Who's Letting the Dogs Out?
E ight hundred pounds of dogs on more than half a dozen leads, led by 130 pounds of woman. That sight is all the advertising needed for Tonya Vellotti, Connecticut’s Pet Au Pair. Keeping up with seven or more dogs at once is the easy part, she says: “The dogs behave because they want to go for their walk!” The challenge is keeping up with the demand for dog-walking, socializing or house-training. Velotti has hired two other people just to keep up.
The secret to her business success? She loves her work; she excels at it. Special requests? Vellotti says yes. “It's all special requests, everything I do – and I never say no. I consider it a privilege to be doing this work.”
She sees most of her four-legged charges daily during the work week. But weekends can be just as busy, what with family get-aways and other trips.
Velotti’s typical day starts at 9 am. She often has a few dogs staying with her, so she gathers them up and heads out for her rounds, picking up six or seven dogs at a time for a 30- to 45-minute walk, returning them, then moving on to the next neighborhood. A two-dog limit per walker at local dog parks means Vellotti usually avoids those spots, unless a client specifically requests a dog-park visit. In nice weather, the dogs are treated to a little extra time. But even in cold or inclement weather, they go home having had a nice outing and the attention dogs crave.
The day continues with walks and care visits until 6 pm. By then, Velotti has walked about 20 miles. Even then, sometimes there’s a late visit to feed and walk dogs for a client working the night shift.
V ellotti began pet-sitting 14 years ago, as a vet tech.
“People would ask me to check in on their pets. I was making $100 a week just on my lunch hour.”
It seems like a dream job. But it is rigorous, demanding work. Clients often look to a pet-sitter to maintain a routine. A successful sitter has to be committed and reliable, for animals need care whether it's raining, snowing, blowing, or sunny. Jen Beasley, who works in Washington, D.C., explains, “You can't miss a feeding. And people trust you —not only with access to their home, but to their best friend. That's something to be taken seriously.”
Hard work and reliability pay. In an urban area or commuter suburb, rates per dog usually range from $10 to $20 for a half-hour walk, and up to $70 for overnight visits. Grooming and other special care may be offered as additional services. A pet-care entrepreneur walking several dogs at a time could approach a six-figure annual income.
Juggling all the needs of a large clientele, however, can complicate the equation. Monica Frate, who owns a service called Daytripping Dogs in Darien, Connecticut, cares for pets while people are out of town, and offers a support system for people with busy families. Other clients are commuters whose pets are their families. Frate dismisses the idea of a typical day: “My schedule is different every day.”
In densely populated areas where most people live in apartments, dog walking is a critical service that often helps people keep their animals. Jordan Kaplan, owner of Petaholics, whose employees serve Manhattan and Brooklyn, knows many professionals working ten- to twelve-hour days. Other pet-sitters fill a different need, hired to help administer medications and provide special monitoring. Jen Beasley sees numerous diabetic cats, and is able to check blood sugar. “In the case of one very sick little kitty,” Beasley recounts intravenous fluids and vet checkups “while his owner was in Bhutan for three weeks.”
Beasley waters plants and brings in the mail while the humans are away. Sometimes she stays overnight in the client’s home. For Beasley, this isn't a primary income; it’s extra travel money. So who watches her cat Francisco while Beasley travels? She connects with other pet sitters through a time-sharing website, and trades her care services for equal cat-sitting time from a trusted colleague.
“If she were a client, I would normally charge her $15 a day,” says Beasley, but the better option is to depend on this care giving for Francisco.
The success of good pet-sitters reflects an increased understanding that leaving an animal home alone for long periods isn't the cat's meow. Sitters can fill in care gaps that enable animals to stay happy and healthy, with families who want the best for them.