Imagine what a vacuum cleaner appears like from a canine perspective. Dogs are conscious of height, size and elevation as relates to their sense of security. With more sensitive hearing than humans the high pitched motor may hurt their ears, and they are more responsive to objects in motion.
When dogs challenge one another they stare directly into the eyes of their antagonist, puff out their chest and rise up in posture, trying to look larger and more intimidating. A direct frontal approach amplifies the threat.
Picture little Bowser looking up at a large and strangely configured thing that moves unlike any animal previously encountered and has a long snakelike tail. Suddenly it utters a loud high-pitched persistent roar…while the body puffs up to unnatural size.
Poor Bowser fears he is being attacked by the legendary Oreckosaurus Rex and retreats to a safer spot, only to be threatened repeatedly as the monster pounces and retreats in pursuit, staring with eyes that never blink.
With a new perspective on how Bowser sees the vacuum cleaner, let’s solve the problem. One choice is to manage the situation; another choice is to change the fear response the dog has learned by association.
You may simply put your dog in the yard or in distant room with a tasty treat or favorite toy so you can clean your house while your dog is not exposed to the scary stimuli. This the easiest choice but it does not address the fear.
Another option is to engage in a series of exercises that change how your dog feels about the vacuum cleaner using desensitization and counter-conditioning.
With three Labradors in my home shedding hair the way year-old Christmas trees shed needles, house cleaning was a daily chore. Newly adopted Gandhi was terrified of the cleaner and transformed from an 85-pound Labrador into a terrified chicken before my eyes. I chose to fix the problem.
First, I set the vacuum cleaner in the living room and left it there a few days, moving it every occasionally to generalize that it was a harmless part of the environment like a lamp or a chair…or one of the growing piles of dog hair.
Then I placed treats on the cleaner when Gandhi was not present. When he returned to the room he discovered the previously scary thing had become a fountain of goodies. Great Scott, what good fortune!
After a few days I practiced basic obedience training within sight of the cleaner. Gandhi was comfortable approaching the cleaner and responding to his training cues. I rewarded him by placing treats on the machine.
Next I turned on the motor and practiced with Gandhi in a different room, gradually moving closer. Eventually I placed treats on the cleaner with the motor running and Gandhi too them.
Moving the vacuum cleaner with the motor running was the final step and I began by pushing the cleaner away very slowly with one hand, giving Gandhi treats as far away with my free hand. Each time the cleaner moved, Gandhi got a treat.
Jake and Buddha had already learned to enjoy the vacuum cleaner and it took only a couple of weeks to convince Gandhi that Oreckosaurus Rex was tame after all. My only problem then was in getting the dogs to move out of the way each time I had to clean up after them.
Great Scott, I think I created a monster!
Daniel H. Antolec, CPT-A, CPDT-KA is the owner of Happy Buddha Dog Training. He has membership in Pet Professional Guild, Force-Free Trainers of Wisconsin, Association of Professional Dog Trainers, Association of Professional Humane Educators and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He also sits on the Board of Directors for Dogs on Call, Inc. and is Chairman of Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Committee.