Reactivity to Vacuum Cleaner

If your dog is barking and lunging at your vacuum cleaner, you are not alone. Fear of vacuum cleaner is a condition that happens even in humans (zuigerphobia). While this is more common amongst certain breeds, it can happen to all breeds. The first thing to understand is that the cause of reactive dogs is usually genetic. But good management and socialization plan by owners can help to lesson the reactivity and is best done when the dog is still in its critical developmental stage of 4-6 months.

Why does it happen?

The movement of the strange and large object (sight) and mechanical sound made by vacuum cleaner is not natural to animals. Most dogs first reaction to mechanical sound is fear. When a dog is in fear, it either decides to fight reactively or escape from the stimulus. Some dogs/breeds are wired to fight reactively when scared.

Good breeders understand the concept of critical developmental periods (0-4 months) and implement socialization plan in time. Unfortunately, not all breeders are adequately informed.

Herding breeds may be genetically selected to react to movement to control moving sheep.

Medical conditions like musculoskeletal pain has been associated with sensitivity to variations in noise. Noise phobia is a thing in some dogs and can cause anxiety.

What you should not do

You should not punish any behaviors related to fear. Barking and lunging are means that the dog uses to cope with his fear. If you punish your dog hard enough, you might stop the behavior temporarily but the fear will manifest in other ways. In most cases, scolding your dog will not stop the behavior.

Another method prescribed by traditional trainers is a method called Flooding. This involves exposing the dog to the stimulus for an extended period of time. While it is cost effective, flooding is rarely used because if you are not careful it can be can actually increase their fear.

What you should do

Before you allow it to become practiced behavior, start early to come up with a plan to socialize your dog with the vacuum cleaner. While the plan is in progress, actively manage the situations in which the dog is exposed to the vacuum cleaner e.g. bring the dog for a walk during vacuuming.

The approach recommended by behaviorists is Counter Conditioning and Systematic De-sensitization.

Counter conditioning involves changing the pet’s emotional response by associating stressful stimuli with high value rewards like food or play. This is rooted in classical conditioning so repeated pairings must be done over many sessions.

Systematic desensitization is the gradual exposure to the stimuli that would not bring the dog above threshold. When planning the de-sensitization steps, consider the level of activity, level of exposure, distance, volume, the use of easier objects that are similar.

In planning the following process, its important to note that there is no hard and fast rule for the progression. The key objective is to keep the dog under threshold and to let the dog understand that it will get rewarded as long as he does not react to the vacuum cleaner.

Step Objective Process

Use easier object

Placed in ex pen


Not turned on

Put the broom (or stick or mini vacuum) at a corner of the house, enclosed by ex pen for these few weeks. The location should be visible to the dog if the dog chooses to see it. It should also be far away enough from his living area so that he can choose to avoid it.

a) Feeding

For the first few days, feed him from a far distance where he can see the broom. Gradually reduce the distance between the food bowl and the enclosed broom e.g. 0..5m each day or depending on the size of the house. If the dog shows sign of stress, regress and stay at that distance for a few days until ready to progress.

b) Training

In between meals, training sessions can be structured near the broom at a distance below threshold. The threshold can be determined by laying a trail of treats to the broom. Determine at which distance the dog shows signs of wariness. This will known as the threshold distance. An exercise that I recommend is the Look At That game that can be played at this distance. This creates positive associations by looking at the broom. Another fun and easy exercise is the Touch cue to target your hand.

If you practice this every day, the dog will get desensitized and you can move closer and closer to the broom.

2 Remove ex pen When the dog is comfortable with being just beside the enclosed stationary broom, its time to remove the ex pen. But make sure it won’t fall during the interactions or it will scare the dog. Click/treat for any interactions e.g looking or sniffing. When the dog is comfortable with close interactions without the ex pen, its time to add movement to the broom.
3 Add movement To add movement to the broom, we will reset the feeding distance to being far from the broom where he can see the broom and also set up the broom inside the ex pen. The progression for moving broom will take a longer time because reactive dogs have a tendency to interact with moving objects.a) Feeding

During feeding time, get an assistant to stand in the ex pen with the broom. He will introduce gentle and predictable movements when you feed your dog. Start the feeding by putting a handful of food into the food bowl. The assistant will move the broom gently when your dog is eating the food. When your dog finishes eating the food, assistant will stop the movements. Pause the movement for 10s before putting another handful of food into the food bowl. Every time your dog is eating, the assistant will move the broom gently and predictable.

Try not to end each session with the dog barking or else he may think that the barking made the broom stop moving. If the session ended well without any reactivity, you can carry out the next session at a shorter distance.

Every time you shorten the distance, remember to start each session with gentle movement. If you want to increase the movement, increase the distance. We want to progress by keeping the dog under threshold. Its also ok to hover at comfortable distance for a few days .

b) Training

Work with an assistant similar to the feeding routine. At a distance below threshold, set up only fun sessions of play or behaviors that have a history of strong reinforcement e.g. touch, look, where is that, or games like tug. The objective of these sessions is simply for the dog to practice not reacting to a moving broom and to be engaged in rewarding experiences when interacting with the broom.

4 Use an actual vacuum

Placed in Ex Pen

Add movement

Not turned on

 Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 with the actual vacuum.
5 Introducing vacuum sound separately During meal times or training sessions,

  • From the same room, play the recording of the sound of vacuum cleaner e.g. youtube. Start with low volume and slowly progress to higher volume.
  • Place the actual vacuum cleaner in a separate room, close the door and have an assistant turn it on.
  • Place the vacuum cleaner in the ex pen in the same room and far away from the dog, turn it on at lowest level while it is stationary.
6 Combining all together Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 with the actual vacuum and turned on.

For some dogs, the program will help to reduce reactivity to someone else using the vacuum cleaner and may not solve the reactivity completely. If you are going to be the one doing the vacuuming, you will still need management strategies e.g. put the dog in another room with a bully stick to prevent the dog from reacting.

Another management strategy to consider is to change to a low noise vacuum cleaner.