Why Do Dogs Not Like Vacuum Cleaners?

Adrienne Farricelli

Why Do Dogs Not Like Vacuum Cleaners? Raise your hand if your dog gives you the evil eye every time he sees you grabbing the vacuum cleaner and wheeling it out of the closet, turning the simple act of vacuuming into a multi-task chore. On one hand, you are trying your best to keep your carpet spotless, on the other hand, you are trying to keep your frantic dog, who is barking and lunging at the vacuum, under control. If this scenario sounds all too familiar, rest assured, you are not alone. There are countless dogs who hate the vacuum and are plotting a secret strategy to get Mr. Hoover and Mr. Dyson out of business. Why do dogs hate vacuum cleaners so much? Well, turns out, dogs have several good reasons.

Lack of Early Exposure

Dogs and vacuums don't seem to get along, but things can be a tad bit more complicated if your dog hasn't been formally introduced to Mr.Dyson from a young age as he should have been. Reputable breeders know the importance of this and will make sure that their puppies are exposed to common household sights and sounds from a young age before sending their pups off to their new homes.

"It's easy to run the vacuum around the puppies from the age of four weeks until they leave for their new homes. If we pre-condition puppies to accept sudden loud noises using treats and praise, we can teach them to love potentially scary things like thunderstorms and vacuums," claims dog breeder Sylivia Smart in her book "Dog Breeder's Professional Secrets: Ethical Breeding Practices."

If you got your dog from a pet store, a backyard breeder or some other questionable source, chances are very high that your puppy has likely never encountered a vacuum cleaner before, and if he did, chances are, it wasn't likely a pleasant experience.

A fearful disposition can be inherited.
A fearful disposition can be inherited.

Scaredy Dog Syndrome

Some dogs are more fearful than others when it comes to being exposed to certain stimuli. Fear can stem from lack of early exposure and negative experiences, but it can also be genetic. If at least one parent of a puppy reacts to noises, there are chances the puppy will react similarly, explains board-certified veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall.

When a dog shows fear, we often forget that fear has an adaptive role that helps in the continuation of a species. In the wild, being overly confident exposes animals to undue risks that could harm or even be lethal. Fear instills a healthy level of caution that prevents putting animals in harm's way. However, according to veterinarians Gary M.Landsberg, Wayne L. Hunthausen, Lowell J. Ackerman, authors of the book "Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat," when a fear is out of proportion, without the presence of a real threat, it may turn into a phobia that interferes with normal functions, and at this point it's considered maladaptive.

Eeek, I think I saw a vacuum...
Eeek, I think I saw a vacuum...

From Rover's Perspective

Whether a dog's hate for vacuums stems from lack of early exposure or an innate predisposition to fear, let's face it, if we look at the vacuum from Rover's perspective, things can seem a tad bit intimidating. Dogs will likely never understand that a vacuum collects crumbs, dust and debris and that it has a helpful hygienic purpose in the house.

From a dog's eyes, a vacuum is a scary monster on wheels that emits roaring noises, moves erratically, first charging and then retreating, and sucks everything in sight. And forget about trying to seek shelter under a table or couch, the vacuum always seems to eventually find him. With this whole stimulus package, it's not surprising if the mere sight of the vacuum is enough to trigger a dog to take an offensive or defensive stance.

Herding Instinct at Play

No sheep? I'll herd the vacuum instead...
No sheep? I'll herd the vacuum instead...

In some cases, dogs aren't really fearful or vacuum phobic; rather they are simply interested in rounding the vacuum up just as they would do when herding unruly cattle or sheep. The lunging, chasing and nipping attempts are all are part of the dog's repertoire of hardwired, instinctive behaviors that are often also directed towards other moving objects such as bicycles, lawn mowers and cars.

Sometimes those herding genes also kick in when a broom, mop or leaf rack goes into action. And guess what? Since eventually the vacuum is turned off at some point, your dog will likely think it's thanks to his barking, nipping and lunging that the vacuum was sent into a silent surrender as it retreats back into the closet.

Tackling the Issue

If your dogs has decided to hate the vacuum, you have several options to make his life more bearable around the monster on wheels. The first option is to simply manage your dog's environment. When it's time to vacuum, simply keep your dog in the yard, or if feasible, keep him in a distant room where the vacuuming sound is more muffled and tolerable. Then, once you're done, swap rooms until you are done vacuuming the whole house. Alternatively, if you wish to work on the problem, you can try to implement a behavior modification plan based on desensitization and counterconditioning. A sample is outlined below.

Treat Dispenser Machine

Turn the vacuum into a treat dispensing machine.
Turn the vacuum into a treat dispensing machine.

Desensitization entails gradual exposure to a trigger in such a way as to not overwhelm the dog. This may mean starting by presenting the vacuum when it's turned off and immobile. Counterconditioning entails changing the dog's emotions towards the vacuum so that instead of dreading its presence the dog looks forward to it. Turning the vacuum from a monster on wheels to a treat dispensing machine can be helpful. Here is sample of how to stop a dog from attacking the vacuum with some steps. For correct implementation, please consult with a dog behavioral professional for hands on assistance.

  • Present the vacuum turned off and park it in the middle of room at a distance from which your dog doesn't react. Have a helper feed your dog treats as he looks at it. Then, move the vacuum away and no more treats. Repeat the same process several times. You want to make it clear that the appearance of the vacuum means treats.
  • Next, park the vacuum at a distance and place several treats around it. Let your dog have access to the treats. Keep the vacuum several days in the same location occasionally placing treats around it. You want to make it clear that the vacuum brings treats.
  • Next, have a helper hold your dog on a leash as you move the vacuum back and fort. Toss treats in your dog's direction each time you make movements. You want to make it clear that the movement of the vacuum is what brings treats. Repeat several times.
  • Next, turn on the vacuum in another room and have your helper feed your dog treats as it's turned on. When you turn it off, no more treats. You want to make it clear that the noise of the vacuum is what brings treats. Repeat several times.
  • Finally, have a helper hold your dog on the leash as you turn on the vacuum and move it back and forth. Feed treats as you move it back and forth.You want to make it clear that the sight, sound and movement of the vacuum is what brings treats.

After several reps, the dog will eventually learn to be calmer in the presence of the vacuum. At some point, the dog may be kept off leash, and since there's less fear, the dog may be in better shape to cognitively function so he can be taught to go on a mat or keep a down stay at a distance while he's kept occupied by working on a stuffed Kong or a safe bone. If at any time the dog appears nervous, this often means that the program has progressed too quickly and the dog may need some intermediate, substeps in between.

Did you know? Talking about vacuums...According to Konrad Lorenz, vacuum activity is a term used to depict motor patterns that, under normal circumstances are directed at a stimulus, but are still performed in spite of the absence of said stimulus. The "vacuum" is therefore filled with an activity that is inappropriate.

An example is found in Brenda Aloff's book: "Aggression in Dogs." A dog who is kenneled is exposed to dogs who run by the kennel. Day after day, the level of frustration builds up as the dog is prevented from interacting with the running dogs, so without an outlet, the dog falls back into the behavior of "spinning. " Soon, the behavior generalizes, and any time the dog is fired up, he vents his anxiety or frustration by spinning even in the absence of the dog running by.