When Jane Deming finished graduate school and started working again last month, she knew both she and her husband would have long hours to fill on the job.
A big concern was how to care for her dog, Emily, who would be alone in an apartment while they were at work.
"I mean what do you do when you're gone for 12 hours, and she can't use the bathroom," she said.
Mrs. Deming asked neighbors and friends if they knew of anyone who could walk Emily during the day.
Then she met Nancy Valimaki, the Animal Nanny who cares for pets in their homes while the owners are away.
This self-proclaimed "Mary Poppins of pet sitters" created the Columbia-based Animal Nanny as a part-time business last May. It has grown into a full-time service for pet owners who want to take special care of their furry friends.
Ms. Valimaki goes into the homes up to three times a day and feeds and waters the pet, walks it and spends some "quality time" with it -- petting and playing games. If the owners are gone on a long vacation, she will bring in the mail, water plants and make the house look lived in.
Her prices vary, based on where the home is, how many visits she makes, how long she stays and how many pets there are. A twice-daily visit for a weekend in Columbia costs between $18 and $20 a day, but for the Demings, who use her more often, she charges $8 per half-hour per day.
Ms. Valimaki said her own dogs' injuries prompted her to start her business.
Sonny and Kodi, her big fluffy Samoyeds, had severe hip dysplasia, a condition in which their hip bones did not grow properly, making walking very painful.
Mrs. Valimaki researched the condition and the different means of treating it, even calling and interviewing doctors who had created a new surgical procedure for the illness.
After the dogs underwent surgery, she also took special care to look after them.
"I was able to help them out and take good care of them," she said. "Being at home and feeling safe helps with recovery whether it's humans or animals. After they both had surgery, I said, 'Yeah, I am pretty good at this.' "
"I love working with pets and animals and I love working with people," she said.
She says the hardest part of her job is when she goes in the first time the owners have left the pet at home.
"When the owners go away, I'll come in, and [the pets] don't know what's happening. The animal will be really sad and depressed. Once I had a dog that responded that way, and one afternoon I went in there with a movie, and we just sat and watched a movie, and I petted him and played with him, and that made him feel much better.
"By the end of the week, most are usually fine, and the next time I come around they're like 'Oh my gosh! I'm so glad to see you! I know why you're here!' The next time they know what's happening. They know their owner's coming back."
When she started the business last year, she had eight customers. Today she has 55, many, like Mrs. Deming, who are repeat customers.
"The Animal Nanny concept was new to us," Mrs. Deming said. "We didn't even know that was an option, but if we didn't know her, we wouldn't know what to do. Emily was being really destructive in our home, partially from the frustration of being home alone so long. Now we use Nancy about twice a week, and Emily loves her." Mrs. Deming said.
"I like the idea of someone going into the home so that the animals don't have to leave. I don't think they get that personal attention at the kennel," said another customer, Joanne Juskus, who has a cat and a dog. "You can just tell they feel affectionate toward her. It takes them a while to adjust to the house if I take them to the kennel."
Mrs. Valimaki, who handles all her customers by herself, is bonded and insured. She is also a member of the National Association of Pet Sitters, a professional trade association group for pet sitters.