Doggedly determined in business
Look out, Cesar "The Dog Whisperer" Millan: Darlene Sawyer is horning in on your territory.
Celebrity pet owners may not have Sawyer's number on their speed dial (yet), but plenty of animal lovers in and around Old Bridge call her every time they head off to work or go on vacation. Sawyer, 42, is the owner of Aunt Darlene's Pet Sitting & Dog Walking Service, LLC, which she operates full-time out of the Old Bridge home she shares with her husband, Tom, and their three charges — Pebbles, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel; Buddy, a miniature long-haired Dachshund, and Boo Boo Kitty, who is, well, a kitty cat.
At 11 a.m. one warm early May morning, Sawyer heads out to check on her first client, Sully, an 8-month-old Goldendoodle (for you laypeople, that's a golden retriever/poodle mix) who lives in a stately home in South River.
"Sully-boy, look what Aunt Darlene's got!" Sawyer calls out as she refills his bowls with fresh water and more food. Sully wags his long tail excitedly and paces back and forth in the kitchen, stopping only for a moment to sniff the visitors.
Sawyer visits Sully once every weekday so that his owner, Janice Rana, a teacher in East Brunswick, doesn't have to worry about his well being during the long school day. Larger dogs may typically be able to hold their urine for longer periods of time than smaller dogs, Sawyer explains, but even they have their limits.
In addition to making sure her dog charge is well-fed and has enough water, Sawyer takes him for a short walk and plays with him for a bit outside, weather permitting.
"It's hard when it's 100 degrees or 20 degrees, but it's still better than working in an office," the former legal secretary remarks of her vocation.
Sawyer originally embarked on the pet-sitting business with a friend more than three years ago. Just a few months into the venture, her friend decided to move on, and Sawyer took over as sole owner and operator. She renamed the business Aunt Darlene's because she thought it sounded "real comforting."
"I always wanted to work with animals," says Sawyer, who credits her father for her love of all creatures great and small. She recalls bringing stray cats home as a child growing up in Highland Park, and points out that her father is the one who introduced her to Boo Boo Kitty, whom he had found wandering his Monroe neighborhood.
Sawyer will pet-sit just about any type of animal, including cats, birds, fish and guinea pigs. She forms bonds with her charges very quickly, and she says it's difficult when her job comes to an end.
"They're your second dogs," she says. "If a client moves, I cry for a week."
Clients such as Sully's owner, who lives within a 5-mile radius of Sawyer's
home, typically pay $20 for a 30-minute visit. Sawyer says she adjusts her rates depending on the distance she must travel or the type or number of pets involved. She usually visits the pets of vacationing owners three times per day, but is flexible depending on the pets' individual needs.
Sawyer, who is fully insured as a pet sitter, says the summers are very busy because many people go on vacation. That is also when she relies on her two part-time employees to share some of the responsibilities, which may also include taking in clients' mail and garbage cans, watering house plants, emptying litter boxes and turning lights and appliances on or off. She also leaves pet owners a detailed summary of what the animal did during her visit, such as whether it went to the bathroom and if she had to refill its water bowl or give it more food.
Some clients, Sawyer says, "let me keep the (house) key" once they return from vacation so "that way I'm ready" when they need her services again.
Sawyer says her clients, which she estimates at over 100, find her via word of mouth, advertisements in the weekly newspaper and on the Internet. Her husband designed her Web site — www.wesitpets.com — from which prospective clients can learn more about Sawyer's services and request a free in-home consultation. Pet owners may also order a brand of organic, holistic, human-grade pet food called Life's Abundance through the site. Sawyer points out that in light of the recent pet-food recalls, it's extremely important that owners know exactly what their animals are eating.
After witnessing Sawyer's rapport with Sully, a visitor may wonder if there's an animal in existence that is immune to Sawyer's charm and soft, encouraging voice. That question is answered during her second visit this day to see a Basenji named Oreo and his parrot sibling, Nikki. While Oreo clearly enjoys walking around his neighborhood with Sawyer, it's Nikki who craves her affection. As Sawyer speaks lovingly to the bird, it repeatedly leans its head in her direction, allowing her to stroke it with her fingers.
As Sawyer turns to leave at the end of her visit, she says goodbye to her charges.
Without missing a beat, Nikki calls out, "See you later!"