A dog’s disdain for the vacuum cleaner doesn’t necessarily make logical sense from a human’s perspective. But from a pooch’s point of view, there’s reason to go on high alert when it’s in use. Sounds, movement and smells your dog perceives as coming from the vacuum cleaner all shift the dog’s normal routine and environment. And for a dog, whatever is unknown and beyond their comfort zone can seem to be a potential threat.
This was the case with my Puggle, Indiana Bones, who sent out an SOS when he heard the vacuum by way of a lowered tail, pinned ears, tight facial muscles, hypervigilance, and increased jumpiness. I knew that if his fear went unaddressed, his fear, anxiety and stress were likely to progress and worsen. What follows is the sequence of training I took Bones through during one session of vacuuming as I worked with him on different aspects of becoming more comfortable with the sound of the vacuum.
I filmed Bones’ intervention in real time over the course of one long training session, but it’s ideal to do mini sessions over a course of days, especially with dogs whose fears have progressed and will need to move at a slower pace. And once the dog becomes accustomed to vacuum sounds, it’s still important to keep things positive.
Here’s how to turn your dog’s angst into anticipation—the happy kind—when the vacuum is in use.
- Movement, No Noise
Introduce the vacuum at a distance while it’s off. As the dog remains relaxed and starting with the vacuum across the room or in another room away from the dog, turn it on, rewarding the dog for calm or positive behaviors.
Because the vacuum moves, your dog is likely to respond to its “behavior” as if the vacuum is a living being. If the vacuum charges into the room “growling” at the dog, it can appear to be a threat. However, if the dog is introduced to the vacuum one piece at a time, such as to movement while in the off position, the better able the dog is to accept positives, such as treats, and to ultimately become comfortable with both movement and noise as they’re slowly familiarized.
- Heel With Vacuum
Teach the dog to do an alternative behavior in the sight of the vacuum. Asking for a sit, down, settle, or hand target/“touch” can give the dog an alternative focus, which is then followed with a reward. In Bones’ case, his go-to behavior was a “heel” next to the vacuum for treats. Notice that the vacuum is moved perpendicularly rather than toward him. When changing direction, it’s moved back and away.
Note: Even dogs who appear confident around the vacuum, as if they’re trying to boss it around with barks and muzzle jabs, are almost always responding from underlying fear and uncertainty. Dogs associate their own behavior with its impact on the environment around them, and they’re constantly learning and changing their responses based on what works or doesn’t work. When a dog barks incessantly at the vacuum and it’s ultimately turned off, the dog may perceive the barking as what shut down the foe, building the dog’s propensity to bark at the vacuum in the future.
- Vacuum Check Without Sound
Reward any investigation the dog makes toward the vacuum, including looking at it, moving toward it or touching it. Doing this turns the vacuum into a positive in the dog’s eyes. Keep the vacuum still and silent before introducing any noise or gradual movement.
- Vacuum On Signals Play
Pair positives with sounds and sights of the vacuum cleaner. Pairing positives with the vacuum promotes a pleasant, happy reaction and replaces the fear, anxiety and stress that can build, especially for dogs with heightened sensitivity to unusual or loud sounds or moving objects.
Find a way to pair vacuuming with your dog’s favorite treats, toys, and activities. For instance, if your dog is an avid fetcher, the on switch of the vacuum can “turn on” a game of fetch. For Bones, the vacuum signaled the opportunity to play with a favorite toy, play his wrestle game with the blanket, or investigate the vacuum in exchange for treats.
Not all dogs will be comfortable enough to approach the vacuum while it’s on and may prefer to stay at a comfortable distance. However, you can pair the sight of the running vacuum with rewards the dog enjoys to better build confident behavior when the vacuum’s in use.
- Self-Initiated Play
Whenever your dog does a reward-worthy behavior while the vacuum is in use, whether that’s sitting, turning away from it or not barking, recognize and reward it. In Bones’ case, getting his toy was a reward-worthy moment that was reinforced by playing with the toy, further pairing positives with the vacuum.
- Position and Move Vacuum and Treat
As the vacuum is in use, reward the dog for remaining calm, with non-crumbly, easy-to-deliver treats. Toss treats for the dog to catch in midair or in a direction that allows the dog to move away from the vacuum and then choose whether to again move closer to it. Willingness to do so is a good gauge of the dog’s comfort level.
Certain aspects of vacuuming may not even occur to us, such as the sound that occurs during the transition from carpet to hard flooring or the appearance of the cord as it moves alongside the vacuum.
When introducing a new variable to the situation, such as moving off carpet onto hardwood, lessen the movement and noise. For instance, an in-between step can be to turn off the vacuum as it’s moved across the floor and only later turning on the vacuum. Or keep the cord tighter to the vacuum to reduce movement and noise as it moves across the floor.
- Reward Ears Up
A dog’s body language can influence their internal emotional state. Just as a person can stand in a “Wonder Woman” power pose and automatically feel more confident or force a smile and feel increased wellbeing as a result, so too can a dog’s physical positioning influence their internal emotional state.
When Bones is more comfortable, his ears are usually forward rather than backward. I rewarded when both ears were pointed forward. Continually assess the situation to ensure that the vacuum isn’t too close, too loud or moving in a way that pushes the dog toward fearful, rather than relaxed and confident, body language. In such situations, increase the dog’s distance from the vacuum, turn it to a quieter setting, or turn it off to get back to a point at which the dog is more comfortable.
- Nozzle Attachment
Dogs can become concerned when the vacuum suddenly changes shape, such as when using the attachment nozzle. Introduce the dog separately to different aspects of the vacuum, such as the nozzle, by going back to the basics momentarily (sound off and rewarding the dog for looking at or approaching the vacuum attachment while it’s stationary).
- Putting Vacuum Away
End on a positive note. For instance, reward the dog for remaining calm as you wind up the cord.
Dogs do best when positive experiences aren’t a one-time deal but occur throughout life. Consider your dog’s favorite activities and find a way to pair the sight, sounds, and use of the vacuum cleaner with activities and items your dog enjoys.
About Mikkel Becker: Mikkel Becker is a certified trainer, dog behavior counselor, and lead animal trainer for Fear Free. Mikkel graduated from the rigorous San Francisco SPCA Dog Training Academy with Jean Donaldson (earning a Certificate in Training and Counseling; CTC), the Karen Pryor Academy (becoming a Karen Pryor Certified Training Partner; KPA CTP), the Purdue Dogs and Cats Course, and she shadowed Dr. Nicholas Dodman at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Mikkel is also a Certified Behavior Consultant