Through a decade and a half of dog training I have dealt with many cases of dog reactivity to vacuum cleaners, appliances and power tools. The behavior ranges from running away and hiding, barking at the device or a full blown attack. I worked with one Bull Terrier that attacked his owner while she was blow drying her hair. He pulled the hair dryer right out of her hand and attempted to destroy it. This same dog attacked the lawn mower while its owner was operating it. He grabbed it while it was running and flipped it. Luckily it shut off and he was not injured. Most of the cases have not been this extreme but fall into the range of barking and rushing the vacuum or appliance.
This behavior can be extremely annoying or outright dangerous. The approach that I take is called “Systematic Desensitization”. It involves small steps in desensitizing the dog to the object and the sound it makes. The steps that I will lay out are only general guidelines. The time it takes at each step will vary based on the dog and the degree of reactivity. Some dogs will take longer and some will progress rapidly. You will need to determine the right pace for your dog.
I am going to use the vacuum cleaner as the example since it is the most common problem I encounter but the steps would be the same for power tools, a lawn mower, a leaf blower, a hair dryer, etc.
Put the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the room. If your dog will not approach it determine a base line distance that he will approach. Have a bunch of yummy treats ready. From this distance start treating the dog and encourage her to move closer. Treat with each step that is closer to the vacuum. With some dogs I will lay out a trail of treats that lead to the vacuum. Sometimes it will take a lot of encouragement to get the dog to move closer. Your goal will be to have the dog take a treat that is placed right on the vacuum itself.
Once the dog is approaching the vacuum and taking the treat from it then start placing it in different spots on the vacuum. Do this step for several days for about 10 minutes. Place the vacuum in different rooms. Once the dog seems comfortable approaching the vacuum and taking a treat then it is time to put some movement into the vacuum.
The next steps will require a helper. Put your dog on a leash. You should use a collar that the dog is used to such as a buckle, choke, pinch or martingale. Put your dog into a Sit. Your helper will take the vacuum (unplugged) starting at a comfortable distance from the dog and just start moving it slowly back and forth. If the dog does not react praise and treat. Start moving the vacuum incrementally closer and closer to the dog. If the dog reacts, barks or lunges at it back up to a distance that the dog can tolerate. Correct the dog with a “No” and a gentle pop on the leash if they over react. Treat and praise for calm reactions. Do not follow a correction with a treat. Our goal is to move the vacuum (unplugged/power off) around and close to the dog without it reacting to it. This again might take 1 to 3 days depending on the dog’s reactivity.
Once we can move the vacuum around the dog with the power off then we can move to step three.
Put your dog on a leash. You should use a collar that the dog is used to such as a buckle, choke, pinch or martingale. Put your dog into a Sit. Your helper should take the vacuum to another room and out of sight. The helper will turn the vacuum on for very short bursts of about 2 seconds, 5 to 10 seconds apart. If the dog does not respond to the vacuum noise instantly praise and treat. If the dog responds by barking or getting up from the sit, correct gently and re-command the Sit. Once the dog will continue to sit through the bursts without reacting then we can increase the length of time the vacuum is on. The progression might look like this. Start with burst of 2 seconds, then 5 seconds, then 10 seconds, then 15 seconds, then 20 and finally 30 seconds. Only treat when the dog does not react. If the dog can not tolerate the longer bursts then take a step or two back. Do not make these sessions too long and always stop on a positive note.
Depending on how your dog is doing you may want to do this step once a day for about 10 minutes for 2 to 3 days.
Before moving on to Step Four you need to have accomplished 4 steps. 1. The dog is not afraid of the sight of the vacuum. 2 The dog will approach the vacuum and take treats from it. 3. The dog will allow you to move the vacuum around him with power off. 4. The dog does not react to the noise of the vacuum while it is out of sight in another room for at least 30 seconds.
Again you will need an assistant to help. Put the dog on leash as before and position him in the center of the room. From an adjoining room turn the vacuum on. If the dog is calm then move the turned on vacuum into sight from the other room. If the dog remains calm then bring the vacuum into the room a little bit at a time. If at anytime the dog reacts then take a step back. The goal of this next step is to be able to get closer and closer to the dog with the vacuum on. For some dogs this step can happen rather rapidly and for others it might take a few days. Don’t push it. Watch the dog’s reactions carefully and go at its pace. Reward calmness and correct barking and lunging.
Once you have a solid foundation built and the dog is calm when the vacuum is on you can try putting the dog at its Place and moving the vacuum around the same room.
In summary desensitize slow and methodically. Do not skip over steps. Always go at the pace the dog will allow. Set-backs are common. If the dog reverts to old behavior redo some of the steps so the dog can recover. Keep sessions short and always end on a positive note.
If you have a puppy start introducing your puppy to the vacuum around the ages of 12 week and 16 weeks. Proper introduction will prevent this type of problem from ever happening.