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

In another recent entry on the Rewarding Behaviors blog, I discussed how you can use classical conditioning to help your dog conquer his fear of the vacuum cleaner. In the same entry, I promised a follow up detailing some steps dog owners can employ to use operant conditioning training techniques to deal with this same issue.

If your dog is extremely fearful of the vacuum, you may need to do some classical conditioning work before you can begin on the techniques mentioned here.

In the previous vacuum entry, I broke a classical conditioning protocol down into a number of steps – we worked with the vacuum stationary and turned off, then with a moving vacuum turned off, then to a stationary vacuum turned on. We then repeated the steps with the vacuum both moving and turned on. We will follow these same steps when working on operantly conditioned desirable behaviors during vacuuming.

First, and just for fun, I like to play a version of “101 Things to Do with a Box” only this is “101 Things to Do with a Vacuum”. Use a really high rate of reinforcement and shape your dog to interact with the vacuum.

Remember, shaping is like the “hot/cold” game from when you were a kid – click means hot, no click means cold (not clicking gives as much information to the dog as clicking). First click your dog for looking at the vacuum, then for stepping toward it, then sniffing it, etc.

Wait until your dog is successful at four out of five trials at the current criteria level before raising your criteria. If your dog is only getting one or two out of five treats, make it easier for him to ensure a high rate of reinforcement. Alternate between delivering your treats near the vacuum and tossing them away to set your dog up for another repetition.

If your dog does not object to the sound of the vacuum, you can repeat “101 Things to Do with a Vacuum Cleaner” with the vacuum running.

The rest of the exercises for operant conditioning to deal with fear of the vacuum are basically training relaxation behaviors and introducing the vacuum as a distraction. Start with a stationary vacuum (power off) as a distraction, then moving vacuum (power off), then stationary (power on) and moving (power on). As your dog is successful, gradually move closer to the dog. If at any time your dog reacts to the vacuum, create a little distance and be sure to proceed more cautiously in your training plan, always watching your dog for signals of stress or discomfort and adjusting your criteria according to your dog’s comfort level as needed.

My Saint Bernard was once a vacuum-attacker. When I brought the vacuum out, he would generally run away. Once I turned it on and began moving it, his hackles would raise and he would rush forward at the vacuum growling and snapping. We started out with the classical conditioning techniques mentioned in part I of this series and I was surprised at how quickly we were able to progress. It only took a couple of sessions before I moved onto the operant conditioning stage of vacuum therapy.

Aside from being a vacuum-attacker, Monte is a garbage raider, counter-surfer, barker, and yes, a mounter. In human society in general (and my house in particular), these are unwanted behaviors from a family pet.

I always tell my clients to focus on training solutions rather than training problems. Don’t tell me what you want your dog to stop doing, tell me what you want them to do instead of the unwanted behavior. I knew I didn’t want Monte to attack the vacuum, raid the counters and garbage, bark excessively, rush at guests, or mount people in my house, but what did I want him to do instead?

I chose “go to bed” (“go to crate” is another option) as my alternative, incompatible behavior. Truth be told, this is my absolute, without a doubt favorite behavior and the one I work on training the most diligently inside my house. If every dog had a rock-solid “go to bed” behavior and had been taught to go to his bed and relax immediately whenever cued, dogs would have a much easier time staying out of trouble. I shaped the behavior, added the cue, then introduced the vacuum and other distractions. Now he will remain politely on his bed as I vacuum throughout the house or when visitors are over and he gets “humpy.”

I also use the vacuum as a distraction for practicing other behaviors like name recognition, targeting, sits, downs, even heeling or loose leash walking next to me as I vacuum!

Combining classical and operant conditioning techniques will help your dog gain confidence around the vacuum cleaner. Altogether, training should not take more than a few minutes a day and in most cases, marked improvement in the dog’s behavior can be seen within a week or two.

Hmmmm…this series has inspired me. Maybe I should develop a shaping plan to teach Monte to vacuum for me, now that he’s not afraid of it anymore. That would be a trick indeed!

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