The Dog Knowledge

The Monster in the Closet

Have you ever tried to think like your dog? Go ahead, put yourself in his place for a moment and think about:


Yes, monster! At least once a week the dreaded monster that lives in the closet of every American household wakes up from a long sleep and roars into action. The dreaded monster huffs and puffs, seemingly screaming its way through every room in the house, sucking up any creature in its way. After roaring through the entire house scaring the dog, the cat and every impressionable being around, the monster finally makes its way back to the closet and goes back to a peaceful sleep. But your dog knows that the monster isn’t gone. He’s only asleep, resting up, preparing for another attack, another day…

So now, if you put yourself in your dog’s place, you can begin to understand why your dog is afraid of something as innocuous as the vacuum cleaner. And added to your poor dog’s fear of The Monster In The Closet, chances are, when he was a puppy, the first time you brought the vacuum cleaner out and watched him bark and possibly attack, the entire family thought this harmless scene was so cute that they filmed it and put it on YouTube. The dog trainers at The Dog Knowledge, Charlotte’s premier dog training center, recently pulled up assorted YouTube videos of puppies being confronted with the vacuum cleaner. There were dozens of clips showing Mom or Dad purposely teasing the dog by pushing the vacuum back and forth as the puppy jumped and barked and everyone had a great laugh at the puppy’s expense.

But puppies grow up to be young dogs and after a while the family tires of the young dog attacking the vacuum. So when it comes time for dog training, they complain that the dog is afraid of the vacuum and couldn’t a trainer teach the dog to ignore this necessary family appliance? And often, this fear of the vacuum is transferred over to other appliances such as blenders, toasters, garbage disposals or anything else that roars into action.

The dog trainers at The Dog Knowledge use the vacuum cleaner “fix” as we call it to illustrate how easily this fear could have been avoided and how easily it could be overcome. So whether your dog has a fear of a vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, blender, umbrellas, (We’ve even had a client who’s dog was terrified of Food Lion grocery bags.) Yes, like you, we had to wonder why they felt that their dog was only afraid of Food Lion bags but that’s what they told us. Whatever it is, the fix is fairly simple but just takes a little time and effort.

In the beginning, if the vacuum cleaner had been brought out the day before it was used and before turning it on the puppy was fed near the machine. Then once it was turned on low the puppy was given high value treats near or on the vacuum cleaner, there probably never would have been an issue. As dog trainers, we call this “food manipulation.” We use food and high value treats anytime a training puppy is introduced to something new and potentially frightening. So instead of seeing the vacuum cleaner as something dangerous, your puppy associates the sight of the vacuum cleaner with something yummy. Pretty simple, isn’t it?

But if the damage has been done and the puppy is now a young dog with a real fear of vacuum cleaners, the fear can be reversed, it will just take a little more time and patience.

First of all, bring The Monster out of its hiding place. Simply place the vacuum cleaner in a room where the dog will be forced to see it as what it really is. It’s not a living thing. It’s simply an object. After your dog has had a couple of days sniffing The Monster start putting high value treats near the vacuum cleaner. And by high value, as dog trainers we mean something really yummy like cheese, chopped chicken, peanut butter on a cracker, etc. Try to determine how close you can put the treat where the dog will still go to it but not so close that the dog ignores it. We call this “critical distance.” Every day move the treat a little closer to the vacuum until finally you place the treat directly on the appliance. Don’t make any “to do” over the situation. Don’t urge or encourage your dog, just put the treat there and walk away. It might take several hours for your dog to have the courage to go to the treat but eventually (if you haven’t gotten greedy and put it too close) he will overcome his fear. It also helps if the day that you are putting treats down that you skip his breakfast.

Once your dog is comfortably taking treats from the vacuum cleaner you should turn the vacuum cleaner on low and move the treats back to a critical distance where you are close but not too close. Again, proceed with this exercise until your dog is taking treats off the vacuum cleaner with it running in the lowest setting and not moving. Once your dog is comfortable with the noise it’s time to introduce movement.

This time, stand at the vacuum cleaner and move it slowly back and forth. By this time your dog will be very curious as to what’s up with the vacuum cleaner that now he is beginning to associate with treats. As you move the vacuum cleaner slowly back and forth, toss high value treats to your dog. Don’t speak to your dog or make a big deal. Just toss the treat, look ahead and keep moving the machine slowly back and forth.

Once your dog is comfortable with the motion, you should then start actually vacuuming a room. Try to keep your movements slow and fluid so as not to startle your dog. Again, you might want to have skipped breakfast this day and be sure to toss really high value treats to your dog as you move through the room. If your dog barks, runs away or shows any sign of fear simply continue your motion and any time he conquers up the nerve to return and isn’t barking or attacking, toss a treat.

This technique perfected by the The Dog Knowledge can be used with almost anything your dog fears. We had a training dog in for our stay and train package who for whatever reason had an irrational fear of umbrellas. The family was unable to take the dog for a walk when it was raining because every time he saw an umbrella he lost his mind. The fix was simple; we started feeding his meals from an open umbrella. Now he looks to his owner with excitement when he sees an umbrella knowing he will receive a yummy treat.

Wolfgang learns that the umbrella is a good thing after all!

Food manipulation, or treat training is considered positive reinforcement dog training and this is how The Dog Knowledge begins working with every training dog. Don’t ever let a dog trainer tell you that treat training is bribing a dog. Treats or food are payment for a job well done. Just like your job. How long would you be willing to work for someone if all you ever received for working hard was a compliment or pat on the shoulder? Treats are payment, a primary reward that paired with secondary rewards such as praise, smiles, toys and petting will go a long way to teach your dog the joy of pleasing you.

For more information on positive reinforcement dog training or how to deal with specific dog training issues, please contact Charlotte’s premier dog training center, The Dog Knowledge and speak to one of the certified trainers and behaviorist to learn how to make you dog the best dog possible, the dog you’ve always wanted to own.

Do your friends who have dogs a favor, and share this article with them. Together we can overcome the monster!