Does your dog hate when you use the vacuum? Do they bark at it while you’re trying to clean, and maybe even bite it? Or do they tuck their tail and run out of the room as soon as they see you roll it out? This is unfortunately a pretty common issue for dogs.
It’s never fun to see your dog upset or afraid, even if it’s over something as silly as the vacuum. You have to clean your house, of course, but it’s sad and frustrating witnessing your dog getting triggered.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could vacuum in peace? And if your dog could just chill out while you use the vacuum?
With some training, it’s totally possible to help your dog learn how to relax while you vacuum, and to reduce their stress and anxiety.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- Why dogs are scared of the vacuum
- What behaviors your dog might show if they’re afraid of the vacuum
- How to know if your dog is actually fearful of the vacuum or if something else is going on
- What you can do to help them relax while you vacuum
Why Do Some Dogs Hate the Vacuum?
You might wonder why your dog has such a strong response to the vacuum, even though it’s a totally harmless machine. Some dogs might have a more externalized reaction with barking and biting, and others will simply retreat from the vacuum to get more space from the scary thing. Both of these responses are based in fear about the vacuum.
So why exactly do dogs find the vacuum scary?
There are two main factors: the sound of the vacuum and the movement of the vacuum.
Vacuum Sounds are Scary for Dogs
A lot of dogs are sensitive to different sounds, like thunder, fireworks, the garbage truck and of course the vacuum. Loud sounds can startle a dog (heck, they even startle me sometimes) and that can create a feeling of fear. The sound can feel threatening for the dog, as they don’t understand what it means.
Loud, sudden, or weird sounds can indicate danger, and responding with fear helps a dog stay safe and survive. It’s a biological, evolutionary response.
Fear can trigger a fight-or-flight reaction, where the dog either moves towards the scary thing in an attempt to neutralize the threat, or the dog moves away from the scary thing to get more space from it. Whether the dog chooses to attack the vacuum (fight) or run away from it (flight), they are trying to feel safe.
If your dog is afraid of the vacuum sound, you might also notice that they are sensitive to other noises, though it’s also possible for the vacuum to be the only sound that bothers them.
For some dogs, the sound alone is what makes the vacuum so freaky. For others, the sound is no big deal, but rather it’s the way it moves that scares them. And for others, it’s a combination of the two. So, now let’s take a look at the movement aspect.
Vacuum Movement can be Frightening (or Exciting) for Dogs
Whether you’re using a manual vacuum or a robot vacuum, they both move around unpredictably, from the perspective of your dog. This can be especially scary if the vacuum moves towards your dog. They might feel as if this weird, loud machine is trying to get them, and has no respect for their personal space.
Even if it’s not moving in their direction, the motion can still be perceived as disturbing by your dog. They might feel threatened or confused by its movement.
Just as with the sound of the vacuum, the motion can trigger a fear-based reaction. Your dog might move toward the vacuum and growl, bark, snap at or bite it in an attempt to make it go away or “kill” it. Or they might move away from it to feel safer.
Some dogs also find the movement of the vacuum exciting. Herding dogs in particular may try to “herd” the vacuum by circling it or even biting it.
If your dog had a particularly scary encounter with the vacuum, this could also be fueling their fear. Perhaps you accidentally touched their paw with the vacuum while cleaning and that freaked them out. Or maybe you bumped their dog bed with it while they were resting and that really disturbed them.
One of my past dogs had a traumatic experience when I rested the vacuum against the wall while I moved some furniture, and it fell on him. The poor guy was convinced the vacuum was an evil machine out to get him. (Thankfully we were able to work through this fear, which we’ll get into later).
What Does Fear of the Vacuum Look Like?
Every dog is different, but there are some common signs your dog is afraid of the vacuum. Some might be very obvious, and others can be subtle.
- Moving away
- Hiding in a corner or under furniture
- Tucking their tail
- Tongue flick
- Whale eye
- Charging toward the vacuum
- Hackles raised
- Ears pinned back
If your dog has always been fine with the vacuum but is now suddenly having a fearful reaction to it, it’s a good idea to have your dog checked out by your vet. Sometimes abrupt changes in behavior or onset of sensitivity can be an indication of a health problem. Your vet can rule out any medical issues that could be causing that behavior.
Is My Dog Really Scared of the Vacuum or Is Something Else Going On?
Some dogs might run toward the vacuum while barking or biting at it, but they aren’t necessarily afraid of it. For some dogs, the vacuum is a game and they find it fun to pounce and bark at it.
My own dog is this way. He thinks it’s super fun to jump around it and bark while I vacuum. I know he isn’t scared of it because he will also choose to lay completely relaxed on his bed while I clean around him. Or sometimes he just stands there, while I literally vacuum under his feet. He only goes into barky bitey mode when he’s in a playful mood and has energy to burn.
For some dogs, the vacuum can activate genetic instincts. Herding breeds might feel they need to control this chaotic, noisy machine, and try to herd it. Terriers might feel the vacuum is similar enough to vermin, and try to take it down.
So, just because a dog is barking at the vacuum, it doesn’t automatically mean they are afraid. The vacuum might prompt instinctual behavior that doesn’t have to do with fear. Or they simply find the vacuum to be a fun game.
You’ll want to observe your dog’s body language and look out for the signs listed above to help you determine if your dog is afraid of the vacuum, or if there is something else going on. It’s very common for dogs to be fearful of the vacuum, but just know that there are some other reasons why a dog might react to the vacuum.
How to Help a Dog Who is Scared of the Vacuum
Helping your dog feel more relaxed around the vacuum is a great goal. Even though it can seem like a small thing, the stress your dog experiences can harm their overall quality of life.
Whether your dog tries to fight with the vacuum or they run away, there are things you can do to reduce their fear and help them feel comfortable while you’re vacuuming.
Vacation from the Vacuum
The first step is to stop putting your dog in situations where they are exhibiting fearful behavior. I’m not suggesting that you stop vacuuming! What I mean is to find a way to remove your dog from the area so that they don’t have to deal with the scary vacuum.
That could mean putting them upstairs while you vacuum downstairs, and vice versa. Maybe your dog gets to enjoy a nice stuffed kong out in the yard while you clean, or a family member takes them for a walk. You could perhaps put your dog in your car (just make sure the temperature is safe for them), or if you’re friends with your neighbors, see if they can take your pup for a few minutes while you vacuum.
This is important because if your dog is repeatedly exposed to the vacuum in a way that scares them, it will be impossible to change their behavior. The goal is to change their feelings about the vacuum, which can only be done if they’re not triggered by it.
Desensitization & Counterconditioning
So now that your dog is on a vacuum vacation, it’s time to get to work on changing their emotional response to the vacuum. This is done through the processes of desensitization and counterconditioning. Let’s get a little nerdy and define those terms so you understand what this is all about.
Desensitization is very gradually exposing your dog to the scary thing (in this case the vacuum), starting at a low level and working up slowly. The whole time your dog feels comfortable and they are not triggered. Over time, your dog becomes desensitized to the scary thing and is no longer freaked out.
Counter conditioning is about changing the dog’s feelings about the scary thing by pairing low levels of the trigger with something positive, like food. This is also a gradual process, as you want to keep your dog feeling safe the whole time, or else they might be too scared to eat, which defeats the whole point.
It can help to break down the sound and movement aspects of the vacuum, so you’re not throwing too much at your dog at one time. I recommend starting with motion, and then adding in the sound when that’s going well, but you can do it either way.
- Identify a starting point for your dog where they can be exposed to the vacuum without getting scared.
If your dog hates being near the vacuum even when it’s turned off and not moving, then your starting point will be the presence of a silent, still vacuum with your dog at a distance.
If your dog only starts to show fearful behavior when the vacuum is within 15 feet of them, your starting point is at least 16 feet away from the dog, ideally even more.
- Make the vacuum mean good things.
It can help to have an assistant for this stage, though we’ll look at some options for working on this alone later.
With the vacuum at the starting point you identified, feed your dog lots of treats. They don’t need to sit or lay down or anything, they simply get yummy food for being in the vicinity of the vacuum. Use really good treats that your dog loves and be generous! Thirty seconds is a good amount of time.
Then give your dog a little break, either by removing them from the training area or taking the vacuum out of view. The break helps them understand that it’s the vacuum that makes the good stuff happen.
Assess how your dog seemed. Were they happily eating the treats? Did they seem relaxed? Or were they a little worried or conflicted about the vacuum? Did you observe any signs of fearful body language?
If you feel like your dog did fine at that level, you can do another short session with lots of treats, at a slightly higher level. That might mean moving the vacuum one foot closer or moving it around at a slightly faster speed at the same distance.
If your dog still seemed worried, find a way to make the level even lower. Can you get more distance from the vacuum? What about starting with the vacuum through an open doorway or outside of a glass door? Then try again, feeding lots of treats for your dog being near the scary vacuum.
Seriously, do not be stingy with the treats. You are trying to change strong negative feelings about the vacuum, and using plenty of high-value treats will help make this process more efficient.
- Gradually increase the level of exposure.
There is no exact recipe to follow when working on desensitization and counterconditioning. The key is to watch your dog and observe their body language to determine when to increase the level.
If at any point you see your dog showing fearful behavior, simply go back to a lower level. Hang out there for a bit, and then try again.
This is a gradual process, so go slow and don’t get too ambitious with increasing the level. Give your dog plenty of breaks, which also gives you time to think and adjust your plan.
If you started with the motion of the vacuum, and your dog is no longer showing fearful behavior when you’re moving the vacuum around at a reasonable distance, then you can add in the sound. You’ll want to go back to step one and find a new starting point where you think your dog can be exposed to the sound of the vacuum without getting scared. Work through the steps again, as you help your dog desensitize to the vacuum sound, and help them feel more relaxed about it.
Another strategy that can help your dog feel better about the vacuum is to incorporate mat training. Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol teaches your dog to calmly relax on their mat while a whole slew of distractions happens around them. This is also useful because if your dog can chill on their bed while you vacuum, they stay out of your way and it’s a much more peaceful event.
I suggest building up some mat skills following the protocol, and when that’s looking solid, you can add in the vacuum as a distraction. It helps to have done some desensitization and counterconditioning first so that your dog is not freaked out by the appearance of the vacuum.
Gradually add in the vacuum, keeping it at a level low enough to not trigger your dog, while they chill on their mat. Again, be generous with the treats, it will help you make progress more quickly. Slowly increase the level of the vacuum, making sure you observe your dog’s body language to see how they’re feeling. Keep your sessions short, and quit while you’re ahead.
It’s important to note that just because your dog is laying on the mat, it doesn’t mean they are feeling calm and happy. They might be staying on the mat while feeling stressed out, so pay attention to those subtle cues like a tongue flick, a yawn, or pinned ears which may indicate your dog is not feeling okay about the vacuum. If you notice this, go back to a level where your dog can comfortably relax on the mat.
This strategy is also great for dogs who aren’t afraid of the vacuum but see it as a game. The pouncing and barking can still be annoying, so this teaches them how to remain calm on their bed or a mat while you clean.
If you don’t have someone who can help you with this process, there are still some creative ways you can make it work with just you.
Consider putting up a barrier between the vacuum and your dog, so that the dog stays at a comfortable distance from the vacuum. Then you can toss treats over the barrier to your dog, to help shift their negative feelings to more positive ones. Gradually move closer to the barrier as your dog shows they are comfortable.
If your dog’s fear is fairly mild, you can simply toss treats away from the vacuum while you move it around. Maybe you start just standing with your hand on the vacuum and throw treats one a time away from the vacuum. When that’s going well, and your dog is eagerly awaiting their next treat, you start moving the vacuum back and forth very slowly, while tossing treats away from the vacuum. Follow the training steps above, increasing the level gradually so that your dog never feels afraid.
You can also purchase a Treat n Train machine, which distributes treats automatically, or via a remote. This allows you to be controlling the vacuum at a safe level, while your dog enjoys yummy treats. It can be really helpful if you don’t have an extra set of hands to help you out. When the session is over, you simply turn the machine off, and the treats stop, which helps your dog understand that the vacuum makes the treats happen.
Vacuums Suck, But Your Dog Can Learn to Be Okay With Them
Even though many dogs are scared of the vacuum, your dog doesn’t have to live in fear. While overcoming the fear is a process, you really only need to spend a couple of minutes a few times a week to make progress. Always go at your dog’s pace, so that they feel safe the entire time the vacuum is out. You’ll make better progress if you go slow and steady. With consistent training, your dog’s vacuum vacation will come to an end, and you can clean your floors without triggering your dog. Your dog and your vacuum can learn to coexist peacefully!
Alisa lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and two dogs, Ruby and Lazlo. She loves exploring local nature preserves, creating new vegetarian dishes, and reading a good novel. Alisa is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, and has a wide range of training experience from shelters, to youth programs to dog sports. She’s very passionate about agility, and uses her blog, The Kindred Canine, as an outlet for this obsession.