A reader asked if I’d go through what I do to prepare for a trip when I can’t take my dogs along. I thought it was a good question for all of us, and a lead in to what could be a fruitful discussion. After all, leaving one’s dog(s) is hard, and the only way I can do it myself without being a wreck is to have a system in which I feel like I’ve covered as many bases as I can. Here are some of my tips, I’d love to hear yours:
1. Put a big-lettered note by the phone that says YOU ARE HERE and give the address and phone number of your home. House sitters rarely can spit out your address in a crisis, and that’s when they need it the most.
2. Also by the phone, leave EMERGENCY phone numbers for your usual vet (who you’ve called to approve any charges in advance) and if need be, an Emergency Vet Clinic that you trust. My experience with Emergency clinics has been mixed, so do due diligence before you leave a number. I also leave the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Hotline Number, which is 888 426-4435.
3. Leave TWO copies of a list of all contact numbers: your cell, where you’re staying and a full itinerary, close neighbors to call in an emergency, plumbers, electricians, heating cooling service. I tell the sitter to put one copy in her car–if she gets stranded away from the house, (snow? accident?) she needs the phone number of neighbors to call to help with the animals.
4. Leave a copy of your will, being sure it specifies what is to happen to your animals. I have a friend who has agreed to take Willie, and a friend who has promised to find a home for Sushi. (Come to think of it, I haven’t made arrangements for the sheep. Better take care of that before I go!) If you don’t have a formal will (you should, honest), download a simple one from the internet and get it signed by 2 witnesses. Keep it simple, and say where your pets should go. I designate a considerable sum of money for that animal’s care. I freaked out one house sitter by leaving an envelope labeled “In the Even of My Death” under the sitting instructions, so now I’ll leave it in an easily accessible but less intimidating place. None of us want to think about this happening, but I feel much better knowing that I wouldn’t take my last breath heartsick over not knowing what would happen to Willie and Sushi.
5. If the sitter isn’t there when you leave, have her call and leave a message at your destination right away when she arrives. (I’m going to use a generic ‘she’ just to save space. Apologies to all male house sitters.) I never can relax until I know that the sitter is at the house, and always breath a huge sigh of relief when we connect. Ideally, the sitter is there when I leave the house, but that just can’t always happen. The sitter for this trip is in vet school, and will be in classes when we leave for the airport. She’ll call my cell phone the instant she gets to the house, and I’ll finally feel like I’m “on the trip” once we talk. I don’t make this suggestion lightly: I have friends who had a sitter who never showed up, and yes, the dogs all died, and yes, it was as horrible as our worst nightmare could possibly be. I’m amazed at the number of people I’ve talked to who don’t even call the house to check in with the sitter, or do so 4 or 5 days after they left. I also strongly advise calling often if you have a new sitter. I once had a sitter who never answered the phone at the farm, but always was on her cell phone “just leaving” or “just arriving” including one night at one in the morning. When I got back, there was no garbage… nothing, not a piece of paper, after a 10 day trip, to suggest that she had stayed the night. Hummm. Same thing happened the next time, and then, well, there wasn’t a next time.
Also, arrange to call your sitter when you are back at the house if she will have already left. What if your plane is delayed? What if you were in a car accident on the way home from the airport? All my sitters are “on call” if for some reason they don’t hear from me. They have a list of my flights, both in and out, and know when I should be returning. If they don’t hear from me by X hour, they’ll drive back to the farm or call a neighbor.
6. Less is not more. I leave incredibly detailed notes, including not just what everyone eats and when and where, but also a long “diary” of a “day in the life.” I describe our daily routine, including that Willie and I spoon every night before we go upstairs and that’s one of his (and my) favorite times. I write out a description of each animal, their behavioral quirks, health issues, things to watch for, things I’m working on, what they “know,” what they like and don’t like, what they are allowed to do and not allowed to do. It might seem a bit compulsive and frankly it takes me forever, but I’ve never heard a sitter complain about too much information. On the other hand, I’ve heard LOTS of complaints about too little.
7. If necessary, desensitize your animals to suitcases. If your pets get anxious when they see you preparing to leave, try leaving suitcases out when you’re not going anywhere, going through your ‘leaving’ routine without actually going anywhere. Pack up, and then go watch TV. You can also sneak the suitcase into the car when you actually go away, but if you travel a lot, your dog or cat will react long before you are ready to actually are ready to leave. If your dog or cat really does have Separation Anxiety, get a copy of I’ll Be Home Soon and go through the steps, adapting it for packing and for travel.
8. And then, once you leave the house . . . give it up. I don’t enjoy writing the notes, making the preparations, because I worry I’ll forget something and end up causing trouble. And I hate driving away. Like a dog with separation anxiety, I practically start to shake, pace, and sweat through my paws, although I do my best to remain cheerful as I’m leaving. I am happy to report I have never been known to drool, but my eyes can get pretty wet as the car pulls away from the house and the farm disappears behind a forest of oak and hickory trees. And then, finally, once I’m on the plane it’s better. Once I’ve talked to the sitter it’s much better. By the next day I’m okay, I am where I am, secure in the knowledge that I’ve done everything I can to make life good for my animals, and with gratitude for the wonderful person with whom I’ve trusted my life, my loves, my precious animals who will be there, eyes catching the light, bodies wagging from the shoulders back, tongues lapping all over me, to welcome me home.
I’d love to hear what you do before you leave home without your pets… any advice from your own experience?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Trip preparations are in full swing. Every time I cross something off the list, I add two more things. Before I go I have to finish my next Bark column, finish a chapter for a new book about training best practices for American Humane Association, finish a detailed outline of the booklet that Karen London and I are working on for adopting adult dogs, finish last tweaks of my NZ seminars, arrange for demo dogs, and oh yes, run a business. And, of course, the farm is hopping, with the lambs going to market each week and buyers being notified, preparations for winter continuing and squeezing in time to work sheep and prepare to walk 10-13 miles a day with a back pack. Wheeeee!
Here’s a sunrise from last week, and what we call the “Slasher Movie Sheep” with Rosebud painted red from having been bred by Redford. You can see Redford’s red chest underneath fat, piggy Brittany, who started the habit of standing on the feeder to get her hay (thus negating one of its purposes, to keep hay off the wool of other sheep) and now Rosebud is doing it too. Sigh.