Pet-sitting as a Way of Life

Gordon and Nancy Hendrickson visit

four-legged grandchildren all year long

The freedom of retirement inspires many older couples to take to the road. They shed their belongings and venture into new surroundings to emulate the lost freedom of youth—in a 40-foot recreational vehicle towing a car and a satellite dish.

Gordon and Nancy Hendrickson prefer to pack just suitcases. Having lived all over the West while they raised their five children—Montana, Washington, California, and three different places in New Mexico—they don’t need to cover any more ground. Instead, they travel around Corrales, living in other people’s homes.

“It’s almost like going on vacation,” chuckles Gordon, who is known at the Kiwanis Club of Corrales as the pet sitter who knows the dogs in town by name. He and Nancy started out by offering to help friends who had three big dogs and could never get away.

“It was a real nice house,” Nancy says of that first experience, about ten years ago.

“Then Lucky’s parents wanted to go away,” she recalls. (All their clients are referred to by their pets.) “We said, sure, of course.”

When the homeowner asked how much she owed them, Gordon was dumbfounded. “She said I had to start charging,” he recalls. “I said, how much? She gave us a figure, and that’s what we’ve been charging ever since.”

The Hendricksons are not your run-of-the-mill pet sitters. “We’re not in business,” Nancy says firmly. “We don’t advertise and have never claimed to be a business.” The pet-sitting is a way of helping friends, and friends of friends, nearly all of them connected to the Kiwanis Club or the civic leadership of Corrales.

They’ve sat the mayor’s dog. They sit for members of the arts community, the historical society, village government. About a dozen families active in the Corrales community keep them hopping from house to house, and the list keeps growing.

“We do it because we come from a background of helping people,” explains Gordon, who was a career administrator for the YMCA. Starting in April, the Hendricksons slept hardly a night at home through July, then most nights away through October. “Sometimes we get split up,” Gordon notes, because the jobs overlap. One of their daughters is also helping out.

Doesn’t the high demand suggest that they should maybe raise their rates?

“Maybe,” Gordon nods. “Maybe so.”

“We just enjoy being in the Corrales community, because they are animal-lovers and volunteers,” says Nancy. “In Corrales, people like to take care of dogs, so nearly all the animals (we watch) are rescues.”

One prominent exception is a mama dog and puppies who are grand champion wheaten terriers. “I got over my fear of taking care of champions,” Gordon says with mock awe. “Those wheatens are special.”

The Hendricksons do have some ground rules. Gordon won’t walk a dog who isn’t trained, because he has two artificial hips and can’t afford to fall. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t give them a daily workout. In fact, “I do a better job than some of the owners, because I make sure I’m the alpha,” he declares. “When I say no, I mean no.”

“I slip them treats,” says Nancy.

Gordon grew up on a farm in North Dakota, and has been around animals all his life. So along with dog walking, house sitting, plant watering, mail collecting, and tidying up, pet owners get a little dog training thrown in too. The animals obviously have the time of their lives, because they go nuts when they see Gordon in town. “They always remember him,” says Nancy.

Cats they love too. There are four in one home that they’ve sat a half dozen times. “We really enjoy watching those four cats,” says Nancy.

To overhear them, you’d think Gordon and Nancy were talking about their grandchildren. There’s the dog who got into the cake Nancy set on a high counter. The dog somehow managed to grab the edge of the pan and carefully slip it through the dog door, then devour the whole thing in the yard. “How he got it through that dog door!” Nancy marvels.

Another time she brought home chocolate-covered almonds and put them on a high shelf. Later she discovered how the dog had managed to eat them and get sick all over the carpet: She caught him scooting across the sofa back on his hind legs, groping the shelf with his paws.

But none of the dogs or cats have they ever refused. “None of them have a mean streak,” says Gordon. They do admit to remembering the animals a little better than the people. And they especially remember the animals that have died.

“At least four,” Nancy counts off. “There’s a real sadness when one is gone. It feels so different in the house. You forget they have much shorter life spans.” They grow silent a moment, remembering the four.

The Hendricksons’ service to Corrales animal-lovers is all the more remarkable since they don’t even live in Corrales, and never have. They stay with a son in the South Valley—when they’re at home. It’s through the Kiwanis Club that Gordon and Nancy found their way to the Village.

Gordon joined Kiwanis in 1958, and counts 47 years of perfect attendance. He has been a member of seven different Kiwanis Clubs, and was a governor for the Southwest District, which stretches from California to Nevada to Texas. Nancy joined the Kiwanis Club of Corrales through friends, and then Gordon joined since he was driving her to meetings.

That’s how he got to know so many prominent pets in Corrales. And the animals seem to sense that there is something special about Gordon. “I get along much better with them when the owner is not there,” he confides. “They’re like kids—the babysitter loses control the moment the parent comes in.”

Nine years ago, Gordon was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer—a death sentence. Now that he is cancer-free, he counsels cancer patients on not losing hope.

Gordon and Nancy know how to count their blessings, and they believe in giving back. So pet-sitting is the journey they are traveling in retirement. “It’s something we never expected to do,” says Nancy. But “people really care about their pets here, so it’s a pleasure to take care of them.”