How I Stay Sane Owning Three Big Dogs
The products and approaches that make #packlife possible
“Whoa” is probably the most common thing my fiancée, Virginia, and I hear when we’re out walking our dogs. Wiley, Bowie, and Teddy aren’t just big, they’re also energetic and independent. I think people look at them and see a challenge, which is accurate. But it’s a challenge you can overcome. Here’s how we manage it.
For some reason, there’s always been a high correlation between the types of dogs I want to own and dogs who are heavy shedders. All three of our dogs shed copious amounts of light-colored fur. This is particularly problematic because every floor in our new house is shiny and black; you couldn’t pick a surface more capable of highlighting every hair that falls on it.
So when we moved in last year, we splurged on a Dyson V8 Animal vacuum. A cordless handheld, it’s so light and maneuverable that it makes giving the house a once-over every day as easy as possible, and it’s powerful enough to capture the prolific shedding of all three dogs with just a single pass. Its unique perforated-metal filter also doesn’t clog with hair, so just emptying the container is all the maintenance it ever requires. That alone is worth the $400 price to me. I used to have to spend hours every month digging dog hair out of every orifice and cutting tangles away from the brush of our old corded vacuum.
Using the Dyson has become a daily ritual that takes about 15 minutes. That’s not a huge time investment, but on hectic days, it can feel like a burden. So to stay on top of the fur with guaranteed regularity, we also use a robot vacuum. Robot vacuums don’t do a good job—ours leaves probably 20 percent of the hair behind and can’t get into all of our home’s odd little spaces. What robot vacs are good for is doing a regular job. Cleaning up 80 percent of the dogs’ hair every single day, even if we’re not home, is just a massive quality of life improvement for us. We use the Ecovacs Deebot N79S, which is a cheap ($200), simple, no-frills unit that nevertheless gets the job done.
I’ve previously written at length about the raw-food diet we feed our dogs. It’s worth revisiting because it really does make our lives easier in three extremely important ways.
The first is cost. With chicken from Costco that costs 79 cents a pound, my monthly expense for feeding 265 pounds of dog is about $300. That’s cheaper than if we fed them expensive kibble.
The second benefit is health. A properly put-together raw diet is the absolute healthiest thing a dog can eat. And just like with humans, a good diet is the best preventative medicine out there. All three dogs maintain a healthy weight with no additional effort, and none of them has had a single health issue of any kind since we made the switch away from processed foods. The first time I took all three to our new vet, he examined them and said, “Well, you know what you’re doing.” Then he talked to me about fishing for half an hour.
The third is poop. Eating raw meat, bones, organs, and vitamins, our dogs produce about half the total volume of poop they did when we fed them kibble. That poop is also firmer and breaks down into soil very quickly. I pick up our yard almost every day. Reducing the volume of poop I have to collect by half is a huge help with that.
I base our dogs’ diet on Kymythy Schultze’s book Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats. Check it out by clicking on the Buy Now link.
Lots of Exercise
When people see our big, boisterous dogs running around off-leash at top speed, they must imagine that’s how they behave at home. In fact, because we take them on that off-leash hike every day, the exact opposite is true. As I write this, two dogs are asleep on the couch next to me, and the other is asleep by my feet. Providing a dog with exercise appropriate for its size, age, and physical condition is the easiest way to ensure that dog’s good behavior. That well-exercised dog will be happier and less prone to troublemaking as a result, and it’ll be more receptive of, and patient with, training.
Cheap Fleece Blankets
Our dogs love to sit on the couch or sleep in bed with us. With their shedding, and all the other fun dog stuff like drool, claws, and dingleberries, it’s way easier to prevent damage than it is to fix it. When we don’t have guests over, we keep the couch covered with cheap fleece blankets. We also use those for dog beds, car-seat covers, and kennel pads. They only cost $12 each, don’t soak up liquids, are easy to clean, and last forever.
A Dog Beater
Our 21-year-old 4Runner’s interior is currently awash with mud, fur, sticks, and leaves. And we don’t care about that one bit, because the vehicle only cost us a few grand. It’s kind of crazy that the most effective luxury item in our lives is a crappy old car, but by giving us the ability to take the dogs on those daily hikes without having to dirty and damage our nicer cars, it just saves us a ton of worry and hassle.
Of course, we use the 4Runner for other things as well. An old car you don’t have to care about is also the ideal vehicle to leave at trailheads, where break-ins are common, or take out when winter weather is really awful and the risk of accidents is higher. That it's also ideal for transporting dirty dogs just adds to its value proposition.
My future mother-in-law gave me one of these $25 gadgets for Christmas. At first I was pretty skeptical, but because I’m strongly incentivized to keep her happy, I figured I’d better give it a try. Now I’m a total convert. By running a hose extension off your shower to a scrubby rubber sprayer you wear on your hand, the device reduces mess, speeds bath times, and boosts control of your dog. That’s important for me, because all three dogs hate baths and fight to get out of the tub as hard as they can. The Aquapaw allows you to hold onto a squirming dog with both hands and stroke them with running water, and you can control the water flow from the device itself. I wish they’d invent a hair dryer that works just as well.
Patience, Consistency, and Positive Reinforcement
Within the last month, Wiley has decided that he’s scared of the ceiling light in our bedroom and has started hiding behind the toilet at bedtime to avoid it. Bowie has adopted a $185 Pendleton pillow as his personal dakimakura. Teddy chewed up both new rugs we bought for our living room. All of that could have driven us crazy if we’d let it, and it’s nothing like the complete picture of the shenanigans these dogs get up to.
The real trick to staying sane as a dog owner is to accept your dogs as the imperfect beings they are but also to work over time to help them become the best dogs they’re capable of being. The actual process of training a dog isn’t hard—you reward good behavior—but it’s the patience and consistency required to achieve results that challenges people.
Take Teddy’s chewing as an example. At ten months old, it’s totally normal and expected for a puppy to chew stuff. Only, at 95 pounds, she does a little more damage than a smaller pup might. When we catch her in the act, we just tell her no, then give her something she is allowed to chew (an antler or a toy) and praise her for it. That’s the approach that made Wiley and Bowie totally reliable, and I have no doubt that, with a few more months of work, we’ll be able to trust Teddy in the house unsupervised, too. Exerting any energy on getting mad at her would be both counterproductive and a waste of time.
There are plenty of other behaviors we’re working on, not just with Teddy but with the older dogs, too. Staying sane while owning dogs involves making the decision to dedicate a big part of your life to them and accepting that dog ownership will always be an ongoing journey.