Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Last Minute Roulette: My Friend Was Supposed to Pet Sit

At Bright Star Pet Services, we hear some amazing stories from people who thought
I'll be there for you!
their friend (or neighbor) was going to watch their pets.These people end up calling professionals when their friend changes their mind at the last minute. Sadly, sometimes we are booked and can't squeeze in another pet sit, and then owners have to scramble for another solution. 

Some people convince a friend to pet sit for them, but need a professional to come in when the friend has to go to work. It puts us in a difficult situation.  What if the friend doesn't show up?  What if the "friend" steals something? What if they leave a huge mess? The friend has no accountability other than maintaining friendship, and self-interest might lead them to party on Friday night instead of spending time with your pets. Our professional reputation is on the line so we don't ever skip visits, leave messes, or rummage through your jewelry or medicine cabinet.  

Our customer's 3-yr. old daughter does a fantastic job of pet sitting!
My favorite "Neighbor Pet Sitting" story comes from another pet sitter.  A potential customer wanted services starting the following day. Her neighbor was supposed to watch the pets but instead decided to go to camp. What do you expect when you hire a 10-yr. old?  Sure, the neighbor's price was cheap (maybe a couple of PB & J sandwiches?) but it doesn't do you any good when they cancel at the last minute.  It is true you get what you pay for. You'd be surprised how often we hear from people whose friend suddenly came down with pneumonia or had to go to a wedding or made up some other excuse.

When you hire Bright Star Pet Services, you are paying for the peace of mind that comes with knowing your house will be clean and tidy when you return, your pets will be happy and healthy, and if something does go wrong the pro will take care of it immediately.  That's our 100% satisfaction guarantee, and I think it is worth its weight in gold.    

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Dog walking on-demand: using an app like

Is the dog walker here yet?
Recently I saw an article in the New York Times entitled "How to Use Technology to Outsource Pet Care."  In the article, the author mentioned how convenient it was to have an app like for hiring a dog walker.  He was thrilled with the ease of service, how quickly he was automatically matched with a dog walker (without having to wade through walker profiles like on, and the satisfaction of seeing a map of where his dog walked and a visit report card at the end.

As a professional dog walker and dog trainer, I wish he had done a little more research about alternatives to the Wag app. Wag caters to people who need a dog walker in a hurry-- as he pointed out, he had someone show up at his front door within 30 minutes.  But who, exactly, are these people who are waiting around for the chance to walk your dog?  

Generally speaking, an owner who needs a dog walk isn't going to be home when the walker arrives. You are providing access to your home, and your pet, with a literal stranger. Maybe you don't mind a stranger peeking through your belongings while you aren't home. Maybe you even have a camera so you can catch any criminals after your trust has been violated.  Wag says it screens its employees, but with a company that size, there are bound to be some flakes. That's what their insurance is for, right? To protect you...after you've been violated. 

If issues of privacy and theft aren't enough to give you pause, I'd like to mention some dog-related situations that happen to professional dog walkers:

* You dog is perfectly well-behaved, but another dog gets loose in the neighborhood and
comes after the walker and/or dog.  Does the walker have experience preventing and breaking up dog fights?  Does she know where your preferred vet is, have your authorization to treat the dog, and have a car available to transport the dog to the vet? 

* A barking dog behind an Invisible Fence frightens your dog, who backs out of his harness or collar and is now running naked through the city.  Does the walker have experience catching loose dogs, or does he chase him out into traffic in a panic?  Does he practice 'emergency recalls' on leash just in case this ever happens?  Does he carry treats on walks, and have enough of a connection to be able to call your dog back if the leash breaks?

Anita is practicing an Emergency
Recall with an enthusiastic dog.
* The walker shows up to your house and your dog has thrown up multiple times, and is acting lethargic and not his usual self.  Would the walker even recognize if your dog is out of sorts? Would she know what to do?

* You know your dog can sometimes be a jerk, lunging and barking at the end of the leash, when he sees a certain dog in the neighborhood. How is your walker going to handle it? Will he smack your dog?  If your dog enthusiastically tries to jump on the dog walker, will he knee the dog in the chest or step on the dog's toes?  Are you okay with someone handling your dog that way?

Here's why you'd be better off with a professional:

1) Professional pet sitters and dog walkers have experience handling these situations and many more that you may have never considered.  Professionals working in the field, day in and day out, learn how to gently manage skittish or difficult dogs.  We practice the art of door-blocking so a pet doesn't escape, and know how long your dog should be walked-- or shouldn't-- when it's 100 degrees or 10 below. We get to know each and every pet, every owner, and most importantly, you as the owner get to know us. 

2) Professionals, as a general rule, do not walk dogs without a Meet and Greet first.  What if the dog is too nervous and won't let them put on the leash?  What if the dog is ferocious and won't let them in the house? What if the owner lives in a bad neighborhood and the dog walker is afraid to even go around the block?

3) The cost for a professional is roughly the same as what you pay your through a dog-walking app, but instead of supporting a national company, you are supporting a small local business.  

This is a visit report card when I was out of town for the day.
This pic is only a partial report-- it doesn't show all the photos,
notes, the name of the dog walker, or the date and time--
all of which was included in the email following the visit.
4) Professionals have the same "perks" mentioned with on-demand dog walkers.  Many of us have pet sitting software that allows scheduling and paying online, receiving notification when your dog walker starts or leaves a visit, and receiving email or text pictures of the visits.   My company provides everything he listed, except for GPS tracking of dog walks.  In all honesty-- we have the capability to track dog walks, but as an owner I think it's too much like 'Big Brother' for my business. If GPS is a perk you need, you might still find a local pet sitting business that would provides that service.

I would highly recommend taking the time to get to know a local dog walking professional for the next time your dog needs a dog walk.  Sure, we don't usually schedule dog walks on 30 minutes notice-- but if you are a customer who calls because you are stuck in a snowstorm in the city, or God forbid a family member ends up in the hospital, you can be damn sure your pets will be taken care of until you return.

Can a dog-walking app make the same promise?

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Pup-Peroni dog treats? Are they tricking you?

I admit it, sometimes I treat my dogs with bona fide "junk food."  I know it's healthier for them to eat nonprocessed meats, but shelf-stable, soft dog treats are convenient when I can't prepare my own treats.

One type of treats my dogs really like are called Pup-Peroni sticks.  I love that they are easy to carry in a pocket, and easily break into small pieces without getting crumbly.  I was so excited when I saw the big 25 oz. bags were on sale at the grocery store!

But I noticed something funny when I brought home a "big bag."  These Pup-Peroni treats were a lot meatier and larger than the leftovers I still had in my training bag.  Surely they don't shrink when exposed to air???  I bought a brand new, smaller 5.6 ounce bag of Pupperoni and I compared the sticks inside.
A single stick from the
"small bag" weighs 9 grams.

A single stick from the
"big bag" weighs 19 grams.

The difference in length and thickness
between a "small bag" treat and a
"big bag" treat.
I was disappointed that Pup-Peroni uses longer and thicker sticks in its "big bag." The average owner probably feeds their dog a stick or two as a treat, and never considers the stick size might change depending on the size of the bag they purchased.  

I anticipated that the 25-ounce bag would have roughly 5 times as many sticks as the 5-ounce bag.  Surprise!  Not five times, four times, or even three times more. The smaller bag contains about 17 sticks, while the big bag has only slightly more than twice that (37 sticks).  

Is this a big deal?  In the grand scheme of things, no.  Pup-Peroni didn't cheat me by filling a 25-ounce bag with only 12 ounces of dog treats.  But unless I parcel them out carefully, that 25-ounce bag won't last nearly as long as expected. Ironically, I think I prefer the fatter Pup-Peroni sticks because they don't dry out as fast and stay fresher a bit longer when they are in my dog walking bag.

I'm curious if anyone else has ever noticed something similar with dog treats? Let me know if your dog has a favorite treat that works good for training!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

How Do I Find a Reliable Pet Sitter?

My cousin is getting married (congrats Lindsay and Colin!) and I wanted to offer her some tips on finding a good pet sitter.

She said that someone suggested  Yes, I said, you can find a good pet sitter on Rover-- but how do you know the good ones from the bad ones?  What prevents someone from taking your money, and never turning up to take care of the dog?  We have all heard horror stories of a friend who was watching someone's dog and...  At this point, Colin spoke up.  He knew someone whose dog was being watched by a friend and the dog got loose and got killed by a car. That is one of the reasons it is worthwhile to hire a professional: we are experts in the art of door-blocking, having practiced it with multiple pets for days and years.

I've talked before about the dangers of hiring a non-professional, so in this blog I want to focus on how pick out the very best of professionals.  The price of professionals seems to vary only slightly, but the services can be quite different. Here are some things to consider when talking to a potential pet sitter:

Insurance: a good pet sitter will have insurance to protect your home and pet. Pet sitting insurance covers accidents that happen to your house as a result of pet sitter neglect, although is not very common. An example of this is newly ruined floors from pet accidents. Some pet sitters get insurance riders that cover damage to a customer's property-- for instance, if I break a client's expensive vase, my insurance will pay for it.  If the pet sitter has employees, make sure the employees are bonded, as this will protect you from theft.

More importantly, the insurance will cover something that happens to your pet on the pet sitter's watch.  For example, if your dog gets bitten by another dog on a walk, or if your dog ingests a toy that requires him to have surgery, insurance will reimburse the vet costs.  Pet sitter insurance does not cover if your dog injures other people, pets, or the pet sitter. It only covers accidents that happen to your dog.

Contracts: surprisingly, some people feel comfortable handing over the keys to their home and entrusting their pet to a stranger without a written contract.  If something happens without a contract, you don't have any legal recourse. Nobody wants to think about bad things happening, but for goodness sake, protect yourself!

References: potential clients seldom ask for references.  I always feel a little weird asking good customers if they will provide references for me; instead, I have a list of written testimonials on my website. Realistically, anyone can make up "written testimonials" on a website, and anyone can make a website that makes their business look amazing. I now encourage my customers to leave references on google and yelp-- it is more difficult for business owners to fake. If you want to get the straight scoop on a potential pet sitter, ask for references and then get in touch with them directly. Don't trust a pet sitter's marketing just because it looks professional.

Communication: my company has a software system that allows us to email our customers after every single pet visit.  I insist on sending pictures and notes for every visit. The owner might not be able to check email immediately, but if she does check, she will be certain we were there and the approximate time of the visit.  There are many professionals using these types of software systems, which may include options to schedule online and even payment online. If your pet sitter uses a paper log, you can see the activities when you come home, but it won't reassure you while you are gone.

Once you have found a potential pet sitter, you should schedule a Meet and Greet. A professional will always insist on meeting your pets at your house before you leave.  Most pet sitters do not charge for the meet and greet, although
some charge a modest fee or a refundable deposit. Your pet sitter should pay careful attention to your pet's routines, finding out what, where, and how often to feed your pet, your pet's exercise routines, and get several emergency numbers.  You generally need to leave a key with them and they should have a reliable method of tagging the key so they recognize it as yours, but in the event the key is lost nobody else would know "Oh, that's a key for Phoebe and Atlas's house!"

With these tips in mind, you should be able to find a solid professional pet sitter who will be available to you for years to come and provide reliable pet visits without fail.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Why is my dog suddenly afraid of this?

I hear it all the time from owners:  "My dog has never been afraid of this, but yesterday he went crazy when he heard it [or saw] it!"  What is going on in the dog's head?  How can he be a perfectly normal dog one day, and afraid of the most insignificant things the next day?

Puppies generally go through two "fear periods."  The first one typically occurs between 8-10 weeks old, and the second one happens in late adolescence, anywhere from 6-14 months of age.  During these few weeks, puppies are acutely aware of their vulnerabilities.  They may become permanently intimidated by something minor that frightened them, such as a truck backfiring, or another dog barking at them.  Even when the puppy is not in a fear period, they can still develop fears.

Here's a crazy, but true example: when my miniature schnauzer was 9 weeks old, I took him with me to a pet store and put him in the shopping cart. He stepped on a squeaky carrot toy in the cart, and it frightened him. Unfortunately, this was before I learned about fear periods and how to desensitize puppies to scary objects. For the rest of his 16 years, he was terrified of squeaky toys. 

As long as it is safe, allow your dog to
explore items that make him nervous.
In my experience walking dogs, many dogs go through periods when they are fearful of: garbage trucks; other loud trucks; trash cans placed at the curb; home "for sale" signs swinging in the breeze; unexpected machinery/equipment at a driveway; workers banging on things in a nearby house; holiday lawn decorations; and people standing and waiting at the bus stop.   

Dogs can develop fears to just about anything, but it usually involves either an unexpected noise (like the vacuum cleaner or a garbage truck) or something appearing "out of place" in the dog's eyes.  

THE GOOD NEWS is that with understanding and a little planning, you can help your dog overcome most fears, regardless of how or when they start.

The first step is to make sure you are prepared with some super-tasty treats.  For this reason alone, it is worthwhile to always make sure you always have treats available when walking your puppy or dog.  Even today, with my 9-year old Giant schnauzer, I use this technique whenever she gets nervous about something that looks out of place on our walks.

You will recognize a fearful reaction by the way he braces himself and puts all his weight in his back legs, as if he needs to flee.  Sometimes he may stand stock-still for a moment. When he sees something that startles him, pull out a handful of treats and give him one.  If the fearful item can be safely approached, try to approach it with him, giving treats frequently for brave behavior.  Encourage him with friendly chatter.  "You aren't afraid of this sign, are you?  Look, it's just a sign."  A dog will pick up on your behavior, so if you act brave and nonchalant, it will help him develop confidence.  I try to touch the item, and encourage my dog to take a treat that I will put right on or near the item.  If the dog is extremely fearful and backs up, I will still try to give him a treat a little further away before trying to move closer.  I will spend up to 4 or 5 minutes letting a dog explore a scary item, and then we move on. 
Providing treats can distract a dog from a scary noise

If the dog spooks at a loud noise, immediately provide a treat.  You want the dog's default behavior to be looking at you when he hears something worrisome, so you can help him.  When I see a garbage truck nearby while walking a dog, I know there will be a series of strange noises, so I frequently stop, stand, and treat until the truck goes by.  If your dog reacts to another dog barking madly from a fenced yard, reward your dog with treats and encourage his attention on you as you move him away from the barking dog. 

Have you noticed an unexpected fear in your dog?  How did you handle it?


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Cookie Trap

If you have spent much time around dogs, you’ve probably seen a dog that responds only when the owner holds a treat in their hand. It usually happens when someone has taken an obedience class or two, but doesn’t continue practicing at home. The dog is eager and willing to work for the owner—if treats are visible. Otherwise? Phhht… the dog has more interesting things to do! 
Dogs prefer to work
for something of value

As a result, some people throw the baby out with the bath and refuse to use any treats at all in training. However, just like people, dogs prefer to work for something of value.  How many people would return to a job, day after day, without ever receiving payment? Our currency is money, but dogs intrinsically understand the value of food, which can be dispensed in small amounts and immediately after the desired “work” is done. If you have a dog, you feed him anyway; why not make him work for it? Rewards can be special treats mixed in with regular dog food. 

Keep reading to learn a trainer’s secrets to have an obedient dog without always having a cookie in hand.

Start with the Basics

Often, the first step in teaching a dog a new skill is to lure him: for example, by placing a cookie over his nose, and gradually pushing it back towards his ears, you can encourage him to ‘sit’ and reward him with the cookie.  The next step is to repeat this action so the dog anticipates the behavior. 

Fading the Lure

Once the dog is anticipating the behavior (usually within 5-10 repetitions), only pretend like you have a cookie in hand and quickly lure him into the sit.  If he sits, congratulations!  Immediately reward him with a cookie from the other hand or a nearby treat bag.  He will learn he doesn’t need to see the treat in order to be rewarded.   He should be just as willing to perform for an imaginary cookie, because he knows he will still get rewarded.

* If he doesn’t sit and just looks confused, lure him again for a few repetitions before trying again with an imaginary cookie.  

* If he loses interest, it’s best to put the cookies away and try again when he is hungrier.  Do not bribe him with a cookie at this point!  This is one of the situations where dogs learn to control their owners: “Hmmm, if I don’t sit, she will get out a treat!”  If you are having difficulty at this step, I encourage you to find a dog trainer who can help you recognize a dog that is truly confused vs. a dog that is not interested or trying to get his own way.  

Fading rewards

When the dog is consistently performing the cue using an imaginary cookie, it is time to start fading out the rewards.  One way is by having the dog perform several actions in a row for a single treat.  You can perhaps have the dog do a ‘sit’ for a cookie, then a ‘down’ with a cookie, then another ‘sit’ and a ‘down’ before offering a cookie.  Notice you don’t take away the treats all at once.  Your dog should understand he will still be getting treats, but you decide how often they appear.  

It is equally important when fading rewards that you aren’t consistent in delivery: if you decide to reward after every other command, and then every third command, the dog will quickly figure out the tactic and will lack motivation to work.  But if you reward the dog randomly, say, on the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 8th, 9th, and 10th tries, he will work harder because he doesn’t know if this will be the one that earns his cookie.

The jackpot is another method to fade rewards, especially useful when performing multiple commands.  A jackpot is a series of small treats delivered one after the other, just like a jackpot of coins coming out of a winning slot machine.  It is more meaningful to a dog to have several small treats offered one at a time, than to have one large treat or multiple small treats delivered at one time.    So if you have your dog sit, then down, then sit again, you can reward him with verbal praise and petting while also delivering a jackpot of cookies, one at a time.

Hoss was a dog that would happily work
just for love and attention.
Once your dog understands the commands, your dog’s favorite activities can be substituted in place of cookies. I encourage owners to switch around rewards with their dogs.  What are your dog’s favorite activities?  Does he like being petted on his neck, having his tummy rubbed, chasing a tennis ball or tugging with a tug toy?  When your dog approaches for petting, have him ‘sit’ or ‘down’ before rewarding him with scratches.  When it is dinnertime, have him ‘sit-stay’ until you are ready to put his dish on the floor and let him eat.  There’s no need to offer a cookie: his reward is his supper.  When he wants to go for a walk, have him sit and stay while you put on his leash, then have him sit at the door threshold before giving him an enthusiastic “Free!” to let him go through the door.  He certainly doesn’t need a cookie for going on a walk with you. The walk itself is the reward.

My own dogs are watching intently to see
if they will get a treat this time!
The final method of fading rewards is a process that involves pairing praise with cookies.  It is crucial that the praise starts before you offer the cookies.  The dog’s mind will start to link cookies with praise, and over time, the dog will recognize praise as a reward by itself.   This is the nirvana that everyone seeks: the dog that worships you, does what you ask gladly, and seeks only for your approval.  Most people don’t realize that it can take years to cultivate this, and is a result of careful training where the owner consistently praises the dog before providing cookies.  Note that this process can take a long time to develop, and the mental link will disintegrate if praise is never again followed by a reward.  As a result, good trainers continue to occasionally use cookies, always paired with praise, to help strengthen that mental link.

As you can see, training with cookies does not mean you will need to rely on them for every command for the rest of the dog’s life.  Once your dog understands the basics of a behavior, you should stop using the cookie as a lure.  It is helpful to continue to reward the dog randomly throughout his life, but rewards can vary from praise, jackpots, and real-life rewards.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Command That Could Save Your Dog's Life

Use the same phrase every time
you call your dog. 
As a dog trainer, I like to start by teaching my clients' dogs the most important and potentially life-saving command, “Come.” Sit, Down, and Stay are terrific, useful commands, but the recall ranks at the top for importance. I start by explaining the three essential aspects of training, which are true regardless of the command you are teaching. They are the keys to dog training success.

Word choice

First, you need to have consistency. In a dog's mind, "Fido, come!" is not the same as "Here, Fido!" What word or phrase do you want to use? Write it down on an index card on the refrigerator so everyone in the family can practice using the same cue.

Treats and Praise

The second key to success in recalls is making it fun for your dog to come to you. For most dogs, this can be easily achieved using tasty treats. You can also make yourself silly, play with your dog, and get excited, happy, and playful when he comes running to you.

Treats are best given in very small morsels like a jackpot machine, one after the other. I typically will give from 3 to 6 morsels for each reward when the dog comes running, while praising excitedly the whole time. Dogs actually enjoy this experience more than a single, large reward.

Note that some dogs want to play chase after coming to their owners. They will come almost in arm's reach, and then dart off for more "chase-me!" fun. This is incredibly dangerous behavior if your dog gets loose. I once saw a Boxer on the run; he came to the owner, danced away excitedly and ran right into oncoming traffic. To prevent this tragedy, offer a tasty treat in one hand, but only give it to the dog when you have successfully taken hold of his collar with the other hand. Once the dog has the treat, you can let go of the collar and let him play again. If you have a "chase-me" dog, you will want to practice the collar-grab/treat routine until the dog is totally comfortable with it, and regularly thereafter. It is also helpful to ask the dog to 'sit' before providing the treat, and then reward him with the treat(s) and a burst of raucous play.


Repetition is the third key to success. Practice while walking your dog on leash, letting him get ahead of you, then suddenly backing up and calling him to you. Try calling him from the front door of your house, using a long leash to make sure he can’t run for the hills. If needed, you can reel him in after calling him. Practice anywhere your dog could potentially get loose or wherever you need to call him, for example, from the back door. Put the long leash on him so you can guarantee that he will return, but make it worth his while with tasty treats and praise.

Common Mistakes

There are also three important, common pitfalls to avoid while teaching your dog the recall. These fundamental mistakes sometimes defy common sense, but I will explain why it is absolutely crucial that you avoid the following:

Never punish your dog for coming to you. To a dog, he associates what happened in the past 2-3 seconds with your actions. For instance, imagine if your dog digs through the trash and goes romping around the neighborhood, and you are desperately calling him and he isn't coming to you. Your naughty pup has made you scared and angry, and your instinct is to punish him when he finally comes to you. If you do, the dog will associate your anger and punishment with the act of him coming to you. If he runs off again, he will be afraid to return for fear of punishment. In this situation I tell my clients they are allowed to swear at the dog, as long as they do it in a very sweet voice that sounds like praise. Sometimes it can be difficult and embarrassing to praise and reward a dog when all your neighbors know you've been chasing him around the neighborhood for a half-hour. It is still far better to praise your "naughty" dog, than to end up with a dog that refuses to come back at all.

The second rule: Except in life-threatening emergencies, don't call your dog if you know he won't come. If your dog is having a fantastic time at the dog park, and you call hi to come without prior training in that environment, you are setting him up to fail. In this case, you can encourage your dog but avoid using your trained recall command. If your recall command is, "Eddie, come!" it would be better to say something like, "OK Eddie, time to go!" Only use your trained command either when you know your dog will come, or you can get him to comply by reeling him in from a long line. Even if you have to reel him in, you should reward him for coming so next time will be easier.

The third rule: never chase a dog you want to catch. Tempting as it is, dogs will always be faster than humans, and their fight-or-flight response will kick in while you are chasing. The best way to catch a loose dog is to let him chase you: call him and start running backwards or perpendicular to him. An alternative is to drop to the ground and make puppy noises or pretend like you are eating something. You might or might not get the dog curious enough to explore, but I can tell you from experience that you don't stand a chance chasing a healthy, young dog.

Just like with all health-related advice, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, teach your dog to come and accept having his collar grabbed, make it fun, and practice it regularly!