Some thoughts on housesitting in case you’re considering whether to take up the vocation. Most people want their pets taken care of while they’re away, so if you don’t enjoy other people’s animals you won’t have very many offers. No money exchanges hands, by the way. When you tend their pets for free, they let you live in their house for free.
Quite often there is a little watering of the yard or tending of potted plants involved, but generally speaking duties last a scant few hours in the day. From then on, you can pursue your own interests such as exploring the area. I love the relaxed pace this affords.
If you’re a people person, walking the dog opens up conversations with other dog-owners and bingo — you have connections. If you’re a recluse, you only have to socialize briefly at the beginning when they hand you the keys and at the end when you hand back the keys. If you love to read, there’s all that solitude. If you’re an artist, there are new vistas everywhere. If you’re a writer, it solves some of the reasons for signing up for an expensive retreat. Beautiful location, tranquil environment, limited responsibilities to a community.
Helping a dog understand
Since your responsibilities frequently involve one or more dogs, I believe it’s important to establish your relationship right off. The resident dog of a recent housesit, for example, thought I was there for his express happiness. He was an eager trembler, this dog, with hopes that went far beyond catching balls in the backyard. I make it a firm policy to let dogs know right from the beginning that we are allies in a very specific sense. Exercise time is wonderful, but it is not an all-day occupation for me.
Most particularly, the dog must understand that we are not buddies in the usual sense and that such an assumption will tend to sour our relationship. That means I take specific offense at all crotch sniffing and under no circumstances may a large dog lie beside me on the couch or on the bed (small dogs have different rules). We are more than cordial strangers, though, and I am a reliable feeder-person.
Even more frequently, a housesitter needs to navigate an interim-type of relationship with a cat. It’s always more complicated than it first appears. For example, my most recent cat-sit mewed with fervor every morning and rolled over begging me to pet her fluffy belly. When I obliged, she clawed my hand. I suppose this sort of duality keeps a relationship vibrant. At least I’m considering that view. Another view would be that it’s a passive/aggressive relationship and I should stay clear of that cat. Or perhaps, the human truth would be that a betrayal had occurred and the cat deserves euthanasia.
From the cat’s point of view, though, maybe my hand smelled wrong or my fingers wiggled annoyingly. Point of view is fickle.
Vagaries & outcomes
So far I’ve only done short housesits. But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be a full-time house-sitter. I’m a fairly non-invasive resident. Translated, that means I study all visible family photos in the house carefully (each one contains a hidden story), but I never open a drawer or a closet. If I find perishables in the ‘fridge, I may choose to eat them or throw them out, but I never open the freezer unit. It’s a fine line, I know, but it’s important to adopt certain standards of behavior.
I fear one thing about being a professional house-sitter, though. What if I begin responding to the world through books and art and music? Then I’d have disconnected too far. Writers that respond to second-hand impressions of the world can be wonderful technicians, but they don’t grab my soul.
The insulation from the direct stimulation of lived experience may keep a lot of pain at bay, but maybe the heart-ache and the yearning and the getting-it-wrong when I tried-so-hard-to-get-it-right actually forms a poet’s heart.