by Carmen LeBlanc, MS, ACAAB, CPDT


A fair number of dogs like Finnegan, the little Yorkshire Terrier here, have issues with the vacuum cleaner. They bark, lunge, bite, chase and generally make vacuuming either hilarious (Tik Tok video, anyone?) or aggravating, depending on your mood.

Here’s an example of an initial step we take in the process of DESENSITIZATION, making the dog less sensitive to, less triggered by, the vacuum.

If you think of the whole triggering event/stimulus, it’s a noisy, moving vertical object that’s held by the owner. So a first step can be (depending on the dog) to take that object, lay it down horizontally, keeping it still and off. Not moving and quiet is a lot easier to learn to tolerate!

Voila — you have broken down the event into a first, doable baby step to help the dog feel better — possibly even happy — about the vacuum!

Next steps are to very gradually add back the other dimensions one at a time. For example, you can raise it up to its normal vertical position in small steps. Start moving it around in short vacuuming motions, so now it’s moving but still quiet. And finally, turn it on so it’s noisy again.

If noise is a key trigger for your dog (and it is for many dogs), then you’ll need to tackle noise desensitization as well.

At each step you occupy your dog with training. The key skills you practice give him jobs to focus on which help him cope, and your tasty rewards help him feel happy or at least pleasant.

Desensitization is best done with the help of a professional animal behaviorist or behavior specialist. It involves patient, consistent training for several weeks or months, progressing in small increments. It must follow a carefully planned order (hierarchy) of exercises and each repetition must be presented with the correct order of events. Anxiety, fear and aggression must be avoided or the procedure can backfire and your pet can get worse.

In addition, treatment exercises begin, progress and change based on the individual dog’s or cat’s reactions at each step. It’s never as easy as following a one-size-fits-all protocol.