Vacuum-Hating Terriers and Herding Dogs: A Fight With Genetics

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It’s common for dogs to dislike the vacuum cleaner. They might run away and hide, bark, or even bite at the vacuum out of fear. But for some pups, their reaction to the vacuum is actually influenced by their genetics, rather than scary feelings.

Both herding and terrier breeds are often triggered by the vacuum cleaner. 

The chasing, nipping, barking, and biting that these dogs exhibit is due to their genetic instincts. If this behavior bothers you, it’s helpful to understand these instincts so you can effectively prevent it or work on changing your dog’s behavior when the vacuum is in use.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why herding and terrier breeds react to the vacuum
  • How to prevent the barking, chasing, and biting
  • How to channel your dog’s natural instincts in other appropriate ways

What does Dog DNA Have to Do With Vacuums?

Humans have been selecting for specific traits in dogs for thousands of years. It might be for a specific coat color, or special talent for a particular task.  Humans have been influencing canine genetics through breeding to produce pups that suit their needs and desires. This is how different dog breeds came to be.

In modern times, most dogs are kept as beloved pets, but historically, dog breeds were developed to serve a purpose alongside humans. 

Herding breeds, such as Border Collies, Australian Shepherds, and Corgis, were created to help people move livestock from one point to another. 

Terrier breeds, such as Jack Russels, Border Terriers, and Rat Terriers, were bred to find and kill vermin.

These days, most herding dogs are not being used to move sheep or cows on a farm. And most terriers are not on pest control duty for hours a day like their ancestors were.

This brings us to the vacuum! 

Herders and terriers still have the instincts that made them so useful to humans, even though their original purposes are largely gone. So, to the dog, the vacuum is a modern substitute for livestock and rodents. And it can trigger the same behavior these dogs would show if they were doing their historical jobs.

Let’s look at each breed type separately to understand this some more.

Do Herding Dogs Really Hate the Vacuum?

Herding dogs may have been bred to help people move livestock, but any moving object can trigger herding behavior. It’s common to see herding dogs try to herd children, other dogs, cats and even cars.

These dogs have an innate desire to bring order to chaos. They want to control the movement of other animals or objects. This behavior is hardwired into their DNA.

If you think of it from their perspective, the vacuum is an unruly, noisy creature that needs to be brought into order. This machine moves around quickly in an unpredictable manner while never shutting up about it. It’s a chaotic thing that needs to be brought into order.

So while your vacuum most certainly is not a sheep, the “behavior” of the vacuum triggers the same type of herding behavior that livestock would. They don’t hate the vacuum, they’re just doing what their genetics tell them to do when faced with a moving object.

Why Do Terriers Terrorize the Vaccum?

Terriers were bred to seek out and kill vermin, such as mice, rats, badgers and foxes. This often involved going underground and going nose to nose with animals larger than the dogs themselves. 

Humans selected for dogs that were very tenacious and would not back down from a fight, no matter how hairy things got. Terriers have very high prey drive.

So while most terriers today aren’t roaming around killing rodents on a farm, they still have those instincts. And once again, the vacuum is a perfect modern substitute for vermin. It zig-zags around the floor quickly, screeching the whole entire time.

The vacuum isn’t a small critter, but it acts enough like one that it triggers the hunting instincts of terriers. So yes, your terrier really does have a death wish for your vacuum, even though it’s just a machine.

Following Instincts Feels Good

For both herders and terriers, acting on their genetic instincts feels really good. It’s like scratching an itch. It’s naturally rewarding for them to do these behaviors and that makes them want to keep doing it. We won’t get into the neurochemical reasons for this, but it’s similar to why eating and stretching feels good.

Additionally, because our modern dogs don’t have nearly as many outlets to act out behaviors that we humans bred for, it can feel especially good when they finally do get to do it. Even if it’s just a vacuum cleaner and not the real thing. It’s like when you’re really hungry, and you finally get to eat and the food just tastes better than normal.

How to Prevent Crazy Vacuum Behavior

As mentioned, trying to herd or kill the vacuum is innately rewarding for these dogs and so they are highly unlikely to just stop doing it on their own. In other words, ignoring this problem will not help.

If you would prefer that your herder or terrier not act out their instinctive behaviors when you pull out the vacuum, it’s best to have a prevention plan. Here are a few ideas: 

  1. Have family member can take your pup on a walk while you vacuum in peace.
  2. Put the dog upstairs with a tasty stuffed kong while you clean.
  3. I have a client that puts their little terrier in his crate in their car while they vacuum.

In order to stop the behavior, you first have to prevent it from happening, so get creative and find a way to ensure your dog isn’t practicing the unwanted behavior when you vacuum.

If you’d like to train your dog how to be calm around the vacuum, check out this article. Even though it’s about dogs who are afraid of the vacuum, it gives some helpful tips on teaching dogs to chill out in the presence of the vacuum.

Keep in mind that the chasing, barking and biting are genetic behaviors. This means they can be a challenge to change. It’s more than okay to choose a prevention strategy, rather than trying to train your dog to do something that is the opposite of what every cell in their body is telling them to do.

Better Outlets for Dogs Who Try to Herd or Kill the Vacuum

While your dog might feel the vacuum is the perfect outlet to unleash their instincts, you may not feel the same way. Honestly, it can make it really hard to actually clean your house. It can also become a bit of an obsession for these types of dogs, which may not be healthy.

Here are some alternative outlets for herding dogs:

Herding breeds need a lot of physical and mental stimulation so things like hikes, walks with plenty of sniffing, and fun trick training are also good outlets for their energy. Other dog sports like rally obedience, disc and nosework are also excellent activities for herding dogs.

Here are some non-vacuum related hobbies for terrier instincts:

  • Flirt pole
  • Tug with fur toys
  • Hiding toys under blankets or under your bed for them to dig out
  • Barn Hunt (where dogs can search for rats who are safe in metal tubes)

Terriers tend to be busy dogs, so giving them plenty of exercise and general mental enrichment is also important for their overall behavioral wellness. Letting them follow scent trails on walks is an easy way to fulfill their desire to hunt, even if there is no actual critter to kill.

The Verdict on Vacuums

It’s important to understand your unique dog’s genetics because it has such a significant impact on their behavior, even something as silly as chasing and biting the vacuum. What seems obnoxious, confusing, or frustrating to you might just be behavior that made them excellent at their historical jobs. They can’t help the fact that herding or critter-killing is hard-wired into their DNA.

The good news is that there are options for dealing with chaotic vacuum behavior! Prevention, training, and other appropriate outlets can make your cleaning time a calmer experience for you and your dog.

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