Case Study – Lucy
Breed: Miniature Pinscher
It wasn’t just that Lucy was scared of the vacuum cleaner… she was absolutely terrified of it. The sound the vacuum starting up would send her racing away as fast as her little legs could carry her, often shrieking in a high-pitched tone at the same time. When the cleaning was done, her owner would find her hiding away, shaking like a leaf. Even putting her outside, into her small Austin yard, was not a solution. Whe was still scared stiff. It was beginning to cause problems as her owners would put off the job as long as they could, not wanting to scare Lucy.
Many dogs are afraid of vacuum cleaners, but Lucy was an extreme case. She needed to learn that the vacuum was harmless and she had no reason to fear it. Although she hated both the appearance of the vaccum as well as the sound, we decided to start working to desensitize her to the sound first. We started with a recording of a vacuum cleaner. The CD was an hour long, and contained nothing except for the offending sound. We pushed play, yet turned the sound down until it was barely audible. We instructed the family to keep playing this sound on a loop, at this low level volume, and go about their day regularly. By no means were they to coddle or try to reassure Lucy (who was slightly disturbed by the sound). This reassurance often can cause the problem to get worse. Instead, they needed to just pretend that the sound wasn’t there and treat their little MinPin normally.
We left the owners to do this for as much of the day as was possible. By the end of the day, we called them for a report. The first hour or so she had been visably nervous, but by that night she was acting normally. We instructed the owners to do it again the following day, but turn the volume up a tiny bit (about 2 clicks). The sound was still quite a low volume. Each night, they were to turn the volume up a couple notches and then give us a report and it was always about the same thing. Lucy would be slightly nervous at first, but be doing fine by the afternoon. The noise ended up being more annoying for Lucy’s owners than for Lucy herself!
Within a handful of days, we came back to evaluate. The volume was at a low-moderate setting and she was doing just fine. Because it had been going nonstop for the last several days, the sound was losing it’s meaning to her. This said, we still had a ways to go. We conducted several training sessions where we paired a slightly higher volume with positive reinforcement. In order to do this correctly, it was important to watch her body language. Just as it can be counter-productive to reinforce while a dog is scared, we only praised/treated her when her body language suggested that she was comfortable and unperturbed by the sound.
We also started a new exercise. Pulling the vacuum out, we set it in the kitchen where she was normally fed. It was not close to the bowl but it was definitely visible. Her owners were told to ignore the machine and to go about their days as normal. In no circumstance were they to actually use the vacuum. She would be fed in her normal spot as usual until she began to not care about its presence. We kept the CD going as well, although turned it back down to the lowest level again so that we would not be sending too many stressors. We told Lucy’s owners to move her bowl a bit closer to the vacuum every day.
Gradually, we were able to push her bowl right up in front of the machine, and finally put a few peices of kibble directly on top of it! Because it was becoming more of a neutral object, she was ok eating the kibbles off of the vacuum.
We provided Lucy’s owners with a schedule of the following steps, gradually working Lucy up to getting used to her fear. With fear and anxiety, it’s often better to work through the issues slowly rather than quick. The volume of the CD eventually got turned up louder and louder, and she continued to eat off of the vacuum. On our last session at their house, we turned the vacuum on (starting in another room), rewarding her for good behavior (lack of interest in the vacuum). Again, reading her body language, we gradually inched our way forward until she was able to tolerate the machine going in the same room as her! Now, Lucy no longer freaks out whenever she hears the sound. In fact, she knows that if she gets close enough, she might even get a very delicious treat! We were so glad to have helped this little Austin canine and her loving owners in being able to clean the house in peace.