Vanessa's big pet family all get along

How to Manage a Happy Big Pet Family


Recent Blog:

Managing a big pet family is no small feat. When you have lots of pets together under one roof you need some serious pet parenting skills. Today we’re sharing a first-hand account and helpful tips from a parent whose pack has comprised of several dogs, cats and a rabbit!

Experienced multi-pet mum Vanessa Townsend-Paley is one of our Business Development Managers in NZ. She currently runs a happy household that includes one French Bulldog, one Black Labrador, one Shih Tzu Pekingese X, two English Bulldogs, three (soon to be four) Rotties and two moggie cats.

Sadly, the rabbit has passed. But in its day, it was king of the roost and would bully the dogs and hog the bed all to itself. Naturally, the dogs listened with no backchat. 😊

lots of happy pets pose together for a family snap

Vanessa shares her big pet family story

Vanessa’s first dog was a rescue Rottweiler Cross named Bruce. He’d previously been used for dog fights and lived in a violent environment, giving him a poor start to his four years of life.

“When I saw him he was barking at me. But through the noise I could see kindness in his eyes – he wasn’t the dog they tried to make him be. In many ways I owe my success as a pet owner to him. I’d had family dogs before, but he was the first dog that was mine and he taught me to understand dog behaviours.”

Vanessa recollects how gentle he was with babies, young children and the elderly. The first year was learning about him and the life he came from. Once she adopted him she never put him in a position where he could fail. He had her complete love and support and in turn he could express by his loyalty, trust and understanding for others and their needs.

Vanessa lived next door to an elderly couple with a child who had a physical disability and used a wheelchair. Every day Bruce escaped through the fence (at first Vanessa didn’t know about this) and spend time with the neighbours, keeping the child company and displaying a therapeutic and comforting side to his nature.

Understanding dog behaviour and your pack of dogs

Vanessa’s Rottweilers are sometimes used as therapy dogs. She’s taken them to Troubled Youth Programs where young children learn to deal with problems of frustration, stress, anxiety and anger safely.

“Children that have struggled to communicate with people will often talk to an animal. The dogs accompany the children, often providing an opportunity for a breakthrough, comforting them and in some cases appear to be listening as they share stories they won’t share with anyone else. There are so many benefits from having animals participate in programs when it comes to mental health.”

Her Rottweilers also have worked with the elderly patients with dementia and people with anxiety.

Breed stereotyping is unnecessary

Dogs have a natural fight or flight response and much like any other species – including us humans – this is linked to survival.

Vanessa says it’s important not to stereotype breeds. The Rottweiler breed is often dubbed as aggressive, but unless you put your dog in a position where they have good potential to fail, they’re prepared to follow your lead. They simply need a leader.

Without a leader a dog will attempt to take leadership and may even attempt to protect you from a harmless situation because it sees that you’re not doing the job of leading. A dog’s reaction is directly related to its owner’s actions.

This is important even when you only have one dog, but especially so when you have lots of pets together.

Vanessa's big pet family gets a birthday treat
At birthday time everyone in Vanessa’s fur family gets a McDonald’s burger (with no pickles and onions).

Putting your best paw forward for your many pets

When Vanessa feeds her pets, she calls out each one’s name first, then places its bowl down. Each pet walks up and sits by their bowl and waits until the rest of the pack also have their dinner. Only when everyone has a dish do they all start to eat, except for the Frenchie and Lab who need a reminder!

Under Vanessa’s watchful eye, when she gets a new puppy she doesn’t need to do much training before feeding it with the rest of the pack. She simply adds their bowl somewhere in the middle of the row with a few commands like “wait” and “ok” and they then follow what the other dogs are doing. The puppy will pick up on the peaceful and secure nature of feeding and follow suit.

This ease is in part thanks to Arko who was the matriarch of this pack, but has sadly now passed. Arko was well trained and socialised and grew to be a dog that wouldn’t tolerate bad behaviours (in humans or in pets). This dog is partly responsible for the integration of the pack and its obedient mentality.

It’s worth mentioning Arko took his job very seriously. On multiple occasions he always ‘saved’ anyone from ‘drowning’ if they put their head underwater. Also, Vanessa and her partner couldn’t get away with any roughhousing without being ‘scolded’ and stopped by Arko. 😊

They lovingly nicknamed Arko as ‘the fun police.’  

Positive reinforcement enables lots of pets live together happily

Vanessa practices positive reinforcement dog training. She says it’s important not to humanise a dog to think or rationalise like a human. Rather, try to understand how dogs communicate to us. Dogs say lots of things – but they’re dogs and they’re going to speak in ‘dog talk’.

Sometimes people say a dog attacked or displayed aggressive behaviour without warning. But in truth, dogs will always signal; you just need to know what you’re looking for. Read our article on how to speak dog. Also read ‘is my dog scared’ to familiarise yourself with dog body language cues. 

Introducing a new pet to your big pet family

When introducing a new pet to her pack, usually Vanessa will let it meet one dog at a time. They’ll be in a ‘sit’ or ‘down’ position allowing the other dog sniff and say hello depending on the size of the other dog being introduced. Then they go for a walk to create a bond without pressure and it’s a more controlled situation if anything was to arise.

“If that goes well, the new dog then will meet the whole gang one by one as we don’t want to overwhelm the new dog, causing anxiety,” says Vanessa.  

Although Vanessa doesn’t use a lead and/or muzzle with her pack she does suggest them both as possible options for introducing a new adult dog with an unknown history.

Watch this video of Vanessa’s new Rottweiler puppy eating its first meal with the pack just six hours after arriving:

Training and exercise for your multi pet family

Vanessa teaches all her dogs to walk only on her left side because having them on one side only helps to maintain good behaviour and control. She trains them individually and once that’s done they’re able to dog walk as a well-behaved pack. This includes having all the basic instructions down pat for maintaining pet safety on NZ roads.

She teaches them to heel and wait until she gives the cue that it’s safe to cross the road. She’s also taught her pack lessons like ‘foot’, which to her dogs means to go around her and sit on her left-hand side. This helps prevent them from running up to you and accidently bumping into you with their full weight against your knees (a valuable lesson with such a well-built dog).

Playtime for dogs and cats is essential to their health and happiness and Vanessa’s dogs know that ‘go play’ means free playtime. They also know that ‘touch’ means to come back and touch their nose to her (or her partner) in between playing. This helps them stay connected and focussed and not get too rambunctious during playtime.

Vanessa understands the benefits of learning to crate train a puppy too, with this having an important place in her household. The crate is a downtime safe space, sort of like a den. Vanessa’s new puppy retires to the crate to sleep and rest and gives the older dogs time out.

The crate must always be a positive space. As Vanessa says, “It’s good for holidays, emergencies and good for personal space.”

Vanessa heaps love on her pets
Vanessa cuddles her pup.

Choosing a pet when you have lots of pets

When asked about choosing and combining different breeds and pet personalities Vanessa offers four main points.

1. Your favourite breed qualities

If you’re wanting a pedigree…

Firstly, as a prospective pet owner, choose the breeds that appeal to you then do your research. For example, what size dog, temperament, fur or hair, high energy or couch potato…what breeds are more suitable to your lifestyle… research which dogs fit this profile.

Great options for doing this include visiting dog shows, talking to breeders and getting to know the network at dog clubs via Dogs New Zealand (our national kennel club).

If you’re wanting a cross breed…

Mixed breeds can be awesome but there’s is the underlying question of not having a clear history of the dog. For example:

lots of happy pets together
Vanessa’s big pet family adore each other.

2. Buying or adopting wisely

Secondly, it’s about finding an ethical dog breeder. For Vanessa, this means a breeder who breeds for the right reasons. 

“Because genetics play such a large role in the health and temperaments of our dogs, it is important to ‘Buy Smart’. Pay attention to the breeders you are getting dogs from. What are the parents of the dogs like? Do the parents possess the traits you would enjoy in your puppy? What does the pedigree tell you? Are they working or companion performance dogs? What tests have been done? Does the breeder have a goal in mind when they are producing puppies or are they just breeding to make some side money?”

Vanessa also has some experience breeding dogs but wouldn’t call herself a breeder. However, it means she has insight into some of the elements of good breeding. For example, “a vaccination or vet check is NOT a health test for breeding”.

3. Healthy individuals make a healthy big pet family

Dogs New Zealand registered breeders must perform x-rays, health and dog DNA tests specific to the breed. This allows you to understand the kind of genes your dog passes onto its offspring and avoiding producing puppies affected with health issues.

Be aware when you’re buying a ‘purebred’ dog that not every purebred is a pedigree dog. Purebred basically refers to a dog’s lineage or bloodline. Pedigree refers to a record of that lineage, which must be logged with a recognised breed registry like Dogs New Zealand. Read ‘how to prove your dog is purebred‘.

For example: a cubic zirconia looks like a diamond, but it’s not a diamond. They look the same but without the paperwork there’s no guarantee on what you bought.

“DNA testing will give you everything specific to that breed that you don’t want to breed in your line of dogs. Breeders also look at the physical characteristics of the body for good breed markers.”

These include things like how straight the legs and spine are, or the position of the ears and tails. Some markers are about the look of a breed, but overall they also indicate health. For example, with Bulldogs that are brachycephalic breeds, size in the nostrils, soft palette, longer snout and nice airways are important.

a big pet family Christmas
Getting dressed up for Christmas.

4. Respecting your pack

Vanessa says she treats the little dog’s needs no different to the big boys. This helps all the pets coexist happily together. The only difference between a big dog and a little dog is that their food and some vet bills can be lower. Of course, older dogs and breeds that need specific treatment must be taken into consideration.

“Our 15-year-old Shihtzu x is determined to go on hikes with the big dogs, so he eventually gets carried half the way (and sometimes more) for every hike the pack takes.”

Unfortunately, small dogs with temperament/poor behaviour issues can be flippantly described as having “small dog syndrome”. As far Vanessa’s concerned, a dog is a dog and unruly behaviour is unacceptable no matter what size of the dog. But generally, Vanessa says, “treat the little dog the same as the big dogs and you’ll get a sound little dog.”

Here’s a video of the pets together on a hiking adventure:

Dog health by breed and breeding

Vanessa agrees it’s important to understand the exercise needs of the breed you choose and to listen to your breeder about all your dog’s needs.

She also advises to not overgrow your puppy by trying to get them to grow big fast. A puppy has different growth phases that need careful attention to nutrition and exercise. Read about the best and safest puppy games to play and avoid games like tug of war during puppy teething!

When your pets are together, it’s important not to let the puppy overdo it by joining in on the adult dogs’ exercises. Also don’t run your puppy when it’s small (the leg bones aren’t one or two solid pieces, but many connected by soft tissue). Overstressing these bits on a young puppy can lead to musculoskeletal problems later on.

Some examples of these types of issues include:

Many of the above are also more likely to happen in certain purebred dogs. It’s always good to know your breed before choosing a pet so you can plan for lots of healthy happy pets together! Read about common dog breed health problems.

a happy Kiwi pack of dogs pose for the camera
The boys hanging out in the New Zealand afternoon sun.

Multi pet insurance for lots of healthy pets together

Vanessa says she learnt about the importance of dog insurance the hard way. Although she worked in the vet industry at the time her first dog never had pet insurance. As a result, she spent tens of thousands on medical care.

Like many pet owners, her second, third, fourth and every subsequent dog (and cat) have had the protection of a pet insurance policy. It’s helped ensure they get the treatment they need if and when they do need it, plus it’s enabled Vanessa to not spend her life savings when treatment’s needed.

Vanessa says, “there’s a pet insurance provider and a pet plan for everyone”. When you’re looking for the one that suits you and your pet or pets, she advises to “always read the fine print first because, after all, it’s a contract.”

If you have more than one pet, click below to find out about our multi pet discount you may be eligible for. Plus, PD Insurance gives you one or more months of FREE pet insurance. We want lots of Kiwi pets to be able to live happily and healthily together.

Click below to get a quote or start your plan.

Share on :