There was a time when pet-sitting was a privilege, not a paid position.
Spending a few days in someone's spacious, well-furnished house with a stocked refrigerator, real art on the walls, cable TV access, a decent stereo, washer and dryer, ample air conditioning, a bottle of Stolichnaya, and a couple of well-behaved pets was like a vacation to those of us who, decades ago, lived with irascible roommates in messy bare-bones apartments.
Now, pet owners have to hire people to do this. Granted, many of those putting themselves out there as dogsitters come with extensive references listed on their websites and social media pages. Some of them spend their working hours in animal-intensive positions such as zookeepers and veterinary technicians. They deliver trustworthy service, and they deserve to be paid.
Back when pet owners relied more on friends and neighbors, the usual scenario was more like backstage at a circus than an orderly pet hotel. I was more casual about my animals then, sometimes leaving my beautiful Malamute Khaki in care of a UAMS resident who lived across the street and worked insanely long emergency room shifts. I'm not sure he ever saw Khaki. Somehow he managed to feed her, though she would often escape the backyard, to sit on my front porch.
Then there were the four months I was on loan to USA Today, living in Washington D.C.'s Foggy Bottom and working as a copy editor on the newspaper's Life section. A co-worker who was between apartments seemed the perfect choice to move into my little Capitol View house from September to December and take care of Khaki.
It all went OK until a neighbor told me my colleague had run out of dog food and was feeding Khaki whatever she was eating. It took several frantic phone calls to to get that fixed. Then she left the hose on in the backyard for a couple of days, running up a $100 water bill at a time when that amount seemed astronomical. Somehow, despite being in Washington, I managed to get her to leave and arranged for another friend to stay with Khaki until the end of my loaner period.
Another curious experience came when two friends stayed with my black Lab mix Coal Dog and his frenemy of unknown origin, Bork Dog. It was necessary to be more vigilant with Coal, as he had seizures and needed to keep them under control by taking phenobarbital twice a day (stuffing two pills down a 110-pound dog's throat may sound challenging, but not nearly as much as watching him flop on his side, vibrate, foam at the mouth, then pass out for a few minutes before slowly recovering his wits, such as they were).
These friends loved Coalie and Bork and took good care of them, and since they were always welcome to make use of the household's amenities, they decided one night to sample a nearly full bottle of Rémy Martin VSOP Champagne Cognac. One of them started knocking it back like it was Shiner Bock, with predictable results the next morning. Since she associated her physical distress at that point with dogsitting Coal and Bork, she refused to return.
And there was the vivacious newspaper page designer who cheerfully volunteered to watch Coal and Bork when we planned a seven-day West Coast outing. The day before we were leaving, she announced (without a trace of guilt) that she had landed a job interview in St. Louis and would be unable to stay with the boys.
A frantic re-alignment and shakedown of friends resulted in cobbling together a schedule of three people, handing off house keys and phenobarbital prescription bottles over the course of that week. Although disaster was averted, I worried myself sick and hoped there would be some phenobarbital left when I got home, because I would probably need some.
On another occasion, we were about to hit the sack around 1 a.m. at a hotel in Brooklyn, N.Y., when our neighbor called us. "The dogs are barking like crazy and it doesn't look like anybody is at your house," he reported. I guess dogsitters should be allowed a social life, but really? Midnight CST, you're staying at a house with a full bar and cable, and you've got somewhere better to be?
Now we have Paris, Dublin and Audi. Paris and Dublin got their names because after the boys crossed over the rainbow bridge, we were determined to stop limiting our travels to two or three nights away from home (especially after that seven-day debacle). We were for the first time in years dog-free, and planned to make a major getaway.
Then we found these two heartbreakingly adorable puppies on petfinder.com, met them and their fosters at PetsMart, and fell in love.
They were named after the trips we didn't take to those cities. When Audi--a Schnauzer mix--arrived, we considered naming her Dresden, but it sounded too much like Dublin, so she's named after a sporty German car.
We have wonderful pet-sitters now, dependable, affectionate, and enthusiastic about sending texts and photos of our darlings when we're away. We also have rover.com, a website filled with petsitters, along with user ratings. And we have the ever-reliable Hounds Lounge, where they can be capably boarded if all else fails.
Still, pet-sitting hardly sounds like work to me.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.