Hanging out with a bunch of dogs all day sounds like a pretty sweet gig, right? But taking care of a literal pack of animals can be some tough work—especially when they’re not all very well-trained.
In a story that certainly sounds unique to our contemporary gig economy, Mike Lam began dog sitting while working at home on other programming projects after quitting his corporate job. He found himself to be quite good at it, both taking care of the dogs and doting upon their owners’ concerns, and took it up full time. We spoke with Mike to learn a little more about his work with DogVacay as a sitter and trainer.
Tell us about your current position, and how long you’ve been at it. Are you working full time with dogs or is it more of a side gig?
I used to be a programmer at Goldman Sachs. I was tired of corporate life, so I decided to try DogVacay. Now I have been working with dogs full time for over 3 years.
What drove you to choose your career path? How did you end up working with dogs?
I just hated the investment banking world, so I left to pursue a more technology-focused company. I signed up for DogVacay for fun since I had free time. After I started hosting, I realized that not only was it awesome watching dogs, I was good at it, and it was lucrative. It was a win-win-win all around.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I have two master’s degrees in computer science and applied math. But I know this question is asking about the dogs!
I actually didn’t even have any dogs growing up. I always wanted one, but my parents didn’t like pets. I got Toby about a year before I joined DogVacay. I watched the Dog Whisperer religiously and read Cesar Milan’s books on raising and training dogs. Following his techniques and philosophies, clients saw a difference when they left their dogs with me. This helped me get reviews on the site, and it snowballed from there.
Did you need any licenses or certifications?
When things were rolling, and I decided to commit to doing this as my career, I trained under the only facility certified by the New York State board of education. However, I didn’t need that to get started.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
I spend some time with administrative tasks such as responding to requests, setting up and having meet and greets, doing pickups and drop offs. There’s also cleaning—dogs aren’t quite as cleanly as we are!
The most surprising task that takes up more time than people realize, though, is taking, editing and sending pictures and videos to clients for updates. I like to make sure I get the shot just right. As a dog owner, I know we all love and cherish a good photo of our pet.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
People assume that taking care of multiple dogs is stressful, but I find that to be the easiest part. Dealing with the owners is actually tougher. Most people think of their dog like their child, so you have to give them constant reassurance that their fur baby is safe and having fun. I’m the same way with [my dog] Toby, so I totally get it.
What are your average work hours?
It can be almost a 24/7 type job. I spend 1-2 hours about four times a day on meals and walks. Then I work on admin-related tasks, like scheduling and responding to potential clients. However, my quality of life and happiness level is way higher during these work hours than before. And now that I have a newborn, the fact that I’m not stuck in an office or commuting 12 hours a day is priceless.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
For the dogs, it’s worth teaching every dog at least some basic obedience whether they are staying for 2 days or 2 weeks. Having a pack you can control makes all the difference when taking care of multiple dogs. And you want to always assume that these will be repeat clients and the training will repeatedly pay dividends far in the future.
For the administrative tasks, spreadsheets and templates are critical. In fact the spreadsheet I send to all my clients to give me background on their dog is so in depth, it gives clients a great first impression of who I am and what my care is like without even meeting me.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
First, the spreadsheet I give has over a hundred rows of input. Most people probably ask each client a set of basic questions and vague ones such as “Any issues I should know about,” which often gets back vague, incomplete or inaccurate responses.
Second, training the dogs. Not every sitter has training knowledge. Some just play with and spoil the dogs. That works out okay with the happy-go-lucky dogs that anyone could watch. However, if you plan on making this your career, you need to be able to deal with more difficult dogs for both client satisfaction and your own sanity.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
People assume it’s dog poop, but I’m actually not that bothered by it!
The toughest part is having a client who checks in and asks for updates all the time. It’s the same as having a micromanager at work. I usually try to set expectations that updates will be sent daily.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
The appreciation of my clients when I make them feel comfortable being away from their pup or the shock when they see the transformation from training when they return.
It’s amazing how many people just get used to being frustrated with behavioral issues with their dogs. When you show them there’s a different way, the lives of the dog and the human improve. That’s when I truly feel I’ve made a difference.
I never felt that way as a cog in a corporate machine. In fact, I was pretty convinced all I was doing was helping the rich get richer, probably at the detriment to the rest of society.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
Be honest about your dog. I will take almost any dog, but there are situations where I know I may not be the most ideal option, usually because I have a large pack. It’s for the benefit of not just me and my pack, but also the well being of your own dog.
Regarding training, some people expect to just give me a dog with lots of behavioral issues and get back a perfect dog. I have to clarify that a majority of the training I do is teaching the human and not the dog. The dogs listen to me simply because I know how to communicate clearly with them. It’s up to the owners to learn how to communicate as well.
I usually ask people they can “move up” in their field, but that might not quite make sense here. Do you see yourself moving up?
In this world, building the business is completely built on repeat business, reviews and word of mouth. Client satisfaction and trust is everything. People label DogVacay as the Uber of dog sitting, but there’s a difference. You will take a ride from 100 different Uber drivers, but most people will stick with one host they trust.
What do people under or over value about what you do? I’d imagine most people think you’re just a guy who likes dogs.
From a training aspect, some people assume I can spend 10 minutes a day focused on training and just spoil the dog the rest of the day. But it’s actually a 24/7 mindset, and every single interaction you have with this dog is encouraging or discouraging an appropriate or inappropriate behavior. I sometimes wish I could let that wall down and just spoil the heck out of all the dogs, but I feel a responsibility to return every dog a little bit better than when they arrived.
From a boarding aspect, people don’t realize that it can be a 24/7 job. To start, I have the typical schedule of someone that owns a dog, which includes a fairly strict schedule of walks and feedings. Then I need to respond to clients when I hear from them throughout the day. Responding to potential clients within 5 minutes increases the likelihood of a booking by 50%, so I always try to get back to them ASAP.
I also have to accommodate people coming and going at all times and my own pickups and drop offs. Then I need to find time to take pictures and videos, edit and find the good ones. There can be hundreds of pictures and hours of video footage to go through (dogs are not always the most cooperative on camera).
It’s not a 9-5, which is nice, but a very large percentage of my day is dedicated to working. That said, my quality of life and happiness level is way higher than before.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
I’ve actually been told a couple times that I was the inspiration for them to leave their jobs and pursue an animal-related career.
Don’t be just a person that likes dogs. You won’t excel, and realistically, you’ll end up disliking what you do. It takes a passion and drive to be good at this just like any other job. Even professional video gamers have to practice their craft 8+ hours a day.
Being responsible, reliable and trustworthy is more important than anything else. Clients are entrusting their child’s life in your hands, and it’s a huge responsibility not to be taken lightly. Make sure to make the humans happy, too.
Lastly, learning how to train dogs will set you apart from the rest of the pack, no pun intended.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about—from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between. If you’d like to share your career, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo by Aneta Jungerova (Shutterstock).
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