After the family dog died of old age and their two sons had made careers, Gregg and Amber Russell faced a dilemma that was common among retirees: should they look for a new dog and enjoy the fun and companionship dogs they have on offer? Or should they stay pet-free so they can travel anywhere, anytime?
Thankfully, they found a way to do both: as pet sitters for the wealthy in locations as diverse as Hawaii, southern Spain, the Caribbean Islands, British Columbia, New York City, and more.
The Russells are not paid to sit pets, nor are they reimbursed for airfare, but they live in style in places of interest, usually with the family car and sometimes with housekeeping. “We feel like we hit the jackpot,” says Amber.
Recently, for the fourth time in nearly as many years, they spent a month in a gated community on Kauai, Hawaii’s fourth largest island known for its secluded beaches and dramatic scenery. When her stay begins, Amber makes a note of the household’s schedule: the gardener comes on Fridays and the house cleaner on Saturdays, followed by the koi pond caretaker who shows up every two weeks. In the meantime, Gregg feeds a dozen colorful koi with their daily rations, brushes leaves and palm fronds out of their pond and scoops up poisonous king toads with a long-handled claw. After feeding and running Kai and Kana, the resident Aussies, they set up a treat dispenser and ask Alexa for background music (the dogs like classic, country, or soft rock). Then they go to the ocean to play in the surf or relax on the beach.
Ray Bilcliff / Pexels
“I go through about three books a week,” says Amber. “I could easily live like this.”
And so, up to six times a year, they search for pet jobs in places on their travel wish-list. Summer months are taboo; They love the mild weather in their hometown of Portland, Oregon, and Gregg enjoys tending their large home garden. But after mid-September they are ready for adventure.
The Russells pay an annual fee of $ 90 to list their profile on trustinghousesitters.com (other sites offer similar options). Depending on the platform, the focus can be large – North America, Europe or Australia / New Zealand – or country-specific. Ambitious pet keepers have been known to wake up in the middle of the night looking for real-time notifications posted by homeowners around the world. However, some websites combine opportunities into a daily list or two.
The most popular websites have thousands of registered sitters, and competition for plum assignments can be fierce. “If we’re one of the first to apply, our chances are probably 75 percent,” says Amber. “If not, get down quickly.” Of course, the selection process swings in both directions. Some listings don’t come with a car, while others fall in an area during the rainy season – they usually ignore them.
To be selected, the Russells rely on their experience, professional background, customer reviews, security clearance (e.g. TSA pre-check status and driving records), and word of mouth. After looking after the Kauai Aussies, they were invited into the neighborhood by a homeowner across the street to tend a pair of Maine Coon cats. And while some sitters have their own website with an introductory video, photos and testimonials, the Russells upload this type of information to their Trusted Sitters profile. Initially, they paid to be listed on additional websites, but now they can find enough matches on one.
They have had some outstanding experiences: strolling through traditional villages on the Greek island of Paros, where clotheslines often have cuttlefish with long tentacles hanging to dry before cooking; soar in a hot air balloon over the Rio Grande in Albuquerque; High Tea at Butchart Gardens in Victoria (courtesy of your client); and visit all kinds of beaches, bike paths, ancient forts, churches and castles.
Usually after feeding and walking the animals, they venture out and return in five or six hours. Restaurants are cheaper for lunch than dinner, which will suit your budget. For months in Hawaii, they often visit the local library and volunteer at a church food bank. They also toured a neighbor’s winery, were invited to a glamorous New Year’s Eve party, and swam 85 votive candles in a pool at a birthday party in the backyard.
The pets they care for are part of the fun. In the late afternoon, the Aussies are eager to chase Frisbees on the lawn before gleefully revolving around the prospect of a top-down ride in their owners’ Mini Cooper. On the Californian island of Catalina, the preferred mode of transport was a golf cart. The Basset Hound in their care liked to ride the shotgun. In British Columbia, a chocolate laboratory and a mongrel rescue dog were enthusiastic hiking partners on green roofed paths through ancient forests.
“We are really animal lovers. If we didn’t travel so much, we would definitely have a dog,” says Amber. “As soon as we have fulfilled our desire to see the world, we will.”
In addition to dogs, they take care of cats, fish, chickens, a parrot, two oxen and a turtle. Some of their fees require special services; Gregg has learned how to beat raw chicken on the bone with a mallet, and Amber can give medication and vitamins.
They usually arrive a day or two early to learn the animal and housekeeping routines directly from the homeowners. Make sure to locate the breaker box, the water cut-off and the fire extinguisher. When they borrow the family car, the Russells offer to drive the homeowners to the airport and pick them up at the end of their trip. They often prepare a “welcome back” dinner, put the junk mail aside, and do small tasks.
Of course, there are occasional downsides. Pet sitters face their own piles of post and maintenance projects on their return, and they may be up to date with friends. The tasks can also take an unexpected turn. When a hurricane shut a job in the Caribbean, the Russells lost their airfare until they convinced an agent to cancel the change fee.
Even small things can go wrong. In a Greek city where few spoke English, Gregg asked a hairdresser to use the same Clipper number that he liked in the US. The Greek numbers didn’t match, however, and he left the store with a shockingly short buzz cut. It helps to have a sense of humor, says Amber.
The Russells still enjoy the occasional organized tour – the typical hurricane trip with a change of hotel every two nights – but they like the slower pace of exploration that pet sitting allows for. “It was a good lifestyle for us,” says Gregg. “We’re addicted.”