Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Many dogs attack vacuums, but if you really want to know why your dog is barking his head off and attacking Mr. Hoover and Mr. Dyson, it takes getting a closer look into what may be going on into your dog's mind.
If you are reading this, most likely your dog hates vacuums with a passion. Perhaps, you dread having to clean your house because you know your pup is in a war against the machine.
Rest assured though, that you’re not alone. However, there is more to this age-old rivalry than meets the eye and you may be able to get your pup to enter into a ceasefire before long. But before we aim at persuading a peaceful coexistence, let’s look at what might be fueling this battle.
1. Coward Dog Syndrome
Science is a fascinating subject, especially when you start looking at the genetic make-up and predisposition of both dogs and humans. Ever wondered if some of your personality traits were inherited from prior generations?
Your pup may be "wondering" the same too because if one of your fur child’s biological parents was predisposed to acting scared, it is entirely possible that fear translated into a hereditary trait, passed from parent to child.
Therefore along with health testing, responsible breeders will screen their prospective breeding pairs for sound temperament. However, it doesn't end here. Genes are just a piece of the puzzle.
The environment where puppies are raised also plays a big role in how the puppy develops and this can start as early as being still in the mother dog's belly.
This is quite fascinating if you think about it. Turns out, when a mother dog is stressed, stress hormones are released into her bloodstream. Now, normally puppies are protected from the effect of stress hormones courtesy of a special enzyme which acts as a shield, inactivating them at the level of the placenta.
However, if the levels of mother dog's cortisol are consistently high, some manage to seep through the placenta, with the end result of them ultimately reaching the developing fetuses.
This surge of cortisol ultimately teaches the developing puppies that the world is a scary place to be, and therefore, their bodies develop an appropriately tuned stress system and metabolism, explains veterinarian Jessica Hekman in an article for the Whole Dog Journal.
2. Not Enough Vacuum Visits
As mentioned, genetics are just a part of the puzzle, so when you consider your dog's vacuum-phobia, you also need to consider the environment in which a puppy is raised. Much like people, our fur babies need early exposure to bizarre stimuli to be able to handle exposure to them as they grow up.
You wouldn’t expect your human offspring to be cool with a vacuum if they’d never seen one before, would you? Then, don’t expect a different reaction from your fur child either!
Here's the thing: If your pup wasn’t exposed to the sight and sound of the monster cleaning machine before they arrived to you, that could play a major factor in their reactions to it now.
Now, good breeders will be sure to expose puppies to normal household sights, sounds and smells before a puppy goes to find their forever home. They will expose their puppies to noises produced by the dishwasher, washing machine and they'll also ensure some encounters with Mr. Hoover and Mr. Dyson.
"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," points out breeder and author Sylvia Smart in her book “Dog Breeders Professional Secrets: Ethical Breeding Practices.”
Now, not all puppies are granted the luxury of having dedicated breeders who have the time, will and experience to expose young puppies to stimuli and situations they will encounter once welcomed in a home.
Many puppies are sourced from pet stores or less reputable breeders so they miss out on all these important experiences.
While your pup facing off against the vacuum may be annoying to you, remember that your dog is trying to survive. Let's not forget that, fear is a survival instinct. It's ultimately adaptive considering that being too confident could mean you get taken out by a bigger, scarier predator and quickly turn into lunch.
Fortunately, we’ve got a potential remedy if this is the case! So fear not. If your pup falls into this category there are remedies.
3. Herders Just Have to Herd
Back to genetics, if your pup is of a certain breed (collies, sheepdogs and the like) then their chasing and barking at the vacuum may not be due to a mere lack of exposure or genetic predisposition to fear. It could just be how they’re hardwired.
They see something and they just have to herd it and keep it in its place. After all, that's just what they were bred to do! It doesn't matter if they're bikers, runners or children playing. So if you own a herding dog breed who attacks vacuums, it could likely be he's just trying to round em' up.
Again, it may be irritating to you, but for your pup, it’s second nature. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It shows that your pup is trying to be helpful, even if the kind of help is less than optimal.
It is up to you, the shepherd (eh, meant to say owner!) to give your herding dog directions to control his take-charge, controlling “herding personality” he is trying to exert on the out-of-control vacuum. But we’ll get to ways to curb this need a little in just a minute.
4. A Beast on Wheels
Before we discuss ways to bring this battle to a close, think about it from your pup’s point of view. They may not have a frame of reference for this giant mechanical monstrosity nosing in on their territory.
It's a foreign invader making prey/predator-like motions, first charging and then retreating, and chasing dogs out of their favorite spots under the bed or the couch.
Not to mention, it communicates in a language that dogs don’t understand using a high-pitched whirring sound, and then, it even steals things away without asking first!
Your pup doesn’t get that you’re just trying to keep the house neat and clean. They shed and you’ve got to clean up after them. No one wants to be covered in extra dog hair (not even your dog!).
They also don’t get that the vacuum clears up dust and crumbs (at least the ones your pup didn’t get from the kitchen floor already)! With this whole stimulus package, it's therefore not surprising why dogs attack vacuums.
5. Owners Making Matter Worse
Let's face it: It's quite funny watching Rover going on a mission to slaying the monster on wheels. It's therefore not surprising if dog owners start playfully chasing their dogs with the machine just because it's entertaining. This however only makes matter worse!
Now dogs are really convinced that the vacuum is an enemy and has a real intent to attack them. Encouraging the behavior is therefore highly counterproductive.
Not to mention that if we get dogs really hyped up about the vacuum, we can become victims of a redirected bite. Redirected bites occur when dogs are so aroused and focused about something, that they'll bite anything that gets in between them and the object of their fury.
How to Stop Your Dog From Attacking the Vacuum in 7 Steps
So your dog hates the vacuum and is on a mission to kill the monster? Ending this war is going to take some careful planning and a multi-step negotiation so be prepared to be in this for a somewhat long haul.
You may want this fight over and done with quickly, but rushing things will only make it worse. The key to putting an end to this age-old battle is to take a step by step approach and get your pup to associate the vacuum with good things, like super duper tasty treats!
This process, therefore, involves desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization simply aims in presenting the vacuum in forms that are less intimidating, while counterconditioning entails creating positive associations.
You need to make it a goal of making sure your dog doesn't go over the threshold. If your dog at any time in the process appears uncomfortable or refuses to take treats, you need to go back a step or two in the process, taking it more gradually before progressing further. Don't advance to the next step until your dog is fully comfortable with the previous one. In some cases, you may need to create some intermediate steps.
Here's a quick rundown of the type of work I use to get a puppy or dog acclimated to the vacuum.
- Set the vacuum in the middle of the room (turned off of course!) with your pup but keeping him far enough away so that he doesn't get antsy. Feed him some treats for a few days for just looking at the vacuum so he begins to associate the vacuum with the tasty treats. You know a strong association is made when you notice a CER, Conditioned Emotional Response (a happy look on the dog's face as he looks at the vacuum and then glances at you as if saying "great a vacuum, now where's my treat?")
- Next, lay treats around the vacuum, letting your pup approach as they feel comfortable to snag the goodies. Praise your dog for acting calm and eating. It’s all about getting them in a new mindset of the vacuum equals great things!
- Third, start to move the vacuum back and forth (while turned off) feeding tasty treats with each movement. Now, your dog should be getting the hint that the vacuum isn’t such a dastardly villain after all, but can turn into a friendly treat dispenser! Once the movement stops, no more treats. Repeat several times until you notice once again a CER.
- Fourth, turn on the vacuum in another room while a helper feeds your pup treats for listening to the sound of the vacuum. When the vacuum shuts off, no more treats. Repeat several times until you get again a CER. Note: If your dog is super scared of the vacuum's sound, try playing the YouTube video below starting at a low volume and feeding treats before moving to the real vacuum's sound.
- Turn on the vacuum in the same room where your dog is. Again, have a helper feed your pup treats for being good listening to the sound of the vacuum. When the vacuum shuts off, no more treats. Repeat several times until you get a clear CER.
- Toss your dog treats while you turn on the vacuum and move it in your dog's presence while still maintaining some distance. Careful here as when you add motion and sound, you are combining two highly arousing triggers. The goal is to have your dog learn to start looking for treats rather than attacking the vacuum. When the vacuum turns off and stops moving, the treat fest ends. Repeat several times.
- Add duration. At some point, once your dog is calmer, train your dog to lie on a mat at a distance and give him a durable treat (stuffed Kong, bully stick) to enjoy while you vacuum. Once he's done eating the food, stop vacuuming. This will teach him that great things happen while you vacuum, and good things end when you're done.
Taking this process slow and steady (several days of repetition on each step) will get your pup comfortable with the vacuum so the war will reach its peaceful conclusion and eventually, you can get him to lie down elsewhere and occupy himself while you get the house cleaned up--after all, that dog hair ain’t gonna disappear on its own!
Also, it helps to keep the vacuum around as much as possible. Rather than putting it away in a closet, keep it in plain view so that your dog gets used to seeing it. After seeing it sitting there for some time, he'll start realizing that Mr. Hoover is nothing major to worry about. If you place some treats around the vacuum, it will further convince him that he's a friend rather than foe.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 27, 2020:
Yes, you are correct, the weed whacker is the outdoor version of the vacuum, still a monster on wheels from a dog's perspective!
I would love to meet you one day all the way in Seattle, until then, if needed, know that there's a great dog trainer colleague of mine in Seattle and her name is Grisha Stewart.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 23, 2020:
My dog Toby attacks the weed whacker when I'm clearing brush out back. I imagine that's the same thing as a vacuum to him.
I need you to stop by and train Toby. Any old time you're free, it would be appreciated. I don't know where you live, but if you fly to Seattle I'll be happy to meet you at the airport. :)
Happy Weekend to you!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 22, 2020:
Hi Peggy, I know, it would be much easier to just put the dog away in another room and that's the most logical and less labor-intensive solution, but often dog owners want to know how to to fix it for good. Yes, it's great that breeders are taking the time to get their puppies used to vacuums.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 21, 2020:
My first thought when I read this article of yours was your last tip. Just have the dog in another room when vacuuming. It is good to know that responsible breeders address this subject with puppies so that they are unafraid when confronted by a vacuum cleaner. Your tips of how to desensitize dogs are also informative.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 18, 2020:
I am glad you found this article on dogs attacking vacuums insightful. It a pretty common problem. Thanks for stopping by.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 16, 2020:
So many dogs attack vacuums! it's a scary monster to them. It helps a lot to start early. I fostered two puppies last summer and the first time they heard the vacuum their eyes got big and they looked for cover. Fortunately, with baby steps I was able to vacuum in front of them in little time.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 14, 2020:
A long time ago, I had a dog that attacked the vacuum cleaner. I wish I could have travelled through time and read your article! Thanks for sharing the very useful tips.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 14, 2020:
It's so true that it's our job as dog owners to protect our dogs from frightening things and dogs are very good in picking up our moods so our own emotions are important. I feel for the poor pups who are teased with the vacuum.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 14, 2020:
You are so right that it's worth it to work on getting dogs used to the vacuum, it's an investment with a nice gain in return.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 14, 2020:
Heidi, your pup's reaction to the vacuum was truly unusual! Most pups will have at least some startle response. It's great that the vacuum was included in puppy classes and the trainer took the time to introduce them to. You are such a great dog mommy! Kudos to you.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 13, 2020:
Dogs are amazing and having to protect them from the bad stuff is one way of ensuring a healthy dog. I like the ways you suggest to keep a dog from attacking a vacuum cleaner.
Robie Benve from Ohio on May 12, 2020:
Great advice! I can see how it may be time consuming to train your dog to "like" vacuums, but it's well worth the years of peace of mind you will have after!
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 11, 2020:
Luckily, our dogs over the years have been pretty oblivious to the vacuum. I've just not made a big deal of it which I think helped make them think it's not a threat either. Usually they just wander to another part of the room or house while Mr. Oreck does his thing. They may even let me vacuum around them while they're chilling on the couch or rugs. You're right, owner behavior can definitely be a factor.
Our first dog, though, was pretty funny during puppy training. The trainer brought in the vac to start desensitizing the traumatized pups. Our girl? She thought it was the coolest thing ever! Yeah, she was weird.
Great tips, as always. Have a great week!