New Breed of Entrepreneur

With Pampered Pet Sitting, Animals Don’t Have to Ruff It
Candy Laflam

Candy Laflam greets one of her canine clients.

Face it: family vacations are no picnic for the family dog or cat.

Even conscientious kennels offer little beyond some fresh air, regular meals, and maybe a little playtime: a safe place for Fido or Fluffy, but nothing resembling home.

That’s why Candy Laflam asks: what’s wrong with leaving the pets at home?

Five years ago, Laflam started Pampered Pet Sitting to address a growing desire among pet owners to minimize vacation stress on both them and their furry kids by letting their dogs, cats, and other animals stay at home, with regular visits by trained sitters replacing the hard floor and unfamiliar cage of a crowded kennel.

“Some animals do much better in a kennel, so I would never criticize a kennel,” said Laflam. “But certain dogs do well at home, too, so there’s a definite need for this service.

“A lot of people don’t have children, and their pets are their children,” she added, “so they go above and beyond for their ‘kids.’”

The number of pet parents looking to pamper their pooch or puss is growing, too. Since being inspired by a college marketing class to launch this entrepreneurial enterprise, Laflam has seen her business — now based in Easthampton — become the largest pet-sitting operation in Western Mass. And with more than 400 clients and between 20 and 30 sits per day, it’s still growing.

“This is becoming very popular, and it amazes the heck out of me that it’s grown to where it has,” she told BusinessWest. “This was supposed to be a part-time job while I got my degree. I was going to be an accountant or a bookkeeper. Talk about the opposite happening.”

Paws in Her Plans

Speaking of that degree … Laflam doesn’t exactly have it yet. While working as a kennel manager at a veterinarian boarding facility, and halfway to earning a Business degree at Holyoke Community College, she was inspired by a marketing class to look into a career, pet sitting, that she had been learning about.
“I came to a crossroads and had to make a decision: do I finish my degree or start a business?” she said. “And I went this route.”

So her degree-completion efforts went to the dogs — for now. Laflam said she wants to finish that degree someday, but her success as a sitter has proven her decision five years ago to be correct. “I’m kicking butt in the pet-sitting industry,” she said. “I have the biggest sitting company out there. I have five employees at this point and a humongous territory.”

That last part wasn’t on the original business plan, however. “A lot of people know about it now, but five years ago, it was tough,” she said — partly because she originally intended to limit her territory to the Hilltowns region; she lives in Goshen and works as the animal control officer for that town as well as Chesterfield. But response to her service was sluggish there.

Fortunately, other areas, particularly Northampton and its surrounding communities, proved much more fertile. (The large number of childless gay and lesbian couples who treat their animals like children doesn’t hurt, Laflam added.) She’s expanded her base to cover much of Western Mass. and moved from a solo business model to one with several employees.

Whether a family goes away for a week or just overnight, Laflam offers a customized care plan, charging by the visit and working out in advance the amenities, from feeding to medication to on-leash walks. She and her sitters will also bring in mail and newspapers, water plants, empty dehumidifiers, alternate lights, and perform other tasks to ease a family’s peace of mind. Some families even opt for a sitter to stay overnight.

“This is less stressful to both the parent and the pet,” said Laflam, adding that her goal is to become part of a client’s family for the rest of the pet’s life. “They can call me about anything — referrals to vets, behavioral advice, whatever; I just want to be in their lives. I don’t want them to use me once and never again. I want to be in it for the long haul.”

Clicks and Licks

Laflam points to the launch of Pet Sitters International in the early 1990s as a development that increased the profile of her chosen career. That organization (www.petsit.com) now boasts more than 7,600 members in all 50 states, most Canadian provinces, and several other countries. Laflam said her own Web site,www.pamperedpetsitting.com, has been a major factor in her success.

“The Web is my friend,” she said. “Just by having my site up and running, allowing people to research what pet sitting is, we’re educating people.”

While the pet-sitting industry doesn’t require accreditation — although national organizations like Pet Sitting International are working to change that — Laflam said she makes sure her employees have as much training and certification as is available. Her completion of the American Red Cross pet first-aid course and requirement that all her employees do the same is just one of her strict guidelines for those looking to become part of the team.

When someone applies for a job, she said, “I talk to them to make sure we can work well together and they have the mentality I do. Then they fill out an application with questions like, ‘what would you do if a dog got away, or an alarm goes off, or a dog is sick?’ You have to have some general knowledge. If that comes back OK, I interview them to see if they’d be a good fit with me.”

A new employee trains beside Laflam for several days before being set free for solo sits. In a job where people open up their homes to a relative stranger, background checks for new employees are also a must.

“I want to go above and beyond with my staff,” she said, “so people can trust our judgments, knowing we have expertise behind them.”

Customers get a different sort of grilling, in the form of six pages of paperwork detailing everything from what the pet eats to where the trash can is. And although the vast majority of animals pose no problems, Laflam said she has had to turn away three potential clients over the years.

“If we have a meeting and the dog shows any aggression, we won’t do it,” she said, “because, if the dog acts that way when the owners are there, how will it be when they’re away? Still, people are pretty aware of their dogs’ personalities.”

The Purrfect Job

Even with her steady growth and potential for more, Laflam doesn’t see herself in competition with other sitters; in fact, she founded the Western Mass Pet Sitters Network as a way to link similar businesses, referring customers to each other and generally growing the awareness of pet sitting as an alternative to kenneling.

Meanwhile, she’s considering the potential for franchising the business someday, with her growth already forcing Pampered Pet Sitting out of her home last year and into office space on Route 10 in Easthampton. “I definitely outgrew my office, but this location has opened a lot of doors for me.”

Pet sitting also keeps her away from home — often for a week or more at a time. Her husband, three dogs, five cats, two guinea pigs, and two rats might not be crazy about that, but she’s not complaining.

“This has been great. I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur; I’d always worked for others,” she said. “But being my own boss, I don’t think I’d do anything other than this. To be around furry creatures all day — I don’t think anyone has a better job than me.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]