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Pet-sitting no longer for the neighborhood kid

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Nilo Silva, 40, owner of a Queens-based pet sitting company, holds Monty, an affectionate goldendoodle, at a dog run in New York City (Photo by Julie Hau for CNS)

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Pet sitter Renan DaSilva, 20, takes a few dogs to a dog run in New York City (Photo by Julie Hau for CNS)

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Professional pet sitter Samuel Reis, 31, plays with his canine charge Katie at a Riverside Park dog run in New York City (Photo by Julie Hau for CNS)

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Overnight guests relaxing at Kamp Kanine in Little Falls, N.J. (Courtesy of Kamp Kanine)

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A dog during playtime at Kamp Kanine in Little Falls, N.J. (Courtesy of Kamp Kanine)

Without hesitation, Monty, a three-year-old goldendoodle, jumped into the arms of Nilo Silva one chilly March morning at a Riverside Park dog run on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The big curly dog, an odd but cute mix between a golden retriever and a standard poodle, wrapped his paws around the man.

“He thinks he’s a lapdog,” said Silva, laughing and dodging exuberant dog kisses.

Silva loves the dog, and the feeling is obviously mutual. But he has to maintain an emotional distance; at the end of the day, big, floppy adorable Monty will return to the arms of another.

Silva, 40, owns Doggy Love, a dog-sitting service that comes to the pet’s home each day and plays with it while the owner is off working or traveling. After his 13 years in the business, he and his colleagues are out to debunk the myth that pet-sitting is still the casual once-a-day job easily left to the neighbor’s kid.

Last fall, the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS) launched a media campaign to promote legitimate pet-sitting agencies all over the country, like Doggy Love, Guardian Angel Pet Sitters near Chicago, At Home Pet Sitters in Savannah, Ga., High Tail It Pet Sitting in Tampa, Fla., Canine Comrades in Fort Branch, Ind., and Guardian Pet Sitting near San Jose, Calif.

The association touts pet-sitting as a sort of day care for dogs that beats lying around the house, and a far better alternative to kennels for pet owners who travel.

With an estimated 157 million pet owners in the United States--many of whom work full time or spend a lot of time away from home, or both--pet-sitting has become big business. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, pet owners are expected to spend over $3 billion this year on doggy day care, “luxury” pet hotels and professional pet sitters.

NAPPS argues that pets get better care from a professional sitter than they do at traditional kennels, where they are more likely to be exposed to sickness and can become stressed in a strange environment.

Sharon Jones, who owns Guardian Pet Sitters in Dallas, said pet-sitting is serious work.

“This is not a fun hobby,” she said.

A life-long animal-lover, Jones quit a day job in the oil and gas industry 16 years ago to dive into pet-sitting. Jones and her part-time staff of 22 take care of all sorts of animals, from dogs and cats to rats and guinea pigs, and the occasional domestic potbellied pig (“They're just messy,” she said).

Jones prefers part-time employees in order to keep stress levels low and attention-giving high. But no matter how many of her staffers would like to think of themselves as “animal whisperers,” she said, cats still freak out.

One female cat became territorial with an employee who was leaning down to clean her litter box. The cat took a swipe at the employee’s eyes.

“Good thing she was declawed,” said Jones.

Silva takes care of dogs exclusively. He has five employees, and the business takes in about $240,000 a year, he said, charging $40 to $50 a day per dog for wealthy pet owners on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“I wish I made what these people pay in taxes,” he said.

Silva said it’s a rewarding but exhausting job, with 11-hour days of walking, running, constant attention-giving, and lots of belly rubbing. Silva will spend time with five to 10 dogs each day, and will also foot the bill if one of his canine clients gets sick or injured under his watch, which happens on occasion.

When his clients travel, he takes the dogs to his own home in Queens, N.Y., where he offers kennel services. But even owners who can’t afford Silva’s level of care can find something cozier than a cage for their beloved.

Even traditional kennels have realized that many pet owners are willing to pay for a bit of luxury.

“They are becoming very nice places,” said Cathi Denham, the owner of At Home Pet Sitters in Savannah, Ga.

Wayne Gruen owns Kamp Kanine in Little Falls, N.J. He calls his facility a cross between a luxury hotel and a children’s day-care for dogs and “a few good cats.”

For $35 a day, he offers 24-hour staffing with playtime and flat-screen TV viewing to help soothe the animals to sleep. He also has massage and aromatherapy sessions for older and injured dogs. For those who scoff, Gruen said massage greatly improved the quality of life for his dog Frieda, a rescue from Hurricane Katrina, after she lost one of her hind legs.

“The trend is now toward holistic health,” he said.

Gruen also holds an annual Halloween costume contest for his canine clientele.

“The winner last year was a black and white papillon dressed like a skunk,” he said. “Very cute.”

Back at Riverside Park, Silva said he looks for a reliable person in a pet sitter--and someone who can keep up with the pace of doing it full time. He said potential employees don't have to have a lot of experience with dogs specifically, but his employees do have to love animals.

Samuel Reis, a full-time Doggy Love employee into his seventh year, meets those qualifications.

“They are my life,” said Reis, 31, of his charges.

A native of Brazil, Reis speaks little English and has trouble communicating in the human world of New York City. But he can speak to these dogs. He knows all their names--Monty the goldendoodle, Carly the black lab, Emmet the standard poodle, Nally the beagle mix, Orion the pit bull. He knows their temperaments and personalities.

And they listen. As the dogs gathered around him, bright-eyed and barking, poised to play catch, it was as if they were his own.

Getting too attached is an emotional danger for both the dog and the sitter, said Silva, but that is a natural part of the job.

“I can tell some dogs don’t want to go back to their owners,” he said, turning toward Jack, an affectionate 13-year-old black-and-white border collie.

“I've been taking care of this guy for 11 years,” said Silva, petting Jack's head. “Now he thinks he’s my dog.”

E-mail: ees2139@columbia.edu