How NOT to Hire a House Sitter

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My husband and I recently went on vacation for a week. I hired an acquaintance to house-sit and take care of all the animals while we were gone. She had performed this task for us many times before, although not for about two years. But she and our dog Otto were familiar with each other, and she knew all the plants in our yard and garden that needed watering (the last time we went on vacation, we had hired someone else, and half of our azaleas died for lack of water while we were gone), so it seemed like a good idea. She is actually between jobs and staying with a friend right now, and told us that she’d appreciate having a place of her own to live in for the week. The one possible hitch in the plan was that she was bringing her young Pit-mix dog.

I wasn’t actually that worried about the dog. I had met him about a year and a half before, when he was a little puppy, and it seemed like she was socializing him well. Otto generally does well with young, playful dogs, and the dog lives with a cat, so I figured my cats would cope. However, I was surprised to see, when she showed up at our house – only about 10 minutes before we had to leave for the airport, instead of the hour I had asked for – that the dog was still intact. Ah, she had been meaning to get around to neutering him, just hadn’t found the time or money at the right time.

As I said, we had only about 10 minutes to gauge how well the dogs would get along – and go over all of our instructions – before we HAD to be on the road to the airport. The first indications were good. The young dog seemed friendly and playful, and bounced around with Otto, offering a few play bows. Tito the Chihuahua bristled and growled at the much-bigger dog – and the dog backed off. “Okay, fine, you’re no fun.” Otto himself seemed interested and playful, too – no bad vibes. The cats were up on a table on the back porch, and the dog gave them a few glances, but didn’t have a “cat killer” kind of intense response at all. I had to cross my fingers and get in the car.

Several times while we were gone, I texted the house sitter and asked about everyone. She posted a few pictures of a happy Otto to her Facebook page and said everyone was “fine.”

When we got home after midnight a week later, Otto and Tito were overjoyed to see us.  They looked fine, and the whole garden, azaleas included, looked great. The chickens were fine. But there was no sign of my cats. And no sign that the cats had eaten ANY of the food I left. Oh crud.

I woke up super early the next morning (still on east coast time) and went outside and called for my kitties. One appeared rapidly, meowing up a storm and startling at every little noise. She was much thinner than when we left (admittedly, she was a little overweight previously). The other cat took a few more hours to venture back into my yard. He, too, was noticeably spooky and thinner. So, the guest dog obviously spent the week chasing the cats out of their own yard. I was hoping that was all the bad news.

Then I got a report from one of my next-door neighbors. “Otto was so sad while you were gone!” she told me over our fence. “He barked and barked and barked all night! I kept going outside to tell him everything was ok, but he just kept barking!” Otto doesn’t really like her, so this wasn’t a tactic that was bound to work; he barks at her once or twice every night in the wee hours, when she goes out in to smoke cigarettes on her patio, adjacent to the deck where Otto sleeps. Then she added that another neighbor (who also smokes outside late at night!) had asked her if she knew why Otto was barking; Otto was keeping him up all night. I asked, “Didn’t our house-sitter come out to talk to him or bring him inside?” and she said, “Well, I don’t want to tattle, but she wasn’t there every night.” Grrr.

I received the final bad news from my next door neighbor on the other side of our house a few days later. Apologizing in advance, I asked her if she had heard much barking. She said she hadn’t noticed it much (she’s on the far side of the house where Otto sleeps). But she mentioned that she saw that the guest dog was chasing my cats out of my yard into her yard, so she fed them whenever she saw them. (THANK you!) And then she added that one day, with the house-sitter absent, she heard a commotion and went into her back yard to see what was going on; she saw the guest dog and Otto in a fight that lasted over a minute – and that Otto was definitely the loser. “I felt so bad; he ran off yelping. I couldn’t do anything with the gates locked,” she said. Well, she could have CALLED ME; she has my cell phone number! Poor Otto! I thanked her for looking out for the cats, and apologized for the barking again.

I can’t tell you how bad I felt for Otto (and my cats, and the neighbors). Unwittingly, I made a number of errors in trying to do the right thing for my animals while I was on vacation. Using a house-sitter has always seemed like the best thing to do for a whole house full of pets. However, next time, I would definitely say that no other dogs were welcome. Period.  (Even though another time I used another house-sitter – a couple, actually — and they brought their dog, and it worked out fine… But no more. And I guess if I ever hire a house-sitter again, I would make it crystal clear that I expected the sitter to actually stay there all night, each night.  And I would explicitly ask all of my neighbors to call me if they observed anything awry while I was gone!

Have you ever had similar issues with a house sitter, whether as a paid service or a friend or relative? What lessons did you learn that could prevent future problems?

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