Sleeps with Dogs

Tales of a Pet Nanny at the End of Her Leash

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By Lindsey Grant

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Go behind closed doors and discover the secret lives of some of the most devoted pet owners, whether they're serving their dogs filtered water or leaving Animal Planet on all day to keep their pets company. 

As a round-the-clock animal nanny, Lindsey Grant spent her nights with countless dogs, prepared custom meals for exotic birds, broke up brawls between animals and spouses alike, weathered end-of-life care for beloved companions, and catered to the often obscure needs of her charges—and the bizarre demands of their owners. She offers a hilarious inside look at the pet care industry and the lengths people will go to for their furry friends.

With a cast of unforgettable characters, from a toast-loving cockatiel to a gassy greyhound, Sleeps with Dogs is filled with tales of pets and those who love them.

Excerpt

 

Dear Neighbor,

I am pleased to introduce myself as a new name in local animal care. While I am only recently a resident of California, I’m an old hand when it comes to working with (and doting upon) animals.

It’s my pleasure to offer my services to you and your pet—canine, feline, reptilian, avian, or otherwise—with the guarantee that, while I am with your companion, my top priorities are always safety, consistent quality of care, and lots and lots of affection!

I look forward to meeting you and your (furry, scaly, or feathered) friend!

Lindsey Grant




CHAPTER ONE

Will Work for Pets

I was the go-to kid on the block to call when the neighbors were going out of town and needed their newspapers brought up, their mail retrieved, the plants watered, and their dogs walked or their cats fed while they were away. Before I was old enough to babysit, and even after, I regularly watched after the pets living in my family’s intown Atlanta neighborhood.

For years, I pet-sat for a Lab and an aging cocker spaniel down the street, never quite getting used to the idea that I’d earned the crisp $50 bill the neighbors always paid me with when they returned. I’d have played with those dogs, pet them, fed them, and refreshed their water bowls, for free.

As the spaniel got older and older, she got more and more ornery, once biting me on the face when I leaned in too close to greet her. I was devastated, certain that I’d done something really wrong to prompt her to bite me like that. In my third-grade class, we’d had a hamster that bit me, and I never forgot the teacher’s explanation that animals bite because they are afraid and are trying to protect themselves. I’d cried about that hamster bite, not because it hurt, but because I felt so bad for scaring the hamster.

After the spaniel attack, I left a note for her owners explaining what happened and suggesting that they shouldn’t pay me because I had scared her and I was sorry. They of course paid me anyway; I heard them at the door talking to my parents and apologizing profusely for what had happened. The dog was getting old and senile, they’d said, and they’d been worried for a while about their own young kids playing with her for this reason.

I also took care of two big beautiful golden retrievers who, unlike our dog, Biscuit, lived inside the house and ate wet Alpo, which smelled much worse than Biscuit’s dry pellets. And once, I took care of our family friends’ budgies when they went on vacation. I couldn’t understand the appeal of those loud, demanding birds—also biters—but I was happy to be asked.

Even when I started taking on babysitting gigs, I so much preferred the demands of the dogs and birds over the kids I cared for. Animals didn’t complain about the way you prepared their SpaghettiOs, balk about bed or bath times, or question the necessity of tooth brushing. They didn’t challenge your authority by throwing things at your head or tell you they hated you and wanted their mommy. Increasingly, I declined requests to babysit or nanny and just stuck with the animals.

While I grew up with traditional pets—seven or so hamsters, our beloved Biscuit, and Seal the cat—I had a snake in college. Monty was a ball python, about two feet long, and a wonderful companion. As pets go, snakes aren’t the most expressive or the cuddliest. But to me, he was both. He never bit me and was content to hang out on the couch, wrapped around my arm or coiled under a throw pillow, while I studied or watched TV. He was exceedingly polite to guests and even acted like a gentleman in the company of the live rats I fed him. If he was hungry, he dispatched them quickly and cleanly. A hero’s death. If not, he endured the rat’s fearful bites nobly, never retaliating when his rat snack sunk its teeth into his perfect scaly length.

Perversely, I grew attached to the rats, too—the uneaten ones. When Monty declined his dinner, I’d keep the rat in a shoe box with a cardboard tube and an ear of corn or some cereal until my next shift at the strip mall pet store, where I’d worked since sophomore year. There, the rejected rat, spared its inevitable fate for one day more, would go back in the tank with his rodent brethren.

After college, my move from Georgia to California necessitated that I find Monty a new home. Taking him with me on the cross-country journey hadn’t even occurred to me. This was 2004, and Snakes on a Plane hadn’t yet been released. I didn’t investigate at the time, certain that there weren’t allowances for reptilian carry-ons. Nevertheless, as soon as I relinquished Monty to my manager at the pet store, along with his hand-painted cage of wood and chicken wire, heat lamp, water bowl, and bark arch for hiding beneath, I sorely wished I’d reconsidered.

Snakes don’t exactly give you that heart-squeezing look that you might get from a beloved dog, or cat, or rabbit. He flicked his tongue, testing the stale air in the back of the store, no doubt sensing the proximity of many other snakes and dozens of tasty rodent treats. Surely, his tiny snake heart was not hurting like mine did during this final farewell. My former boss was more than happy to take my handsome two-foot-long friend off my hands, certain that she could sell him for a nice sum.

Once I’d surrendered my snake, I packed up the rest of my belongings for shipping West. Beyond the bedding and clothes, my boxes were filled with largely impractical and sentimental creature comforts—books, my parents’ decades-old vinyl collection and turntable, framed photos. I was proud that I’d condensed twenty years of living in the Atlanta area into roughly six boxes of varying sizes, until I saw the amount I owed for shipping. Perhaps I could have reconsidered some of the books and all of the records.

My plan was to establish California residency in order to attend grad school. Creative writing seemed a likely fit for my interests and skills; far better than a master’s in linguistics or a PhD in literature. I’d studied literature and film at the University of Georgia, a state school liberally attended by people I’d grown up with. Four years of college parties and rooming with kids I’d known since elementary school, in a town where alcohol poisoning was de rigueur and every place seemed overrun with pledges and their Greek sisters and brothers, was enough to instill in me a potent fear of stagnation and mediocrity, and the desire for a significant change. Moving to California instead of returning to Atlanta post-graduation seemed like a pretty good, if dramatic, way to avoid the former and achieve the latter.

Plans rarely pan out; I knew this. But that was mine, and I was sticking to it. My mom’s best friend from childhood lived southeast of Berkeley with her husband and two young boys, and she had offered to help me get on my feet. She was an English professor and had been providing me with ample information about the excellent writing programs in the area. It was to her address that I sent my belongings, with her that I shared my flight info. I had never before purchased a one-way ticket. I was leaving my Atlanta home to go West, to write.

Annie had set up a pet-sitting gig for me with her neighbors down the street. They were off to visit family for two weeks and needed a house sitter to take care of their dogs. Two weeks sounded like the perfect amount of time to get my bearings, apply for work, and figure out the year that yawned before me.

The neighbors offered me $30 a day; more money than I could wrap my brain around for hanging out with two dogs, feeding and petting and walking them, and sleeping over at their gorgeous Craftsman home.

At the pet store, I’d been paid minimum wage to show up at six o’clock in the morning and clean each puppy cubby, flushing pounds and pounds of dog shit down an industrial disposal. Once all of the cages had been sanitized, first with bleach and then with a highly concentrated pink solution to protect against parvo, the dogs could be restored to their now-habitable display cases, and we could open the store to the clamoring hordes. During the day, it was my job to keep the trays clean of any leavings and leap into action if any of the dogs started rolling in—or worse, eating—their turds. My colleagues working the floor—“Pet Counselors,” their nametags declared—would rap on the kennel door and call “retriever” or “Dalmatian,” and I’d scurry down the line to deal with it. Beyond that, I fed, medicated, groomed, laundered, and generally kept things clean and running smoothly behind the scenes.

Disgusting a job as it could prove at times, I loved those animals. The grand equalizer was the time I spent walking or brushing or snuggling them. I worried when one of my favorites was quarantined with a cold, and I missed each and every dog or cat that went home with a customer. For those few years, I was the den mother and they were my cubs.

Getting paid (and so well, by my Georgia minimum-wage standards) to simply love and look after the neighbors’ dogs, all while being housed for two weeks, felt like the best kind of good luck. I took it as an omen that this move would work out just fine.

My charges were Blondie, an energetic blond terrier mix, and Buster, an ancient black Lab mix. Their owners were both successful interior designers and the kind of people made infinitely more attractive by their abundant warmth and welcoming nature. I liked them immediately and pledged to take better care of their dogs than anyone ever had.

For someone feeling displaced and homesick, as I was, the enthusiastic and unconditional adoration of these two dogs was a balm for my aching heart. I couldn’t remember ever meeting two such faithful and affectionate animals, other than—of course—Biscuit, who was officially The Best Dog in the World.

Biscuit was a big fluffy white mutt, descended from a neighborhood retriever and her erstwhile poodle mate and brought into our family when I was still a toddler. We grew up together, Biscuit and I. She was my number one sidekick when it came to playing make-believe, dress-up, tag, and let’s-sleep-in-the-yard-on-a-big-blanket. My older sister and I were raised Quaker, and part of that upbringing was an hour of quiet time a day, in which we had to play separately and quietly in our respective bedrooms or outside. She would host a tea party for her stuffed animals, or play schoolteacher to her doll students in her bedroom. Outside, I would put headbands and scarves on the ever-tolerant dog and dance about her, singing her special song that I’d composed: “Queen Biscuit, Queen Biscuit. Queeeeeeen of the Wooooorrrrrlllld!” When I played my Madonna cassette tapes, I’d lift her paws onto my shoulders in an approximation of dancing. Often, she just sat quietly by my side while I worked on the stories and poems I loved to write in any one of my many collected journals and notebooks. She was undoubtedly my best friend right up until her sudden death when she was ten and I was twelve.

Sweet and affectionate as they were, these dogs also had an impressively detailed health history, Buster in particular, and I had plenty of instructions to follow for their daily care. Buster was going blind from cataracts, had to take antidepressants for separation anxiety, and was on a strict regimen of Glucosamine and Chondroitin for his advanced arthritis. He was also completely deaf. He and Blondie were both on a diet of boiled chicken and rice; Blondie because she had a tender stomach, and Buster because he deserved the good stuff in his twilight years. Their water came from the Brita pitcher on the counter.

Biscuit had shared her Alpo with the rats that ventured out of our heavily wooded backyard, and her water came from the garden hose. The only medication she took staved off heartworms, which was standard for outdoor dogs. We hid the foul-smelling pill in cheddar cheese, which she gobbled with enthusiasm. Beyond her daily dog bone, she didn’t enjoy many luxuries. She’d always seemed perfectly content with her lot in life as an exclusively outdoor dog. In fact, she wouldn’t come inside the house even when invited. I can’t account for why she was so averse to being indoors—she’d been that way for as long as I could remember. According to my mom, she’d come home to an unlocked front door soon after we got the dog. She bodily dragged a reluctant Biscuit over the threshold, saying, “Come on, Butch, go get ’em,” in an effort to scare any home intruders that might be lurking within. The minute she released her grip on Biscuit’s collar, the dog dashed for the door, eager to get out of the house and back to the yard, where she was happiest. Nothing about Biscuit suggested that she’d ever be a guard dog, an indoor dog, or butch in any way at all.

Though I’d long been passionate about animals and preferred their company to that of my own kind, I hadn’t pursued an education that would lead to a career in animal care. I’d attended one of the top veterinary universities in the country, but I wasn’t at all scientifically or mathematically minded, and I didn’t have the stomach for the grislier side of veterinary sciences, zoology, or other related vocations. So I went with a clean and completely cerebral literature major, relegating my interest in animals to the extracurricular.

Now that I’d matriculated and was seeking employment in the real world, so far beyond the borders of my college town, I felt sure that my enthusiasm for animals coupled with my three years at the pet store more than qualified me to be the lady in scrubs who ferried animals from waiting room to private exam room, to weigh the pets and take their temperatures. Without overthinking my resolution too much, I applied for vet tech positions at twenty-five or so local animal hospitals.

I got one interview.

It was far away, at least by my intown Atlanta standards where everything—everything—is only a five-minute drive, except the airport, which takes fifteen. The thirty-minute drive to Hayward brought me to an unremarkable cement building along a suburban thoroughfare, where I met with an endearingly overweight guy named Andy. He left me in a sterile white seating area to fill out some paperwork, and, within a few minutes, it was abundantly clear that I was nowhere near qualified for the job.

Had I administered subcutaneous medications? Declawed cats? Neutered animals? Performed any anesthetizations? Diagnosed any illnesses?

I tried to glamorize my skill set—which was woefully limited to deworming (dumping the writhing masses into the disposal), administering medication (shoving pills down slimy, gagging dog and cat gullets), light medical attentions (applying shiny blue or pink plastic cat-claw tips; holding down a rabbit while my boss drained an abscess), experience with exotic animals (watching in horror as a monitor lizard took a rat by the testicles and slammed him to death against the cage wall)—carefully sidestepping the fact that I’d been less of a technician and more of a lackey.

Andy let me down easy, saying he’d be in touch. I knew better than to expect a call back. Three years’ experience as a pet store cave troll does not a résumé make, and I had enough sense to spot the rejection between the lines.

While I was away from the dogs during the day, I was supposed to leave the jazz station playing on the stereo. This allegedly calmed Buster’s separation anxiety, though I couldn’t understand how that reconciled with his deafness. If he couldn’t hear the music, was it the vibration of the jazz that he benefited from?

Buster’s combination of ailments made him clingy in a very dear way. He kept me in sight at all times, even shuffling after me when I went into the bathroom. It felt good to be minded, to be needed. When I left the house, I took very seriously the owners’ routine for reassuring him that I’d return. At the front door, I’d get down on face level with him and—because he couldn’t hear me—I smiled and nodded exaggeratedly, petting him and kissing him, and then repeating the smile, nod, pet.

The smooth jazz was quietly thrumming when I returned from my failed interview, and I gratefully submitted myself to a session of pet therapy on the floor of the living room. Their slobbery approval was the perfect antidote to my slightly stung pride and growing anxiety over my lack of a professional Plan B. Somehow, Buster’s gift of his stuffed squirrel deposited in my lap, followed by a sincere and thorough licking of my hands and arms, made it all feel less scary and uncertain.

That night and every night, I strapped Buster into a hunter green fleece-lined harness and hauled him up the stairs to the master bedroom, his limbs flailing and his toenails scrabbling helplessly for purchase. The idea was that I’d hoist him vertically, taking enough weight off his aged joints that he could go through the motions of mounting the steps. Only after we’d made it to the second floor, both panting—and, I imagined, equally relieved that the ordeal was over—would Blondie bound up the stairs to join us.

In the kennel, I frequently had to retrieve or deposit large dogs—some in excess of fifty pounds—to and from their fluorescently lit cubbies for walks or playtime with an interested customer. We ran an adoption program for local shelter dogs, and many of these were full-grown and slightly overweight, like Chester the resident Shar-Pei. He was adorable, but hoisting him or any of the other bigger dogs from the cage, and always holding tight to keep them from bolting for the exits until I could get them leashed, was a struggle. The squirmy dogs, so excited to be released from their claustrophobic enclosures, left me with back twinges that lasted for days.

But that was nothing compared to heaving the dead weight of an overweight arthritic Lab up a flight of stairs. Waiting for me in the bedroom, though, was a Sleep Number bed: the perfect place to collapse after my exertions. One side was extra firm, the other moderately so. I had written down the respective numbers on a bit of paper to be sure I could restore the mattress to its original settings at the end of my stay. Until then, I was bound and determined to find my personal number. I had been working my way through the thirties and was feeling almost close to perfect at thirty-nine.

Buster slept between the dressers, his toenails scratching erratically against the hardwood floor as he dreamed. Blondie’s spot was right next to the bed, her satisfied-sounding exhalations the last thing I heard as I drifted to sleep.

After following up on all of my applications and accepting that the vet tech path was not to be, I started looking for openings at local pet supply stores. If I couldn’t be the vet tech waiting room lady, I certainly had the chops to wash dogs and offer their owners advice on accessories.

True, working the sales floor at the pet store peddling merchandise—and pets, of course—had never been my strong suit. The pet counselors worked on commission, and they were ruthless, using every trick in the book to make a sale. This meant pitching all manner of questionably useful accessories (The pooper-scooper with ergonomically angled claw! Frilly underwear and pads for when your bitch is in estrus!) and upselling customers on industrial-sized bags of dog food, cat litter, aquarium pebbles, and so on. It also meant that many an $800 dog went home with the wrong family. And many of those dogs got returned within a week or a month when the first-time owner realized what they’d gotten themselves into.

We had one customer who kept his Siberian husky in the cab of his big rig while he drove around the country. I have never seen a more neurotic animal, or one more badly in need of exercise. The overwrought dog couldn’t come into the store, which he and his owner visited anytime they were in the area, without chaos erupting. Within moments of the dog rearing his way through the cheerfully jangling door, displays were upended, toys and treats scattered across the industrial carpet, ferrets terrorized, the top layer of pig ears in the bin test-licked, and all other customers with or without their pets in tow hastened to the exit.

I didn’t have the ambition to wheel and deal like the others, convincing new or expecting parents that a Lab puppy was a good choice, or that the twice-as-expensive memory foam dog bed was that much better than the regular and reasonably priced one. I was far more comfortable trimming toenails and chatting with customers about the consistency of their dog’s barf than trying to convince them they needed a $150 tartan cushion to go with those nail clippers. Hence my permanent position back in the kennel with the animals.

Though working at PetSmart, Petco, Pet Food Express, or any other area chain felt like a big step down from being a vet tech, in both pay and prestige, I still preferred the access to the cute and furry that the job would provide over being, say, a barista or finding a desk job. I’d so much rather spend my days interacting with animals and their accessories than serving coffee to undercaffeinated customers or staring at a computer screen.

On my last day with Blondie and Buster, I was still without a job, or even a likely prospect. I was grateful that I at least had a place to stay, as Annie had invited me to use their spare attic bedroom indefinitely. We had worked out an agreement in which I would help ferry her boys to and from school, kung fu, tutoring, and so on, as well as do some light shopping and cooking in exchange for room and board. They rarely used their old Volvo, a car they’d been meaning to trade in for months, and essentially handed over the keys. Even with the question of employment still looming, at least I could check “roof over my head,” and, for the time being at least, “set of wheels,” off the list of required components for my West-Coast attempt at adulthood.

I compiled photos I’d taken of Blondie and Buster into a collage with dialogue bubbles declaring how much they’d missed their owners, and how much fun they’d had with me in the meantime. I left it propped on the kitchen island against Buster’s economy-sized pill bottles.

It was only after the neighbors returned that I learned Blondie and Buster had regular dog walkers, a husband and wife team who lived a few streets over. They didn’t offer overnight pet care, and they were looking to contract with someone who could provide this service for their clients, just as I’d been doing for the past couple of weeks.

I can see, in retrospect, why I was such an appealing solution to their problem. I showed up for my interview at Tom and Patty’s house, a classic northern California bungalow with an adobe-shingled roof and fruit trees dominating the postage stamp of a front lawn, wearing Crocs and my favorite Big Smith overalls. When they opened the door, I greeted their two massive German shepherds first, kneeling before them to receive their exploratory sniffs and licks.

Tom and Patty later confided that this instinct on my part, greeting the dogs first, was more important to them than anything else I did or said in the hour-long interview that followed. In that meeting, conducted on their Southwestern-patterned couches in the dimly lit living room, I learned about their decade-old business, founded after they quit the rat race of corporate America to pursue their passion for animals. They shared with me the basic requirements of setting up shop as a professional pet-care provider, which, as small business ownership goes, had fairly low overhead. They primed me on which services were in high demand and the going rates for each, and where I might fit into this rapidly growing industry. Apparently, while plenty of pet-care providers would do end-of-the-day visits to tuck their clients’ dogs and cats in, next to no one stayed the night. It was this highly sought service that would be my niche: the sleepover.

Of course, I would supplement these overnight stays with daily walks, helping lighten the load of Tom and Patty’s packed client roster by picking up those neighborhood walks and drop-in pet-sitting visits they couldn’t get to. Tom specialized in the group off-leash walks, so it was primarily Patty’s portion of the daily walks I’d help with. I was not interested in—or rather, I was completely daunted by—the prospect of managing five or so off-leash dogs at once. They agreed that, as a beginner, I was better suited for the leashed walks with one or two dogs at a time. They’d have primary contact with their clients and would manage the billing; I’d do the work, taking home a contractor’s percentage of what the client paid.

Beyond the business license, liability insurance, and a small inventory of basic supplies, I would need a few clients of my own. For tax reasons—to distinguish my role from that of an employee—my individually established business needed to have an altogether independent client list. This took a touch of extra explaining, as I was a comparative literature major to their combined double MBAs. The immediate takeaway, though, was that subcontracting meant that I could jump right in to working with them while figuring out my own marketing strategy and ramping up my business in parallel.

I had my marching orders, and an all-new plan.

Beyond my sheer delight at the prospect of spending my days, and many nights as well, in the company of so many different, affection-seeking animals, I was also enthusiastic about the business side of things. I’d always loved playing secretary, hoarding various types of ledgers and notepads. I got an adding machine for my eighth birthday and loved nothing more than accompanying my mom to Office Depot. Where most kids threw fits over candy or Barbie dolls, I’d beg for inane office supplies like carbon copies or the pink “While you were out” pads. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why my mom wouldn’t let me play with her checkbook.

That I’d need to make business cards, track my mileage and gas expenses, file all work-related receipts for tax purposes, and submit invoices at month’s end all sounded like too much fun.

Genre:

On Sale
Sep 23, 2014
Page Count
256 pages
Publisher
Seal Press
ISBN-13
9781580055482

Lindsey Grant

About the Author

Lindsey Grant is the former Program Director for National Novel Writing Month, a nonprofit organization that encourages writers of all ages and backgrounds to pen novel drafts during the month of November. Her writing has been featured as part of Invisible City Audio Tours’ Armada of Golden Dreams, KQED’s Perspectives, and Line Zero. She co-authored the writer’s workbook Ready, Set, Novel! and she holds an MFA in creative nonfiction and English from Mills College in Oakland, CA.

Prior to graduate school, Grant ran a dog walking and pet care business in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has since moved to Zurich, Switzerland, with her husband, where she writes, tries to speak German, and blogs about her attempts to assimilate at ptxpat.tumblr.com.

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