by Grant Moser
Mike Steinbrecher, 42, of Wyndmoor, and Kiaran Leary, 34, of Chestnut Hill, met at a dog training school and kennel in King of Prussia. Mike handled the office and helped in the socialization yard, and Kiaran was at first a volunteer before he became the kennel manager. After a year of working together, they decided to open Wissahickon Pet Minders, a Wyndmoor-based pet-sitting business, in January, 2012. Eighteen months later, their company has over 200 regular clients in the Chestnut Hill area.
Leary’s love for animals began when he started walking dogs for a pet-sitter friend of his in Media and found that it “immediately clicked. There’s something about them that’s so easy and pure. If a dog loves you, they show it to you immediately.” When Leary became kennel manager at the dog training school, he worked with dogs that had serious behavior issues.
Though he had no formal training, Leary found he was a natural. He learned about becoming “the leader of the pack” when in the yard and quickly picked up the demeanor and movements of the head trainer. Leary found that being with dogs lessened his social anxieties. “I’ve never heard of another job where you work 12-15 hour days and aren’t stressed out at the end,” he said.
Steinbrecher feels the same way. He used to teach at a school for children with behavior issues in lower Bucks County. He remembers it more as a therapist job than a teaching position and how stressed out he would be when he came home. Now he finds himself unstressing during the day when he’s taking care of other people’s pets.
However, the job is far from easy. A pet-sitting business is a 24/7, 365 days a year. Neither owner has had a vacation since they began, though Steinbrecher did get nearly two days away last summer to celebrate his first wedding anniversary. They also provide medications to pets while their owners are at work or on vacation, including insulin injections and IV fluids for cats. The hardest job, however, is “taking a shy cat and giving it a pill orally,” joked Steinbrecher.
They’ve taken care of lizards, snakes, hamsters, hedgehogs, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets and birds. Some clients who take their pets with them on vacation ask them to continue to stop by to bring in their mail and water their plants. “Our big push is we bend over backwards for people. If someone calls and says they’re leaving tomorrow, we’re going to find a way to get there,” Mike explained.
Their other point of pride is taking on difficult cases that other pet-sitters and even professional trainers have given up on. Leary currently visits and walks a German Shepherd twice a week that has been labeled “vicious” by other pet-sitters and trainers. Steinbrecher cares for a cat whose owners leave a spray bottle on the porch for visitors. They claim they have never turned down an animal yet.
Many people are surprised to hear that when they visit a client for the first time, they completely ignore the animals. Though seemingly counter-intuitive for a business that takes care of pets, the practice is based on animal psychology.
“When someone new comes into a home, the pets — especially dogs and to some extent cats — are consumed with questions of why is this person in my home. This creates confusion and anxiety. By ignoring them, it puts them at ease and gets across that their owner is taking care of this person; this person is welcome. So the next time we come back and no one is at home, they’ll respect our presence as the person in charge,” explained Steinbrecher.
As much as he admits this initial approach is the right thing to do, Steinbrecher has to fight against every instinct to get down on the floor and play with the animal. They hope the client understands that they care not only about what they’re doing, but that they know what they’re doing.
If they could share one piece of general advice with pet owners, it would be not to treat their pets as people. You can’t engage with them psychologically as people; you have to figure out how the animals think. Learning how to communicate with your specific pet is the most important thing in being an owner.
“It’s tough to explain, but you’re communicating with them constantly. Whether you’re in another room, how you move through the room when they’re there, how and when you praise them, everything. The end result isn’t to have a military-esque obedience, but to strip away a dog’s anxiety to let them simply be happy, peaceful dogs. Sniff away, enjoy life, but when I say ‘sit,’ I expect it to happen immediately, and you don’t get up until I say so,” explained Leary.
This summer, Pet Minders hired two part-time employees to help with the extra work that comes with many families taking vacations. By next spring the company will need to add another full-time employee, according to Steinbrecher, so that they aren’t forced to turn any new clients away. “It’s on our minds all the time,” he said.
“A lot of what makes our business so good right now is Mike and myself,” Leary said. One of the owners goes to meet each new client, even if another employee is involved. “I don’t want to become so big we’re just a name. If anyone in this business begins to see pets as a commodity, that’s a dangerous thing.”
Pet Minders serves the communities of Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy, Lafayette Hill, Wyndmoor, Erdenheim, Flourtown, and a portion of Germantown. They are licensed, insured and bonded. For more information, call 215-688-6552 or wissahickonpetminders.com