updated 06/27/2011 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 06/27/2011 AT 1:45 PM ET
“He has become a dog lover,” says Hough, who is mom to Cavalier King Charles spaniels Lexi and Harley, her constant companions. “He has to!”
When it comes to caring for the pooches, the American Idol host is also an equal partner. He pitches in with feeding and walking – “He loves it,” Hough says – and he gave his girlfriend a shoulder to cry on when Lexi ended up at the emergency vet recently with an upset stomach.
“I think that separation anxiety made her get a little sick,” says Hough, who had been apart from the dog for a few days. “It worried me though, even though I’ve seen her get sick sometimes, she had this glaze over her eyes, that I was like, ‘That’s not Lexi. Where’s my Lexi?’”
After a little recovery time, Hough’s little “prima donna” is back to her old self – kissing mom “to death” and being a “mother figure” to new the pup, who she brought home in April.
Her affectionate dogs (who are stars on Hough’s Twitter page) inspired her to travel to New York last week to launch the voting campaign for the Hero Dog Awards, which will air on the Hallmark Channel this fall. On the website herodogawards.org, you can cast your vote for the most amazing canines. With each vote, Cesar Canine cuisine will make a donation to the American Humane Association, an animal advocacy group.
To kick off the campaign, Hough played an acoustic set for military veterans at Manhattan’s VA Hospital last Monday and received a few cuddles from several therapy dogs that were there to work with the veterans. “There’s nothing better,” she says, “than having a dog’s love, compassion.”
On the set of Rock of Ages this summer in Miami, the actress takes comfort in her own dogs who are always available for a cuddle when she needs it. “Being away from family and everything, it sometimes is tough,” she says. “Having my dogs with me is literally my safe place.”
[RELATED_TEXT “Can’t get enough pet news? See more on PEOPLE Pets