Dogs and Vacuums: Can They Live Together in Harmony?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog fear of vacuum cleaners

Story at-a-glance -

  • Maladaptive stress responses (e.g., separation anxiety, storm or noise phobias, or fear aggression) are extremely common in companion dogs these days
  • One canine stress response that’s in a class by itself is fear of vacuum cleaners; lots of otherwise cool, calm, collected dogs wig out at the sight and especially the sound of the household vacuum
  • Ideally, conditioning puppies to not fear the vacuum (or any household appliance) during their impressionable stage is the most logical and healthiest approach to preventing this fear from gaining traction
  • If the fear has already manifested, perhaps the easiest way to alleviate your own dog’s distress when you vacuum is to simply arrange it so that she’s not in the general vicinity when you clean
  • Alternatively, you can attempt to desensitize your dog to the vacuum cleaner with a 3-step approach

If your dog briefly startles at loud sounds or hangs back when approached by a stranger, chances are she's experiencing an entirely normal, natural stress response. A short-term reaction to a stressful or unfamiliar event allows dogs to prepare to fight or take flight if necessary. In the wild, the fight-or-flight response keeps animals alive in the face of threats to their survival.

Sadly, in today's world, maladaptive stress responses — chronic, long-term anxiety and phobias — are a significant problem for many canine family members. Many fears and phobias in adult dogs are the result of a lack of appropriate, consistent exposure during the impressionable, developmental periods that occur early in a puppy's life.

Later on, these fear-based conditions often take the form of separation anxiety, storm and/or noise phobia, or aggression. And then there is the issue of dogs and vacuum cleaners, which is kind of in a class by itself.

Most Dogs Have Some Level of 'Vacuum Phobia'

Many usually calm, unflappable dogs — dogs who don't otherwise show signs of noise phobia or other maladaptive stress responses — have little to no tolerance for the dreaded Hoover or Roomba.

Reactions range from mild annoyance or wariness, to hiding, to running as far away from the action as possible. According to professional dog trainer Victoria Schade:

"Vacuums are unlike any other type of household equipment, and a single scary run-in can set the stage for a lifetime of fear. Sure, hairdryers and mixers are similarly noisy, but they don't emerge from closets and take over the room the way vacuums do.

Self-propelled cleaners, like Roombas, are especially frightening because they make noise, move unexpectedly, and appear and disappear without warning."1

Some dogs (often small breeds, for some reason) decide to go on offense and attempt to beat the machine into submission:

As comical as this scene is to humans (because we think like humans and not like dogs), and as much exercise as that little guy is getting while chasing after his nemesis, he's definitely not a happy camper. He's trying desperately to stop the noise and movement of that blasted vacuum.

If your furry family member reacts strongly, and not in a good way, when you vacuum, it's important to realize that while the whole thing may seem silly to you, it's a problem for her, and creating stress or a panic response, which isn't good for her health. Fortunately, there are things you can do to alleviate her discomfort while you get your housework done.

Option 1: Avoidance

The most obvious and often the easiest approach is to simply separate your dog from the vacuum action. Suggestions:

  • Put her in another room with a treat-release toy and close the door; you might also want to turn on the TV or some music to help drown out the noise from the vacuum
  • Some dogs will seek out dark, quiet corners on their own when the vacuum cleaner comes out; if this is the case with your pet, consider providing a darkened room, a closet floor, or space under a table or desk; the goal is to give her a secure spot that helps her calm herself
  • Put her in your backyard with an outdoor toy
  • Ask another family member to take her for a walk
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Option 2: Desensitization

Desensitization involves exposing your dog to an anxiety-producing trigger, in this case your vacuum cleaner, to a level at which the fear response is extinguished. According to dog trainer Schade, the goal is to help slowly change his perception of the vacuum from nemesis to occasional nuisance. The first step is to establish a positive association using small training treats and a helper.

"Bring your dog to a quiet room," says Schade, "and ask your helper to stand far enough away that your dog won't be triggered when the vacuum appears. (Depending on [his] level of fear, it might be an adjacent hallway or even a different room.)

Tell your helper to bring out the vacuum so that your dog can see it (keeping the vacuum turned off and still), then immediately start feeding [him] the small treats. Continue treating [him] for a few seconds, making sure that [he] can see the vacuum but maintains a relaxed posture. Then, have your helper remove the vacuum, and stop feeding your dog treats.

Repeat the process several times, having your helper bring the vacuum into view and holding it still while you give your dog treats, then stopping the treats when it goes away. This first step helps your dog make a positive association with the vacuum, because when it appears, he gets goodies!

After a bunch of repetitions, try a quick test: ask your helper to move the vacuum into your dog's sightlines, as in the previous repetitions, and watch to see if [he] looks to you as if to say, 'Where are my goodies?' That reaction means that [he] is starting to equate the vacuum with something positive!"

The next step is to introduce subtle movements of the vacuum:

"Ask your helper to push the vacuum forward (still in the off position) while you feed your dog treats," says Schade. "Then have your helper stop moving it while you stop feeding [him] treats.

Repeat this step a number of times, adding different types of movement so that it looks like actual vacuuming. In subsequent sessions, begin to move the turned-off vacuum closer to your dog, always giving him goodies as it moves and watching to see if his body language remains relaxed.

If your dog stops eating treats or begins to look nervous, it probably means that you're progressing too quickly."

The final step involves tackling the scariest feature for most dogs — the noise of the vacuum. Only attempt this step once your dog is comfortably taking treats with a relaxed posture while your helper "cleans" with your turned-off vacuum. When the time comes, it's a good idea in most situations to turn the vacuum on in a different room or at a distance from your dog.

"Ask your helper to start the vacuum for a few seconds, then feed your dog goodies while it's on and stop when your helper turns it off," says Schade. "Watch your dog to make sure that the noise hasn't derailed your progress. If [he] is unable to take treats when the vacuum turns on, it means that you're too close to it; move farther away or shut the door between you and your helper when it's turned on.

It will probably take a series of training sessions spread out over a few weeks before your dog is comfortable with both the sound and movement of the vacuum. Don't rush this part of the training process!

You'll know that your dog feels more comfortable with it when he exhibits the same 'Where are my goodies?' response when the vacuum turns on. At that point, you can begin moving it around and rewarding your dog, and then in subsequent sessions, start to bring it closer to your dog."

The ultimate goal, of course, is for your dog to remain calm while you use your vacuum for its intended purpose, but Schade warns that it will probably take several desensitization sessions before things progress to that point. She also recommends that to avoid backsliding, when it's time to vacuum, bring your dog to a quiet spot and give him something to focus on while you clean, such as a treat-release toy or puzzle.

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