Noe Valley Voice December-January 2001

Pet Sitters Hope to Make Your Vacation Prrrfect

By Lorraine Sanders

Take a stroll through Noe Valley, and it's no secret that this neighborhood loves its pets. From the dogs and their faithful owners on every corner, to the cats lazily keeping watch from residence windows, Noe Valley's pets are an intrinsic part of the neighborhood's character. But as the holidays thunder toward us faster than a canine toward its kibble, local pet owners are scrambling to find temporary caretakers for Fluffy and Fido. Luckily, Noe Valley clients have a herd of pet sitters and pet-care options to choose from.

Paula Harris, co-owner of the Noe Valley Pet Company, says, "There are three different ways to have pets cared for [besides leaving them with a nice aunt or uncle]. One is the traditional kennel, where dogs stay in dog runs. Then there are petsitters who have the dogs outside and let them run free [in large, fenced-in areas]. This is called European-style boarding.

"Or you can call an individual to come and stay in your home," Harris says. "I'd say having an individual pet sitter is preferred, but I don't want to say there aren't great facilities [for boarding]."

A Weekend in the Country

One pet-sitting service Harris recommends is Doody Calls!, a "pet camp" operated by Jenny Test and Lloyd LaBarron at the couple's nine-acre vineyard in Healdsburg, Calif. Test says the service she started seven years ago combines the European board-and-care style with the personal touch.

Guests get plenty of outdoor exercise, she says, but sleep with all the comforts of home (next to her own dogs, Elvis, Bandita, and Talula). "The dogs have free run of the vineyards, which are fenced in. But they sleep inside -- we have 10 dog beds. You'd never believe my house is actually clean," Test says with a laugh.

While all this might seem like a relaxing vacation for both man and beast, Test and LaBarron are constantly on the run, walking dogs, visiting their feline charges, and ferrying their canine clients to and from the city. That's right, Doody Calls! will pick up and drop off dogs for daily walks or overnight stays.

Test says her partner LaBarron (who is also her fiancé) specializes in dogs that don't do well off-leash. She adds that Doody Calls! makes house calls not just for dogs and cats, but for any kind of pet.

More Than Puppy-Love

Jean Matt, who runs a pet-sitting and dog-walking service called Animal Magnetism, is another versatile pet sitter. "I'll take care of any animal that does not need to be fed live mice," she says. (Sorry, all you snake owners!)

The proud owner of a "pound special" named Dina, Matt says it was her love for dogs that got her into the pet-sitting business. "Two and a half years ago, when I was between dogs, I got to pet-sit for a month, and it was wonderful. I realized I could do something I love and get paid for it. I feel incredibly privileged that people pay me to hang out with their animals."

Matt lived in Noe Valley for eight years before moving to Daly City, and says she never tires of coming back to visit her furry friends.

A love of animals was also what attracted Michelle Jones to the profession. "Ever since I was little, I have enjoyed time spent with animals, and it just seemed natural to family and friends that I would take care of their pets while they went on vacation," says Jones, who's been pet-sitting for the past two years while working at the Noe Valley Pet Company. Of her self-taught pet-care background, Jones says, "What I have learned I have learned from experiences with my own pets, and the others I have taken care of."

Jones' relationship with the Pet Company often means goodies for her charges. "When one dog ripped up his toy, I was like, 'You need another toy,'" says Jones. "I work at the pet store, so I always get the dogs some kind of treat. But I always clear it with the parents first," she adds.

In addition to keeping her dogs drooling, Jones is "trying to save up money for insurance." As for her future plans, Jones, who's 23, says happily, "I don't think I'll ever pursue another thing -- except maybe to get a bigger house and [pet-sit] more."

While some owners may stress the importance of bonding and licensing, it is not a logical step for many pet sitters, especially those who work part-time. "People are very primed these days to ask for that," says Matt, "and it's great when people can be [bonded or insured], but I keep my groups small on purpose and don't work a full-time schedule. It's not financially viable for me."

Some Fancy Cats

Most pet sitters love all animals, but some cater to certain species. Julie Browning, who resides on 19th Street, has been running Fog City Petsitting since 1988. She says she especially enjoys "working with elderly cats. They often need medication or fluids. Not many sitters do that -- not that it's hard. I've just had previous experience."

Before becoming a pet sitter and dog walker, Browning worked in an animal hospital. She prefers her current place in the pet-care industry, however. "I like working with animals that are happy to see me, as compared with animals at an animal hospital, who often aren't."

Though Browning specializes in cats, she also watches dogs. "I take small groups [of dogs] to the park. I hit the tennis ball, and by the time we're done, those dogs are tired. I've found that's a good way for them to get a lot of exercise." Browning also enjoys taking dogs to places like Bernal Hill, where off-leash dogs are legal. "They can run around all they want," she says.

Cass Morgan, who lives on Whitney Street, is the owner of Positively Pets, a pet-sitting service she describes as "absolutely much more cat-oriented." With two-thirds of her business devoted to visiting cats in their homes while their families are away, Morgan says that she and other primarily cat sitters "have been hard hit by the September 11 events. It has been pretty profound for people who don't walk a lot of dogs. You can take two, three, four dogs out at a time. You can't combine the cats," she notes.

The recent slump in travel means she's doing a lot more marketing -- "talking to people, handing out business cards to people I meet, and talking to veterinarians" -- which helps get the word out. Morgan also credits her longstanding ad in the Voice as "one of the best ways to get really good clients in the neighborhood."

A Bird Who Sings Carmen

Kathleen Dwyer, who has run The Caged Inn out of her home for 10 years, only accepts guests with wings. A 14-year veteran of Noe Valley, Dwyer began taking care of birds when she needed a "new career after programming. So I tried it, and it worked," she says. "As far as I know, I'm the only one who takes birds in. Some clients call it birdie day care or a B&D," she jokes.

One thing's for certain, Dwyer's own birds, an African Gray named Miha and Poopsie the Cockatiel, love the company. Says Dwyer, "All the birds here enjoy having other birds around. They're very sociable creatures."

For Dwyer, the best thing about caring for birds is "their sense of humor. A lot of them just make me laugh. They really talk and make jokes. Some do little tricks. I know at least two birds who sing 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.'" Dwyer also has a bird client that sings the opera Carmen, "and she sort of bounces while she does it," Dwyer says.

Don't Bark at the Last Minute

Sure, pet sitting can be a lot of fun, but some things make the job difficult for professional pet sitters.

"You really have to be available to be successful," says Browning. "Some people call at the last minute.... I even had one person call me from his destination."

For Test and LaBarron, it's awkward when an owner starts to rely on them to supply all of their pet's physical and emotional needs. "Some people hire [pet sitters] and then get lazy," says Test. "It upsets me because it is bad for the dog. You should hire [pet sitters] for extra exercise, so dogs can live comfortably in a city and not have behavior problems."

The only negative in Matt's experience was the client who seemed to have mixed feelings about her staying in his home. "He ordered me to bring my own sheets, pillow, towel, and washcloth, wouldn't allow use of his TV, and cancelled eight hours before the job was to start," she says.

Those "Aww" Moments

Pet sitters go to great lengths to make pet owners feel comfortable about having someone in their homes and watching over their cherished pets. "I provide local references so that [owners] know their animal will be in good hands and that I'm not going to run off with the silverware," Matt says. She also asks clients to complete an intake sheet with contact and medical information before they leave.

Jones urges potential clients to call her references. "I love it when people call my references. I can't stress that enough."

All pet sitters interviewed for this article mentioned the importance of meeting both the owner and the animal before beginning a job. Says Test, "I even offer to let [owners] go on a walk with me," so they can see how their dog interacts with her and other dogs.

When clients and pet sitters click, great things happen. For Test, the little things make the job special. "We had seven dogs sleeping [in our house], and we came out to get water in the middle of the night. They were all sleeping together on one big dog bed. It was the cutest thing. We ended up videotaping it."

Matt recalls her most rewarding pet encounter. "I once took care of a half-wolf who remained frightened of all humans except his owner even after five years. I was very honored when, after two days in the house with him, he let me scratch his belly. His owner was thrilled, too."

To find these local pet sitters, make sure to call them in advance. While they all accept last-minute clients when possible, they can get booked months ahead, especially around the holidays. Rates vary from sitter to sitter and generally range from $25 to $40 for overnight pet care and $10 to $25 for walks, drop-in visits, and administering medication.

Sniffing Out a Pet Sitter

Molly Maloney, owner of the San Francisco doggie daycare facility Pooches Playtime, has compiled a list of guidelines for choosing a pet-care provider. The bottom line, she says, is to use caution, ask lots of questions, get referrals, and check references.

"It's a lot about reliability," says Maloney. "Really talk to your pet sitter. You're giving over your house key and your [pet's] life."

Here are some of the questions Maloney recommends you ask a potential pet sitter:

* What are your rates and the exact services provided? What are your cancellation policies and billing methods?

* Are there any health and temperament requirements for my animal or for others my animal might be exposed to? Does my dog need a city license?

* What methods of behavior modification do you employ? Give examples.

* What are the safety measures you use? Are you trained in animal first-aid and CPR?

* What kind of car or van do you use? Can I inspect it to make sure it's well-ventilated and secure?

* How much time have you spent in the pet-sitting business? What are your other qualifications? Can you give me references and phone numbers?

* How many dogs (or other animals) do you care for at any one time?

* Are you licensed, bonded, and insured?

Contact Numbers

Animal Magnetism
Jean Matt, 650-756-8575

The Caged Inn
Kathleen Dwyer, 415-647-1824

Doody Calls!
Jenny Test and Lloyd LaBarron, 415-705-0507;

Fog City Petsitting
Julie Browning, 415-835-2107

Michelle Jones, please call Noe Valley Pet Company, 415-282-7385

Pooches Playtime
Molly Maloney, 415-824-3743

Positively Pets
Cass Morgan, 415-647-2463