Running an ethical pet sitting business

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10 “Must do’s” when running an ethical pet sitting business

  1. Turn up when you say you will. Timekeeping is really important to clients. Unforeseen circumstances occasionally mean that you will be late in providing a service, but this should be the absolute exception, rather than the norm. Timekeeping should be a high priority in your day to day schedule; that way you’ll be forgiven for the odd occasion when a car breaks down or some random occurrence makes you late. An ethical pet sitting business will aim to deliver the service requested at the time specified.
  2. Do what you are paid to do. If you offer day care, someone is paying you so that their dog isn’t left alone during the hours that they are at work. If they didn’t mind their dog being left alone, presumably they would book a midday walk instead. The expectation for dogs in day care is that you give them your company for by far the majority – if not all – of the day. Home boarding is similar; if the client wasn’t concerned about their dog having human company and comfort, they would likely choose the cheaper option of a kennel. Most licences allow for a 3 hour gap in care for each 24 hour period. This is reasonable to allow for shopping, walking other dogs etc., or a social event. It’s equally important that the dog has access to you and/or your family in the home. Boarded dogs shouldn’t be shut away, left outside unsupervised, or crated for long periods (if they have come with a crate for night time use). If you can’t commit to this level of care, don’t choose home boarding as the model for your company, or contract these services out to other people.
  3. Always keep your sights on what the dogs in your care want and need. This should be a high priority as part of providing an ethical pet sitting service. Educate yourself to know how to spot a dog who is uncomfortable, who is using calming signals, who is scared, who is trying to fake bravery, who is ‘tuned out’, or worse, shut down. A dog’s natural state is one of easy interaction with humanity. If that’s not what you are seeing, take a moment to work out why. Many dogs will find the first day and night in a boarding home uncomfortable. They may be anxious, fearful or confused. They’ve just lost most of what’s familiar to them, but with your calm kindness and reassurance they will almost certainly wake up the next morning with a cheerful and accepting attitude.
  4. If you can’t cover a dog’s care, find another suitable alternative. If you are walking the dog, you need someone who is over 16 and understands the issues and needs a dog might have while out in the wider world. Most pet business insurance doesn’t name who is insured (beyond the owner of the business), rather, a certain number of people working at any one time. But if you work alone, do make sure you insure for at least one other person, so that your partner/friend or another, can step in if it’s needed, and not leave you uninsured. If they can’t cover their day care or boarding commitments, an ethical pet sitting business owner, will make sure that the person they ask to step in, is licensed and insured to do so. If you leave a dog with a relative in an unlicensed premises and something goes wrong, you don’t have a legal leg to stand on. If you need to leave the dogs alone for more than the three hours maximum set by the licence conditions, pay a responsible person to ‘babysit’ them in your own (licensed) home.  Again, if you’ve added one unnamed co-worker to your insurance you will still be covered.
  5. Always remain on the right side of the law with respect to your dog care. An ethical pet sitting business doesn’t break the law – even if they don’t agree with it in principle. This means everything from being licenced and insured, to only taking dogs who are microchipped and making sure that all dogs are walked with their own (or a company) ID tag on their collar or harness. Picking up all dog faeces is another absolute must. There’s a summary of UK dog-related law in the free resources section, and I’ll be updating that with a blog post soon.
  6. Don’t put the dogs in your care at risk. This is as much about education, as it is about taking care. Obvious “no-no’s” are leaving chocolate, grapes or raisins around, having poisonous plants in the house or garden, tying a dog up outside a shop, leaving a dog in a hot car or leaving them unsupervised outside. There’s a shocking video on Facebook that shows two men scaling a 6 foot wall, noosing two dogs and then dragging them back over the wall by their necks. The dogs are large breeds and still, it’s all over in seconds, as the dogs are driven off in a van. Don’t ever be complacent. Other, perhaps less obvious risks, include, feeding unfamiliar dogs in the same room, walking along a roadside with an unlocked (some might say any, because of the failure rate) Flexi lead and allowing dogs to swim in deep, rapidly flowing or tidal water.
  7. Give the full time that has been purchased. Part of ethical pet sitting is staying for the required length of time. One of the most complained about factors that causes a client to switch companies is finding out the walker or sitter isn’t staying for the full time. Since these services are direct “money for time” transactions, it is essential that you keep good time and don’t allow visits to be cut short. If this ever becomes inevitable, an ethical response is to tell the client what has happened and why, and then assure them of either money back or extra time for the next visit.
  8. Use kind, non-coercive equipment and the right equipment to remain in full control. Just because a dog is dropped at your house with a choke chain or a head collar, doesn’t mean that you have to use it to walk the dog. For many prospective clients, whom you might meet out walking, your business’ reputation stands or falls over such things. Invest in a selection of sizes of a versatile balance harness, such as the Mekuti brand and use these routinely. I decided pretty early on that I wasn’t willing to walk pulling dogs on their collars – for their sake – nor was I willing to walk pulling dogs on a standard back-attachment-only harness, for my sake. If there is one piece of equipment that I actually couldn’t do without in providing our dog care service, it would be my Mekuti harnesses. They are used every day and many of our clients also have them now. The beauty is that you can help a dog to learn to walk calmly and comfortably, rather than just physically restraining them in the way that some other equipment does.
  9. Follow through on your promises. If you tell a client at booking, that their Bichon can sleep on your bed, or you will walk their dog for an hour, three times a day, then you should provide this level of care, if it’s humanly possible. Obviously, if the Bichon wees on your bedroom carpet on the first night, you may wish to revise the sleeping arrangement, but be creative in aiming to fulfill what you promised. Puppy pads or large towels might be a better (more ethical) option, than banishing the little one to solitary confinement in the kitchen. I’ve done everything, from sleeping on the sofa with a dog (to give them company downstairs), to giving over an old shaggy bathmat to become a washable indoor ‘toilet’ for a dog who just couldn’t resist christening it whenever she slept upstairs.
  10. Work as though you are being watched and you won’t go far wrong. I learned this when nursing – to always act in the same way as you would if a relative – or an assessor- was in the room. That way, you will maintain a professional attitude at all times and eventually this will be a habit. This doesn’t mean you can’t fool around with the dogs, or be stern with them if the situation merits it; just that you are consistent in all that you do, regardless of who is watching. Some clients have webcams or nosy (I mean, helpful) neighbours, so if you always work as though you are being watched, sometimes you will be right!

When should I take on staff?

Almost everyone that I have spoken to, who does this kind of work, has started out running their pet sitting business alone. It seems to be what we do, unless our chosen model is – by definition – one that requires staff. To be honest, when I first conceived the idea of earning a living wage from providing pet care, the thought of finding co-workers never entered my head. Since then I have worked alone, used casual workers, had employees and engaged independent contractors to support my business and now, five years later, I wish I had taken a different approach from the beginning. So, let’s look at the question “When should I take on staff?” I use the term staff to mean co-workers, not just employees.

Do I really need co-workers?
should I take on staff
Together or alone?

In order to decide whether you need co-workers, I would suggest that you determine what you want your business to be and how you want it to progress. Try answering yes or no to the following questions:

  • A. Do I want to continue to work alone for the lifespan of my business?
  • B. Do I see myself working in the business with a team in the future?
  • A. Is my vision to build a client base for my own income and then stop expanding the business?
  • B. Do I want to grow the business as much as I am able to?
  • A. Am I happy with the prospect of a modest, reliable income from doing my own pet care work, but have no expectation of financial growth beyond that?
  • B. Would I like to receive an income from the business that I don’t have to earn myself?
  • A: Am I willing to focus down on offering either home based services, or out of the house services, but not the whole package?
  • B: Would I prefer to provide for all of my clients needs, by offering a full package of pet care services?

Depending on your current vision for your business, you will have answered “Yes” to mainly A’s or mainly B’s. Both are viable ways to earn a living, but let’s look at them in more depth.

should I take on staff
Should I take on staff?
The ‘A’ business – should I take on staff ? Probably not!

Your business falls into this category if:

  • you want to keep things small and under your full control.
  • you want to do your own work and get paid for it.
  • you don’t want to worry about growing the business beyond what you can do yourself.

If you envisage running an A-type business, I would advise you to consider setting up a home based business providing day care and home boarding for dogs. With this model, it is possible to earn up to about £100 a day (minus costs), looking after 4 dogs in the average house. Obviously you will have quiet days and take holidays, so your actual income will more likely be around £400 per week (averaged out overall). It’s hard to achieve that kind of income doing dog walking on your own, and you’ll have the extra cost of buying, fitting, maintaing and running a fit-for-purpose vehicle.

should I take on staff
Working alone

Another possibility is house-sitting, where you offer to stay in other people’s houses to care for their animals, however this service is difficult to ‘sell’ unless you already know your clients well. The American model of pet-sitting offers a greater return because people leave their dogs ‘home-alone’ while they go on holiday, and pay for 3 or 4 visits to the house a day. This service is not palatable to the UK pet-owning population, who favour the home boarding approach. I have been asked once or twice over the years to provide home visits for home-alone dogs, but have politely refused, as I have not felt comfortable with what was being requested, from a welfare perspective. People in the UK are expecting to pay around £20 per day for their dog’s holiday care, and the number of visits/amount of care needed to make visiting a home-alone dog ethically viable, would be prohibitively expensive in comparison.

Potential problems of working alone

The difficulties you will have to overcome to succeed with this model include:

  • Covering your work when you are ill or on holiday.
  • Coping with lean periods when your income will fall.
  • Planning for time off when your income will be zero.
  • Balancing the unrelenting nature of this work with having a personal and social life.
  • Finding a level that will give you longevity as a business, without you burning out.
The ‘B’ business- should I take on staff ? Probably now!

Your business falls into this category if:

  • you want your business to grow in terms of workers, clients and income.
  • you want to offer more services than you can provide yourself.

The rest of this article is aimed at those who want B-type businesses.

If you are reading this before you have even started the foundational work of getting your business up and running, that’s great. If you are already running a fledgling business, this might help you to progress more quickly towards your goals. If you have been flying solo for a while and are worn out and stressed most of the time, please know that I have been there too, and there is a way out without letting your business fold.

Should I take on staff *before* I get oversubscribed myself? An unequivocal, resounding “Yes!”

Even if you are just setting up, but you want to work towards a team approach, then *now* is the time to begin finding your first worker. I remember well, how daunting it was to first take on a co-worker. I had been in business a year, and so far had only paid my young adult offspring – and one or two of their friends – to cover the odd walk for me, or to babysit the dogs who were on holiday in our home. I was busiest on the home boarding front and a long-term friend of mine, who had three dogs of her own, offered to home board some dogs herself. She got herself licensed and I upgraded my insurance (as she didn’t plan to source clients herself), worked out a contract and off we went. She could only take single dogs because of her own little gang, but even this was an immediate help, which in turn allowed me to realise that being able to tap into other boarding homes was something I wanted for the future.

should I take on staff
Sharing the load.

Next came a neighbour, who I didn’t already know, but who contacted me to see if she could work with me. She came along just as the walking side of the business was getting overwhelming, and I knew that I would have get help with that too. We met up for a trial run, one very snowy day in early 2013, and we did 7 ‘one to one’ walks together, on the trot. Rather that be put off, she has become my right hand woman – totally dependable and trustworthy – and she remains one of our team today. She is self employed and contracts her services to me, tried home boarding and decided it wasn’t for her, so now contracts her walking services only.

Since then I have employed a number of walkers through advertising – some great, some damaging – most were temporary; in-between jobs or at university. I also have a working relationship with one of my adult kids, one of my clients – both of whom are dog walkers – and two wonderful women who board our clients’ dogs in their homes. I am currently on a sabbatical year, living in my motorhome, running the business in a less hands-on way, but still doing some house-sits for longstanding clients. A year ago, I wouldnt have thought this degree of freedom remotely possble.

I wish I’d had the advice – or the vision – to engage co-workers from the outset. Also to hone my own contribution, and that of those who worked with me, to be either in or out of the home. I dont think any one person can do home based services and a full programme of out of the house walks, and do it all excellently. House dogs will be left alone while walking, and most councils stipulate that this is for 3 hours only. If you use your away from the house time walking dogs, when do you get to do anything else? This was my dilemma for a couple of years, because I began by offering multiple services with no co-workers. Years 3 and 4 found me home-based, doing day care and home boarding, while others walked my walking cients’ dogs. This was a far preferable arrangement.

should I take on staff
Building together

If you wait until the extra work is available, before finding co-workers, your expansion is likely to be slow or traumatic. You can easily get over-stressed and that’s when it becomes more likely that you will make mistakes. Get the structure of your business in place (in terms of who will provide which services) and the clients will follow, because you’ll be able to easilysay “yes”. Take on people who are either willing for their work to increase gradually over time, or are working their own business and contracting to you for extra work. This will ensure that not having a full client-load to give them straight away, isn’t an issue.

12 Pet sitting business models

There are many permutations and combinations of pet sitting business models, but these seem to be the most common.

  1. Dog walking business which focuses on group walks using a van to transport the dogs. Minimum of two staff to enable safety and control should there be any unforeseen occurrence on the walk or at one of the houses.
  2. Dog walking business which focuses on one-to-one walks on foot from the house (no van needed, but transport to get between houses in minimal time is essential). Where two dogs live very close together – and are compatible – walks could be paired. This type of business can survive and thrive with only one person other than the issue of cover for emergencies/illness or holiday.

    pet sitting business models
    Small animals need home boarding too.
  3. The popular ‘catch-all’ of pet sitting business models, that is often used interchangeably with  the term “petsitting”, at least in the UK. This model offers every conceivable kind of pet care service, including in-home boarding (for dogs, reptiles and smaller caged animals), walking (dogs), day care (dogs), home visits (any pets) and so on. A team approach is needed.
  4. Home-based dog boarding business, which only takes dogs for weekend and holiday boards. An excellent model for a sole trader, working alone in the first instance, so long as you have an emergency plan in place for extreme situations.
  5. Dog day care business, which offers day care only. Another good model for someone working alone in the first instance, so long as you have an emergency plan in place for extreme situations.
  6. Hub model for home boarding, where a central administrative hub manages a number of satellite boarding homes. The hub markets the business and generates clients who are then matched to a suitable boarding home. Hub boarding businesses can be small and in one geographical area, right through to being nationwide.
  7. Large premises dog day care facility, often providing transport for the dogs to the centre as well. This model needs a premises, a team of staff and a vehicle. This is one form of pet care business that probably benefits from employing staff, rather than using independent contractors.
  8. Home-based dog care, which is a combination of 4 and 5, covering both day care and home boarding. Works well for one person working alone in the first instance, so long as you have an emergency plan in place for extreme situations.
  9. House sitting service – this can be one person, in one area of the country – or indeed one person covering a much wider area, so long as they are not firmly rooted in their own home for any reason.
  10. Hub model of the house sitting service, where a central administrative hub manages a number of individuals willing to carry out house sitting duties. These are usually national organisations.
  11. Pet sitting service that only does home visits (for any animal) or walks, but does not also offer boarding or day care in the sitters own home. May offer overnight sits too.

    pet sitting business models
    Reptile holiday cover can be a popular service.
  12. Speciality service, such as reptiles only, small animals, or – in some areas – horses or smallholding care.

I started with the catch-all model (as many people do) as a sole trader, without co-workers. With hindsight, I wish someone had told me that this model requires a team approach. I worked for almost 18 months doing it all, with the support of a house full of young adults who ensured that no holidaying dogs were left alone, while I went off to do a list of walks and the odd cat visit each day. I was soon exhausted and struggled to build any part of the business, other than home boarding, which is such a popular service it kind of grows itself. How much more productive I could it have been, had I begun to build a team from the beginning? I would suggest that – unless you want to do your own work for yourself and never grow your business – you consider the merits of building a team from the very beginning. More on this in the co-workers section of the site.

pet sitting business models
House sitting can involve multi species households

With a name like Custom Canine Care, it was almost inevitable that we would end up as a dog-only service provider, but it took over 4 years and a lot of heartache getting there. As a company we provide home boarding, walking, day care, home visits and house sitting – all for dogs. However, each individual member of the team, bar one, specialises in either ‘in home’ or ‘out of the home’ care. It’s rarely satisfactory in the long term to try to do both.

Taking all this into consideration, it’s wise, before you start up your business, to have a clear idea of which of the pet sitting business models you want to pursue and where you would like to end up. If your chosen model involves co-workers, I would encourage you to get them on board from the earliest possible opportunity.