police and report the keys as stolen. I would also file a lawsuit in small claims court for the cost of having all the locks replaced. She has no right to ransom your keys.

    1. Thanks for your sympathy — and your irateness on my behalf! I feel very well defended on this blog.

      One of the problems with this whole issue is that “Ruth” and I have a mutual friend — the one whom I sent to my house at 6a.m. to check up on Frankie. I don’t want to escalate this to the point that I make the friend feel uncomfortable. She probably feels bad enough about the whole mess as it is. And I wouldn’t want to deprive Frankie of the company of this friend’s dog, a miniature poodle who is as shy as he is. During our twice weekly walks, they are very cute together (or at least in close proximity).

    1. You know, she still doesn’t get it. She left a long, rambling message on my phone about how she’s a responsible vet tech who would never hurt a dog and therefore was very upset that I didn’t plan to pay her, a presumption based on the fact that I didn’t include a check in the note I sent her. She managed to miss the part of the note where I explained that I would have a friend do the key/check exchange because I didn’t want to have further contact with her.

  12. I have the best pet sitter in the world, my Mom! I don’t even know where to start if I have to find Jersey a pet sitter that I would trust. I’m happy that Frankie is okay.

    1. Thanks, Karen. Yes, it’s great to have a pet loving relative in town. Even if my mother were still with us, she would have made a terrible pet sitter — as I like to say, she feared all creatures great and small. I suspect that would have included Frankie!

  13. I’m taking a rare trip in a couple weeks from LA to NY and was contemplating taking Muffin with me because I worry sooo much when I’m not with her. Sharon, my girlfriend, has three dogs and a backyard so I normally leave Muffin with her, but she’s coming with me to NY and having her dog sitter watch all 4 dogs. I just think the stress of traveling and staying in strange places in a strange city outweighs the stress of staying in familiar surroundings with her doggie friends and the sitter. I’m following your protocol and will definitely establish that communication each day is mandatory and replies to texts or calls must be fast. Thanks for a great blog!

    1. Adam, thanks for writing! Yes, travel is stressful for many dogs — and for the owners who worry about their dogs’ stress. I’m glad what happened to me was helpful. It still boggles my mind that my petsitter doesn’t get that customer service is key — she continued to defend her care of Frankie without acknowledging that she had an obligation to report that care to me!

      Good luck — and have a great time in my hometown. I love to go back to NY but would never imagine taking Frankie. I think the noise and traffic would really stress him.

  14. As witness to the early morning drama with Frankie (altho I prefer to think of it as a nightmare), I can completely understand people now fearing to leave their dogs with a pet sitter. I will just say that as a pet sitter myself, I ALWAYS ask a client what type of communication methods they prefer and how frequently they want that communication.

    I am so sorry you got a bad one Edie, but as I said that morning, I would fire her a** immediately. Her inability to understand your concerns and thinking that you should just “trust her” was ridiculous. One earns trust by their actions, not by their title.

    I’m really mad however, that she left before making sure Frankie ate. And, that she is now holding your keys hostage. Unbelievable. She is in the wrong business. She’s also giving the rest of us a bad name.

    1. In turn, I hope my report of my early morning crisis — which Mel definitely helped me through — didn’t suggest that I haven’t had wonderful experiences with pet sitters at other times. I think the lesson to take away here is that pet sitting, at its best, is a profession, and the people who treat it as such will be able to give it a good name.

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