A Field Guide to
Pet Sitting

So you’re interested in pet sitting? Or maybe you want to be an even better sitter. Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’ve compiled the collective knowledge of our DogVacay sitters and staffers to create this helpful guide. From great introductions to bad behavior, this guide is packed with answers to some common questions—and few you probably wouldn’t have even thought to ask.




Meeting the dog for the first time

There are a lot of variables to consider when meeting a dog for the first time. Some you can control. Some you can’t. One rule of thumb: If an introduction isn’t going well, don’t force it.

What you can control

Location, location, location

Find a neutral, third place for the introduction. If you will be sitting a dog in his home, start there and walk to the dog’s home with the owner. That way, when you enter the dog’s home for the first time you won’t be a stranger.

Think like a dog

Smell is a big part of dog introduction. That's why they go straight for each other’s rear ends. You can take a more dignified route. Offer the dog the back of your hand for an introductory sniff.

Offer the dog the back
of your hand for an introductory sniff

Read the body language

A dog who is comfortable being petted will let you know. The tail will wag. The dog will approach you for more attention. Understand the six key states of dog body language: neutral and relaxed; alert and focused; playful; fearful; dominant and aggressive; and submissive.

What you can't control

The backstory

Some animals have had rough lives before they were adopted. They might be skittish around cars. They might be intimidated by men. The owner might be able to provide some background—or let you know if treats can motivate the dog.

Grumpy pups

Some dogs take a while to warm up to strangers, and even good dogs can have bad days. When you’re with the owner, engage the dog in an activity he likes, even if it’s just walking. He can get to know you that way, too.

Chapter 2

Getting your home ready for dogs

Dogs look at our dwellings from a completely different angle, literally. So as you prep for pet sitting, ask yourself, “If I were a dog, what trouble would I get into?” If you’re not sure whether an item is safe, move the item.

Out of sight

Move all food, medicine and anything that a dog could eat (or destroy) off on the counter and into high cabinets. We recommend putting child-proof locks on all cabinet doors in reach. Put your shoes away, behind closed doors—especially if you like them. Don’t leave laundry out around the home. Some dogs eat socks, which may have to be removed with surgery.

Top or side?

Many people immediately try to pet a dog’s head or ears. That can block a dog’s field of vision—not to mention it’s closer to his teeth. Instead make initial contact by petting the side or the chest. A dog interested in more attention will let you know and approach with more tail wagging or even some licks or kisses.

Trash talk

Consider getting a garbage can that locks shut. Move the trash bin into a closed cabinet. If you throw away anything that could be harmful to pups, tie the bag up immediately. (See the list below). If anything you’re eating falls to the floor, pick it up before the dog gets to it. The five-second rule doesn’t apply to dogs.

Bad Foods

Here are some human foods that can be detrimental or even fatal to dogs.

  • Chocolate is toxic and can be fatal.
  • Walnuts and macadamia nuts can damage the nervous system and muscles.
  • Cooked bones can splinter in the stomach and cause internal lacerations.
  • Dairy products can upset a dog’s stomach.
  • Caffeine can result in vomiting, hypothermia and death.
  • Avocados contain persin, which can lead to diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Alcohol can put a dog into a coma and be fatal.
  • Grapes and raisins can lead to liver failure and death.
  • Artificial sweetener Xylitol (in gum and candy) causes liver failure and can be fatal.
  • Onions and garlic damage red-blood cells.
  • Azaleas and lilies upset stomachs and can result in tremors, coma and death.
  • Mushrooms (especially wild varieties) cause shock and can lead to death.
Decorating for dogs

In a new home, a dog might not be accustomed to the traffic patterns and obstacles. She could accidentally trip or knock something off a coffee table. So look at things from nose and tail level. Secure loose rugs or dangling power cords. Remove anything that could break or be harmful if knocked to the floor. If anything is irreplaceable, move it to a room where the dogs don’t go. Besides, a dog doesn’t really appreciate family heirlooms and priceless antiques.

Purses and bags

Think twice about where you set your purse or open bags. Purses are typically easy for pups to stick their noses in, so think twice about where you set it down. You might have sugar-free gum or medicine—which could be lethal to a dog—in a purse or a backpack, so be sure to keep everything zipped up and out of reach.

Great gates & pens

Our DogVacay sitters constantly tell us how valuable baby gates and pens are. Adding a few to your home can make it a safer place. They can help contain dogs who have behavioral issues or aren’t completely house-broken. They can separate dogs who might fight during meal time. Doorway baby gates can block off rooms. Larger outdoor pens can be used on patios. Collapsible pens can quickly create a safe zone within a room.


Some plants and trees can be toxic to animals. The Humane Society has created this list. Keep gardening tools, insecticides and automotive supplies locked away from pets. Keep doors that lead to unsecured areas and patio entrances securely closed. Lock doggie doors when pups aren’t supervised. If you have a fence, repair any holes or gaps. Make sure it’s tall enough that a dog can’t jump over it. Make sure it’s close enough to the ground that a dog can’t dig its way under it. If a new dog is nervous, keep him on leash even in a secure yard until he builds confidence in the new environment. A nervous dog can escape in just moments. Never leave a dog unattended around pools, jacuzzis or ponds.

Dog-free zones

If pups have free roam of your entire home, put the toilet lid down and keep the bathroom door closed. Toilet water contains bacteria and harsh chemicals harmful to pups. Garages and laundry rooms are two more areas of the home typically stocked with items dangerous to canines. So keep those spaces closed off.

Chapter 3

Making the transfer

Your four-legged guest—Bella or Buddy—has arrived with his or her pet parent. If you have pets in your own home, meet your guests outside with your own pets in tow. Have a list ready of everything you want to go over because distractions can happen.

Requested items

You should ask the pet parent in advance to bring food, the dog’s bed, a towel or blanket (with the family’s scent on it), one or two toys and any medication or supplements. If you don’t have extra bowls at home, ask the pet parent to bring those as well. Double check your guest pet has all those items before the parent leaves.

Have a list ready of
everything you want
to go over because
distractions can happen.

Daily agenda

Review the pet’s daily routine with the pet parent, including usual meal times and amounts of food. Check with the owner about any known reactions or sensitivity to foods, including treats. If you haven’t already discussed behavioral and health issues in the initial meeting, cover those now—and how the pet parent manages them. Does the dog have any separation anxiety? How long does the owner normally leave the pup alone? Has the dog ever scuffled with other dogs? Are there triggers? Is the dog fearful of certain people or environmental factors? Get emergency contact information for the pet parent, including vet information.

I.D. the dog

Make sure the dog has legible I.D. tags, securely fastened to her collar. You might even want to order some extra tags with your own phone number on it. The dog can wear that tag while she’s staying with you, in addition to her own tag. (In our store, we have some dog tags with DogVacay contact info.) You can also order disposable event wristbands. Then write the contact info on the band and attach it to the dog’s collar. Lastly, keep the collar on the dog at all times.

Chapter 4

Sitting in other people’s homes

Let’s say someone has asked you to watch a dog in the dog’s home. Remember that this is a job. No matter how nice the home, it’s not a vacation for you. Be respectful of the homeowner’s property and privacy. Understand why you’re going to the dog and the dog isn’t staying with you. (Maybe a dog has territorial issues or needs special attention.) And when you leave, the home should be in the same shape—or better—than when you arrived. Here’s a summary of our tips.

What you should do

  • Discuss what is included and not included in your services. Do you check in on the dog multiple times a day? Do you spend the night with the dog? Have a frank conversation with the dog owner about expectations.
  • Let the pet parents know if you have any previous engagements that might mean the pets are left alone.
  • Ask for written instructions about food medicine, emergency contacts and anything else you need to know about the home (security codes, other service personnel who will visit the home while you’re there).
  • Get the dog’s typical schedule and walking routes. Also ask where to dispose of poop bags.
  • Communicate politely with the pet parents while they are away. Texts can often be misunderstood, so be clear and considerate. Photos of the dog are great, too.
  • Check the home before leaving. Inspect toilets and faucets to make sure there is no running water. Adjust heating/air conditioning to be sure the home is a comfortable temperature for pets. Double check for any hazards that pets may get into.

What you shouldn't do

  • Don’t eat everything in the home. Only consume specified snacks/drinks that have been discussed the homeowner.
  • Don’t invite any visitors to the home unless it has been agreed to beforehand.
  • Don’t throw away poop bags in private trash cans. This might upset neighbors.
  • Don’t leave pets in a kennel or crate unless pet owner requests this.
  • Don’t take pets anywhere that has not been discussed and approved with the homeowner.

Chapter 5

Sitting isn’t just sitting

You’ve laid all the groundwork, and now the sitting begins. But sitting is a misnomer. Watching a dog means walking, playing, feeding and staying one step ahead of the pet.

Walk the walk

Giving the dog enough exercise helps her stay relaxed for the rest of the day. First, find out how she does on a leash from her owner and if there are any triggers to avoid while out and about. Make sure she has the right equipment for a walk: a sturdy leash and a collar that she won’t slip out of.

Shall we play a game?

If the weather’s not great outside, indoor games can help tire a dog out, too. Here are a few tried-and-true ideas.

  • Hide & Seek: Hiding yummy treats or fun toys around the house for the pups to sniff out is mentally stimulating. You can also make yourself part of the game: Have a partner keep the pups occupied while you hide in a different area of the house. Use a squeaky or call out for the pups to find you. Once they do, have the dogs sit for a treat.
  • Indoor Fetch: Do you have a long hallway? A game of fetch indoors is the perfect way to burn off some energy. (Just be mindful of any neighbors below you.)
  • Puzzle Toys: Food-dispensing puzzle toys are a great way to keep a pup super focused, which helps exhaust them of some of that mental energy that otherwise remains pent up on low-activity days. KONGs with peanut butter frozen inside or Kyjen puzzle toys filled with tasty treats are great examples.
  • Dinner Games: If you have the space and the pup isn’t on a special diet, you can take their kibble and hide it in piles around a room so they have to hunt for their dinner.
  • Indoor Obstacle Course: Roll up some blankets and towels to create hurdles and use boxes as items to lead your pups both around and over the items. After leading them through the course a few times, have them sit/stay at the other end and then call them to come through the course. Praise them with treats and affection when they make it through!
  • DIY Dog Toys: Place an empty plastic water bottle in a sock and fasten the ends. Put dog treats in a muffin tin and cover with tennis balls. Knot scraps of old denim (from cut-offs or old jeans) for some tug of war.
Hitting the hay

Some pet parents allow dogs to sleep in the people bed at night. One big study doesn’t recommend the practice, but opinions vary. Some owners may choose home boarding or an in-home sitter so the dog can sleep in a bed with humans. Whatever your policy, be sure to let the pet owner know in advance, so everyone’s on the same page...or mattress. When staying in your home, the dog should bring a regular bed for naps. And even if a dog sleeps with his family at home, he may prefer his own familiar bed while staying with you. If you keep an extra bed or two around your home for guests, make sure it’s washable.

Chapter 6

When trouble calls

There are a lot of variables for a happy stay. Here are some proven tips and tricks to make everyone feel more at home, if and when trouble arises.

Separation anxiety

If a dog shows signs of separation anxiety, such as restlessness, excessive barking or an upset stomach, there are some go-to remedies worth trying. Exercise takes a dog’s mind off his worries. Maybe it’s a nice, long walk or a friendly game of fetch. A quiet spot in the home with a familiar toy or blanket can be very calming. And if his tummy can handle it, a favorite treat might be soothing distraction—especially if it’s interactive, like peanut butter in a Kong.

Making mealtime easier

Let’s face it: Mealtime is a highlight of a dog’s day. It’s important to stick to the dog’s regular food and feeding times. If you’re watching multiple dogs, a good way to avoid food aggression is to feed each dog from his or her own bowl. Spread the bowls around the room to give each dog a personal comfort zone.

Exercise takes a dog’s
mind off his worries.
Maybe it’s a nice, long
walk or a friendly
game of fetch.

Tummy troubles

Some simple foods can help a dog who’s having trouble with gastrointestinal distress. For diarrhea, boiled chicken and white rice can help him. If a pet’s parent is okay with skipping a meal when there’s an upset tummy, it’s okay to do that and then start the dog with chicken and rice the next meal time. For loose stool or constipation, add one tablespoon of plain pumpkin purée to the dog’s meal per day. The fiber and water content can help. Staying hydrated is important. Add a little homemade chicken stock to his water to encourage drinking. (Make sure the stock isn’t made with onions.) Be sure to check with the pet parent when changing a dog’s diet.

Runaway dogs

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here. Don’t take a dog’s leash off until you’re safely inside the home. Be extra careful when you’re opening the door to exit, let in visitors or accept a package. If a dog does escape, don’t chase him. Instead, crouch and calmly call the dog—luring him with treats if possible.

No biting

Most dogs give signals before they bite. Recognizing the warning signs and taking action can help prevent a painful incident. If you hear growling, the dog is uncomfortable or unhappy. Give him some space. Before biting, a dog’s body and tail may stiffen. Look for signs of dominance between dogs, such as mounting, growling or staring. Prepare to separate the animals if need be. For humans, don’t interrupt a dog while he’s eating or sleeping. Let him sniff the back of your hand before you try to pet him. Don’t immediately pet a dog on the head or around the mouth.

Marking and mounting

Homemade or store-bought Belly Bands are a great way to prevent male dogs from marking their territory and everything in your home as their own. A Belly Band is a slightly elasticized cloth (with a disposable insert) that wraps around the waist of the pup. Want to make your own? Use an Ace bandage wrapped around the pup with an adult incontinence pad as the insert, held together with velcro strips. Or try baby diapers with the tabs cut off and velcro strips to hold them on. Not sure if a dog is a marker? Use an ultraviolet light to find out. Then take action because stains encourage future pets to continue the pattern of marking. To clean up a mess, enzymatic cleaners are the way to go. Whether it’s Nature’s Miracle, Equalizer or Chrisal PIP, these products can help clean up the messes your pets leave behind.

Mischievous, scratching pup?

Give her a job to do: Focus on you. Whether you tie her leash to your belt loop or attach via a carabiner, keeping her close prevents her from getting into trouble and teaches her to pay attention to the alpha dog in the home: you. Bored or nervous pups may scratch or chew on wall edges, baseboards and doors. The Clawguard can help protect your door, or you can use removable duct tape.

Final Thoughts

You made it all the way to the end. We admire your thoroughness. That trait will serve you well when watching dogs. Just remember that dogs thrive on structure and you’re the alpha dog. Praise and incentives can go a long way. And a few belly rubs can make everyone feel better. Good luck and have fun!

A Field Guide To Pet Sitting

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