Building a great relationship – between your dog and your vacuum cleaner (Part I)

Many dogs are afraid of the vacuum cleaner. Some dogs will run and hide when the vacuum is brought out, others will cower in fear, some will adopt the “the best defense is a good offense” strategy and outright attack the vacuum.

I’ll be honest, I get it. I don’t like vacuuming very much myself and am sometimes tempted to run and hide in fear as opposed to confronting the Pomeranian-sized dust/hair balls that fly around this Saint Bernard and Chow loving household or the classroom. Dogs, I’m with you on this. I hate the vacuum too.

The positive reinforcement of a clean floor (which may only last for the briefest of instances before…hey! I just vacuumed and that dust ball is bigger than Eartha Kitty! What gives?) gets me through the hated task. What will it take to get your dog through your vacuuming routine?

There are a lot of things you can do to get your dog to start feeling better about the vacuum right away.

We’ll break down the options into two categories – classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Further, within each of these categories are subcategories – stationary vacuum vs. moving vacuum which can be further divided into “vacuum on” and “vacuum off” categories.

I’m going to split this into two separate blog entries. Part I will focus on classical conditioning; for the stationary vacuum, moving vacuum, and vacuum turned on. Part II will focus on these same criteria developed through operant conditioning and shaping.

When a dog is fearful, I always like to start out with classical conditioning (CC). Let’s discuss the steps in the CC protocol.

CC STEP 1: How far away from the vacuum does your dog need to be to eat?

Bring the vacuum out before your dog’s normal meal time. Walk to the side of the room farthest from the vacuum and put a treat on the floor. Will your dog eat it? If so, take a step forward and repeat. Repeat this process to discover how close your dog can be to the vacuum while still taking food.

If at any point your dog begins refusing food as you approach the vacuum, you know that you have passed his threshold (in laymen’s terms “how close he can get to the vacuum while not freaking out”) and need to create more distance – return to the distance where he was last eating and stay there for a while.

When a hungry dog stops eating, he is over threshold. To avoid putting him over threshold, pay close attention to how gently or roughly he takes treats from your hands. As a dog approaches his threshold, his mouth will often get harder – right before he stops eating he may start snatching treats, even if he normally takes them very gently. If your normally gentle dog begins snapping at your hands for treats, this is a warning sign that you are approaching the threshold – do not move closer.

Now that we’ve determined your dog’s threshold, every time you feed him you are going to have the vacuum in the room at the threshold distance.

Tip: It’s very important that the vacuum comes out before the food – the appearance of the vacuum will predict the delivery of food.

Tip: I like to move the vacuum’s placement relative to the dog around, so that the dog is not always eating to the left of the vacuum, but sometimes to the right of, sometimes in front of, sometimes behind, etc.

Tip: Do this at every meal. As soon as the dog is done eating, the vacuum goes away. You may repeat this multiple times for one meal – vacuum comes out, portion of food is delivered, vacuum goes away. Vacuum comes out again, food is delivered, vacuum goes away again.

Tip: You may need two people for this – one to work with the dog and one to work with the vacuum. If you do not have access to a helper, you may need to employ management tools (a tether or crate) and reinforcement delivery at a distance (a Manners Minder may be helpful for this, or you can practice distance reinforcement in advance which is a very handy skill for any trainer).

CC STEP 2: Reassess the threshold

After doing this for a couple of days, it is time to reasses the threshold. Follow the same directions given in step one. Will your dog eat closer to the vacuum than before? If not, repeat step one for another couple of days and reassess again. If so, move the food bowl closer to the vacuum at the new threshold distance.

Repeat the process laid forth in steps one and two until your dog is able to eat right next to the vacuum cleaner. The vacuum should be turned off and completely immobile for this stage of the training.

CC STEP 3: Introducing movement

Once your dog is able to eat right next to the stationary, turned-off vacuum cleaner, it’s time to introduce movement. We’re actually going to repeat CC steps one and two here but now we’re introducing the movement of the vacuum (at this point the vacuum is still turned off – don’t even plug it in yet!).

Once you have established the distance threshold for the moving vacuum, the sequence should look like this (handler 1 is handling the vacuum, handler 2 is handling the dog).

Handler 1 brings vacuum into room. Handler 2 has dog on leash. Vacuum is stationary. Handler 1 hands food bowl to handler 2. Handler 2 holds the food bowl and waits for handler 1 to return to the vacuum. As soon as handler 1 begins moving the vacuum, handler 2 puts food bowl down (or begins hand feeding, if you prefer). Start out with only a few pieces of food in the bowl at a time so you can set up for multiple repetitions. if your dog has a resource-guarding problem, this will need to be addressed separately – seek the assistance of a qualified professional. As soon as the vacuum stops moving, the food goes away. Vacuum moving = food. Still vacuum = no food. Repeat for many repetitions.

Tip: In stationary steps 1 and 2, the appearance of the vacuum predicted the arrival of the food. At this stage in the training, the movement of the vacuum predicts the arrival of food. Stationary vacuums are no longer reliable predictors of food.


Tip
: Begin with very small movements of the vacuum – only a couple of inches forward and back. As soon as the vacuum begins movement, food should be going into the dog’s mouth. As soon as the vacuum stops, food stops.

Tip: Your dog’s threshold for a moving vacuum may be much lower than his threshold for a stationary vacuum.

Tip: Begin with very short movements/duration. Gradually add duration.

Tip: Once your dog is able to tolerate movement of the vacuum with duration at the threshold, you can begin reassess the threshold to see if it is time to decrease distance.

Tip: Only raise one criteria at a time – distance OR duration.

Tip: Vary the level of exposure. Avoid always moving the vacuum for three seconds. Sometimes move it for one second, sometimes five seconds. Randomize the amount of exposure. Likewise with distance, if your threshold is twenty feet, don’t feel like you have to practice at twenty feet every single time. Teaching your dog that sometimes even easy repetitions will be reinforced will let him approach the exercises with confidence and without frustration.

CC STEP 4: Introducing sound

Now you’re fairly familiar with the classical conditioning process. The dog has a well-established history of “vacuum makes good stuff happen.” I’ve also already emphasized the importance of raising one criteria at a time. Now that we’re introducing the sound of a running vacuum, we’re going to go back to a stationary vacuum (no movement) and very little duration of exposure.

You’ll need to repeat the process of establishing a threshold for the new criteria. For this, again, you will need two handlers, one to manipulate the vacuum and one to handle the dog/food delivery or a combination of management and distance delivery of reinforcers.

The sequence now looks like this:

Handler 1 brings vacuum into room. Handler 2 is on opposite side of room with dog and treats/food. Handler 1 turns vacuum on for a second. As soon as Handler 2 hears the sound, Handler 2 delivers food to the dog. As soon as Handler 1 turns the vacuum off, food goes away. As long as the vacuum is on, the dog is eating. Handler 1 should not be moving the vacuum at all at this time. We are only working on the criteria of the sound of the vacuum in these trials.

WHEN DO I RAISE CRITERIA?

When do you increase the criteria for any of these levels of exposure? When you are doing classical conditioning, what we’re looking for is called a positive “Conditioned Emotional Response” (CER). What does a CER look like? You want the dog not only to be tolerating the stimulus at the current level of exposure but to be actively happy when the stimulus is presented. When the vacuum is turned on, or moved, the dog should be wagging his tail, happily looking at you for his treat as if to say, “yeah, I got that. What’s next?”

WHEN DO I BEGIN COMBINING CRITERIA?

You’ll want to work each criteria separately until your dog is able to happily take treats next to the stationary, moving, or turned on vacuum. Once you’ve reached that level, it’s time to begin combining the criteria.

Maybe you’ve worked to the point where the dog will tolerate the vacuum turned on for five minutes and the dog will tolerate the vacuum moving for five minutes. When we combine the criteria for movement and vacuum turned on, should we start at five minutes?

Nope. We start at five seconds. Again, you’ll need to establish a new threshold. You should find by now that the thresholds are fairly rapidly decreasing, but how far can your dog be from the moving, turned on vacuum and still focus on you to take treats? Find that distance, and begin very short exposures with the combined criteria. Alternate criteria raising between sessions – this session work on duration, next session distance, etc.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THE ORDER IN WHICH WE INTRODUCE THE TYPES OF EXPOSURE?

Many students wonder, do I have to first get the dog eating perfectly next to the vacuum when stationary, then move onto movement/no sound, then sound/no movement?

I think the answer depends on the dogs. For some very frightened dogs, it is best to move in sequence. For other dogs, you may find that you do five two minute sessions and each session may address different criteria – two sessions working on stationary vacuum, one on moving vacuum and two working with the vacuum when it is turned on. If you choose to go this route, careful record-keeping will be helpful so that you are always aware of the dog’s thresholds for each individual criteria.

ARE ALL THESE STEPS NECESSARY?

That too depends on the dog. Some dogs are only fearful of the movement of the vacuum, some may only be fearful of the sound. If your dog does not react to the vacuum moving near him when the vacuum is turned off but reacts with fear if the vacuum is turned on and immobile, even at a distance, you can probably skip working on movement and focus specifically on sound.

Tip: Use items in your household as visual “benchmarks” to determine your dog’s threshold. Bookshelves, furniture, even number of tiles or floorboards can be useful measuring devices for distance when setting your criteria for thresholds.

Tip: Remember the sequence – vacuum comes out/moves/is turned on – food is provided. Vacuum goes away/stops moving/is turned off, food goes away. The presentation of the stimulus predicts food delivery, the removal of the stimulus predicts the removal of the food.

Tip: Frequent reassessment of thresholds will expedite the training process.

WOW. I FOUND THIS ARTICLE SO HELPFUL I WANT TO VACUUM YOUR HOUSE IN GRATITUDE. MAY I?

Yes. Thanks for the offer! Wear an apron if you’re worried about your clothes, because Monte slobbers alot. I’l provide coffee. If you really liked the article, there are also some dishes that could stand to be done. Be here tomorrow, early afternoon. I am many things, but a “morning person” is not one of them.

I hope I’ve broken down the steps thoroughly enough that any dog owner would feel confident working through them with her dog. If I haven’t please comment or email me (casey@rewardingbehaviors.com) so that I can clear up any misunderstandings and give further guidance to help those who need to work on improving the relationship between their dog and their vacuum cleaner.

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