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.

Home boarding dogs – the pros and cons

Home boarding dogs can be a life-invasive service to provide, but when it is well managed it can be great fun and extremely rewarding. So let’s take a closer look at the nuts and bolts of home boarding dogs, how things can go wrong and what you can do to breathe longevity into this service.

The really great things about home boarding dogs

  • You can work entirely from home. People bring their dogs to you and providing you have good local walking – a prerequisite, I would say – you don’t even really need a car to transport them.
  • Home boarding dogs is our number one, most frequently requested service, making up about three quarters of all our initial enquiry calls. Unless you are very specific about which dogs you will take, you are very likely to be able to build a full work load from home boarding dogs, if that’s what you want.
  • Most councils allow up to 4 dogs to be boarded at one time in an average sized home. You can, of course, set your own limits if you feel you want to board less than this. The average pay for boarding is around £20 per day, per dog, so you could earn anything from a full time wage to a top up wage (perhaps in early retirement).
  • You are in full control of how many dogs you care for and how frequently you have time off.
  • If you have a sociable dog at home the incoming dogs can offer an added dimension to your own dog’s life. This will however reduce the number of dogs you can host.
  • If you don’t own your own dog, home boarding dogs is a lovely way of sharing your home with canine loveliness for short periods.
  • You are working from home, so will have plenty of time to do other things at home if you fit them around the dogs’ care.

Difficulties that crop up with home boarding dogs

home boarding dogs
It’s fun to play with a new friend

1. Sociable dogs, who do not usually live together, may get on very well in your home, but they are likely to play more frequently and exuberantly with each other during their stay, than they would if they were used to living together.

Solutions:

  • board single dogs and board them on their own.
  • board adult dogs over 3 years who have usually settled a great deal and only take a second dog if he’s a good match.
  • board multiple dogs from the same household.
  • provide a playroom for the dogs without any of your special furniture or possessions.

2. Your garden will doubtless suffer from having a throughput of dogs in your home, with everything from urine burns on the grass to digging in the flowerbeds.

Solutions:

  • consider getting an area of artificial grass and an outside hosepipe which is the ideal set up for toileting.
  • fence off an area of garden for growing beautiful things.
  • if the garden is a real issue for you, board small breeds only, as they will do much less damage.
home boarding dogs
Be prepared for extra cleaning!

3. Your house will require more cleaning, and there will be greater wear and tear on flooring, glass doors (scratches) and furniture – many dogs are used to being allowed on sofas and beds.

Solutions:

  • choose easily cleaned flooring (not carpet) for the areas of your home where the dogs will be allowed
  • have a good supply of large dog towels, wipes etc., and always clean dogs well after a walk
  • use washable throws to protect furniture
  • again, if the house is a real issue for you, board small breeds only, as they will usually, bring in less dirt and do less damage.

4. Dogs sometimes regress in their behaviours when boarded,  because of the loss of routine and their familiar environment. Male dogs – especially those who aren’t castrated – often mark inside a home where many dogs have been before them. 

Solutions:

  • Give time at the initial booking visit to ensure that you understand the dog’s usual routines and behaviors. Try to replicate these and encourage the owners to bring the dog’s own equipment. Familiarity is comforting.
  • Only board neutered dogs.
  • Choose easily cleaned floor coverings for the accidents that do occur.
home boarding dogs
Just say no!

5. Unless you are ruthless about saying “no”, it can be very hard to get time off once you have a regular client base. We all realise that if we can’t provide for our clients’ needs, they will find another company who can. Unless our service is exceptional,  or our client relationships very strong that may be the last we see of them.

Solutions:

  • Work out your own parameters and stick to them, unless, of course, they stop working for you, in which case,  tweak them.
  • Bear in mind that you are working – at least in the sense of being responsible for the dogs – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Since most licencing requirements include only leaving the dogs for a maximum of three hours (and not repeatedly), you will need to specifically pencil gaps into your boarding schedule for time off and holidays.
  • Know when to say “no”!
  • Make good use of any quieter periods to really look after yourself and your family.
  • If you only have one or two dogs staying, take the opportunity to do social things where they can come with you.

6. When booking a dog in, it is important that you get an accurate picture of the dog’s problem behaviours. Many negative behaviours can go unreported by an owner eager to get a home boarding placement for their dog.

Solutions:

  • Ask direct questions about problem behaviour, such as, “Does your dog bark in the house?” Most owners won’t lie if asked directly.
  • Have a clause in the terms and conditions that states that you must be supplied with relevant information about any problem behaviours, and list those that are important to you.
  • Set your own parameters for which behaviours you will and won’t accommodate.  Excessive barking is always an issue for me as I am noise sensitive, and it saps my strength and resilience.
Home boarding dogs
How to manage pulling…

7. Some clients may want you to sort out their dog’s negative behaviours during a stay. To some extent you’ll want to at least minimise the impact of such behaviour on yourself,  your family and your neighbours. But don’t forget – you aren’t being contracted as a behaviourist or trainer, and even if you are qualified to give this kind of help, you’re not being paid to do so.

Solutions:

  • Be very clear at the booking visit exactly what you are willing and able to offer. It’s fair enough to adjust and manage behaviour to make a dog’s stay more pleasant for both of you, but you aren’t obligated to do so.
  • Have a good supply of equipment that will help you to manage dogs who pull, or are anxious or destructive and such like.

8. Some behaviour – notably barking – can have an impact on your relationship with your neighbours.

Solutions:

  • Keep the dogs – especially when left alone for periods – away from any rooms that are attached to the neighbours property.
  • Try to address the barking if possible, using tools such as calming bands, distraction and removing visual cues (by closing blinds).
  • If you host a particularly noisy dog, drop in on your neighbours and apologise for the barking, assuring them that the dog will be going home in a few days. Try to be proactive in keeping relations good, rather than letting things escalate.