Does your dog kick up a storm or scoot out of the room whenever you start the vacuum cleaner? This behavior may seem weird to us, humans, because we know it’s nothing to be afraid of.
Dogs — especially if they haven’t been exposed to loud sounds — don’t know any better. We would probably react the same way if a thunderous Godzilla came our way, right?
Well, the house can’t remain messy, and we also need to ensure our furry friends are comfortable. How do we get it done? The secret lies in understanding why dogs are scared of vacuums and what you can do about it.
How Loud Can Your Dog Hear?
Compared to humans, a dog’s hearing is exceptional. They are able to pick up very high and very low sounds that the human ear simply can’t detect.
On average, a human adult can’t detect sounds that exceed 20,000 Hertz (Hz). Dogs, on the other hand, do much better. They may pick up high-pitched frequencies of between 47,000 and 65,000 Hz (1).
“Hertz” refers to the measurement of sound frequency while decibels (dB) measure the intensity or loudness of sound. This increased hearing capacity exposes your dog to intensities you can’t possibly imagine.
Closer to home, most vacuum cleaners are extremely loud to some people with a sound level of around 70 dB (2). This noise level is often irritating for us, so imagine how that feels to your dog’s ears.
Reasons Why Dogs Are Scared of Vacuums
Understanding these reasons may make you more sympathetic and less annoyed with your dog.
With their heightened hearing ability, noise is a major cause of fear for dogs. Vacuums are sudden and loud and can easily frighten a dog. The amplified sound from the cleaner may cause distress, anxiety, and a whole lot of discomfort for your dog.
A dog not used to loud noises may associate these fearful feelings with the vacuum. Therefore, it will panic every time you bring it out.
Alongside hearing, dogs also have a keen sense of smell. As the vacuum cleaner lifts dirt, fur, and other debris from the carpet, it also kicks up odors. This may lead to sensory overload for the dog which is extremely unpleasant.
3. If Your Dog Isn’t Socialized
Dogs that weren’t exposed to different noises and environments as puppies may have a hard time around vacuums. Reputable breeders will expose dogs to various sounds, textures, and environments to make them well-rounded.
4. It’s in the Genes
Dogs have individual personalities. Some will come across as shy and nervous at the sight of the vacuum. Whereas, others may exhibit aggressive behavior when exposed to strange people or objects.
They may growl, snarl, bark, lunge, snap and even bite the aggressor — in this case, the vacuum cleaner (3).
Signs Your Dog Is Frightened
Dogs display different signs if they are scared of vacuum cleaners. As mentioned above, some may become aggressive and extremely territorial. They see the vacuum as an enemy and feel it’s their job to guard you and their territory.
Some of the typically fearful behaviors that you may pick up on include:
1. Drooling and Yawning
One of the reasons why dogs may drool is stress. So, if you notice your dog yawning and drooling excessively whenever you start vacuuming, it may be a sign of nervousness (4).
Urination can occur when a dog is excited, when it’s marking its territory or when it answers the call of nature. However, when a well-trained dog urinates at an inappropriate moment, there is a problem.
Submissive urination occurs when the dog is feeling anxious or in acknowledgment of a more dominant figure. This is usually a sign that the dog poses no threat to its supposed aggressor.
The loud noise from a running vacuum cleaner can result in this type of urination. Dogs may release small amounts of pee or a large puddle around the house. If you come across this, it may be an indication of fear of vacuums.
3. Hiding Under Furniture
Fear invokes one of two reactions in humans and animals — fight or flight. If your dog runs under the table, chair or other furniture whenever you switch on the vacuum, it’s a strong sign of fear. Hiding under furniture makes the dog feel safe.
4. Destructive Chewing
Destructive chewing can be triggered by vacuum anxiety. Do you find your dog chewing on cords or wires? Are your armchairs gnawed at or the pillows torn open?
Monitor your dog closely to observe times when the destructive chewing occurs. Dogs that embark on destructive behaviors as the vacuum cleaner is going are reacting to the unease they are feeling (5).
Should You Throw Away Your Vacuum?
You’re probably feeling ready to throw away your vacuum cleaner now, aren’t you? But, you shouldn’t discard it. Here’s why:
- If you take away the vacuum, how will your dog get accustomed to loud noises? Trust me, they will encounter several in their lifetime.
- Vacuums are effective cleaners, particularly if you have a shedding dog. Without one, you may have a house full of fur which may put your health at risk.
- More importantly, carpets, rugs, and couches are a haven for dog flea eggs and larvae. Vacuuming is the best way to suck them up and out of your home (6).
What should you do then? There are several ways to help your dog or pup overcome their fear of vacuums.
Dealing With Your Dog’s Fear
Socialization plays a major role in how much noise your dog can handle. So, managing your dog’s fear starts with preparing them for the sounds they might encounter in daily life. Of course, this may be harder for older dogs.
Working With a Puppy
The best time to train your pup and expose them to new and different experiences is around the age of 7 weeks to 4 months. If you buy your pup from a reputable breeder, you may find that the process started earlier than 7 weeks (7).
If your vacuum cleaner has suction settings, start by adjusting it to the lowest setting. Turn it on for a couple of seconds at a time in the presence of your pup. Watch their reaction and praise them for staying calm.
Gradually increase the time and up the suction settings. Also, always remember to offer them a treat for staying calm. By giving the pup a specific treat, they will associate it with good behavior.
Desensitizing an Older Dog
An old dog can learn a new trick after all. Desensitization involves making the dog less sensitive to sounds, people or objects that trigger an exaggerated emotional reaction.
You do this by exposing them to a weaker version of the thing they fear. But you do so in a non-threatening way. Over time, the dog may get used to the weakened version of the feared sound.
You then gradually increase its intensity until you reach the normal sound exposure (8). Here are some ways to desensitize your dog to vacuums:
1. Keep the Vacuum in an Open Space
Storing the vacuum cleaner in enclosed storage keeps your space neat but doesn’t do much for your dog. Keeping it in an open area, instead, will give your dog the opportunity to sniff around it and get used to it.
Similarly, if you’re working with the vacuum and your dog wants to come close to the device, allow them to do so. It may aid the acceptance of the device.
If your dog doesn’t want to be near the device, let them be since forcing them to be around the vacuum will only exacerbate their fears. Remember, the acceptance process is gradual.
2. Keep Your Vacuum Cleaner Low to the Ground
When the vacuum is low to the ground, it becomes less imposing to your dog. This eliminates the feeling of dominance. It also makes it easily accessible to the dog if they want to investigate it.
Additionally, switch on the vacuum for a short time occasionally when you’re not cleaning your house. This will help your dog familiarize themselves with the sound and noise.
3. Start Small
Have the vacuum cleaner on for only a few minutes at a time. Start with space or a room that’s not occupied by your dog. Where possible, ask a family member or friend to help note the dog’s reaction.
If your dog is okay with the vacuum from a distance, slowly approach the space they are in. Leave a clear path to the door in case the dog chooses to leave the room. You may need to repeat the process for a while before your dog can get used to it.
4. Placing Yummy Treats on the Vacuum
Consider placing treats on the vacuum cleaner to help change your dog’s perception of the device. It then becomes less of a threat and more of something that earns them rewards.
Similarly, reward your dog with a treat if they remain calm after you have finished using the vacuum. They may even start wagging their tail whenever they see the device.
5. Distract Your Dog
Does your dog have a favorite toy? Place it close to the vacuum cleaner to help make your dog more comfortable around the device. You can also offer your dog their favorite toy while the vacuum is running.
While you’re cleaning, you can ask a family member to distract the dog by playing with them. If the dog can’t concentrate, don’t force them to continue playing.
6. The “Don’ts”
Understandably, you want to get this chore over with and like many of us, you may be pressed for time. Remember, fear is not a sign of disobedience, rather a behavioral issue. Whatever you do, here are some “don’ts” to keep in mind:
- Don’t tie up the dog or lock them up in their crate: They may injure themselves as they try to get away from the scary sound. They could end up associating the sound with punishment which isn’t helpful at all.
- Don’t force them to endure the sound: Remember, their hearing is more magnified than yours and this will only increase their fears.
- Avoid fussing over them: They may get the impression that acting all stressed will get them special attention and treats (9).
Getting Rid of the Fears
Just like us, dogs have different personalities, temperaments, and experiences which shape their reactions.
Following the tips above may help your dog overcome their fear of the vacuum. If your dog is still fearful, you may need to consult a canine behavioral specialist. The specialist may detect the underlying issue and offer possible solutions.
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