Conquering The Evil Dishwasher Monster: Noise Phobias In Dogs

by Leslie Fisher

New noise phobias can develop in dogs of any age.

This happened recently with one of my own dogs. Yes, the Evil Dishwasher Monster was discovered in our midst. Five-year-old English Lab Talley has an anxious temperament in general, but she began to display some rather bizarre behaviors, running hiding and isolating herself in a favored cave. She spent entire evenings upstairs, wedged into her behind the bed cave.

Overall her aspect became increasingly depressed and less playful. 

Upset with her discomfort we began searching for a behavioral cause. I noticed her looking anxious and vigilant when putting dishes in the dishwasher. The dishwasher diagnosis was confirmed when Talley bolted from the living room corner cave to the bedroom cave when the running dishwasher jolted loudly. All dishes were washed by hand in my old home; this was a novel experience for Talley.

I felt supremely inadequate for failing to identify the source sooner.

Thinking back, other clues added up to the overall picture. During the period of excessive anxiety, Talley had a repeat bout of colitis, which, my vet agreed, can be triggered by stress. Whether related or not, there were blocked anal glands thrown in, just for fun!

Fortunately, noise phobias, once identified to a specific trigger, can be successfully modified. 

With her anxious temperament in general, it was not surprising to me that Talley developed this phobia. If left untreated, as referred to by Dr. Karen Overall, the behavior will continue to deteriorate.

So, conquering the monster? 

As an Intern with Pat Miller, I learned this about behavior modification, and I have never forgotten:
If you think you are going too slow, slow down some more. 
With that in mind, you need to have a definite PLAN, to begin modifying behavior in tiny increments. For instance, I began feeding Talley her meals near the non-running dishwasher.  Due to generalized anxiety, coupled with high levels of stress, my vet and myself agreed that Talley would benefit from Clomicalm, until resolution of the problem.

Dr.Karen Overall is a proponent of medication sooner, rather than later, for extreme stress.
  1. Identify stressor(s)
  2. Plan
  3. Set Goals for each training session
  4. Identify desired behaviors
  5. Tiny increments
Following are the steps I took with Talley, without going into every minute detail.
NOTE: With every step in your program, you will be ensuring your dog is not over stress threshold, displaying signs of anxiety such as panting out of context, ears back, tail lowered, running away, as examples. All behavior modification needs to be done within a comfort zone, below or at stress threshold. Sessions should be short. I urge anyone with a severe issue on their hands to consult a professional trainer.
  1. In general, this process is desensitization (frequent exposure to stimulus in a controlled environment) and counter conditioning (pairing aversive stimulus with GOOD STUFF)
  2. DISH WASHER NOT RUNNING: begin feeding meals near it. Tricks and play interactions.
  3. Place kibbles on the floor around dishwasher, progress to kibbles on an open door.
  4. Hand targeting towards dishwasher. Open and close the lid while eating.
  5. Open close latch while tossing kibbles- Go Find it. Happy happy play.
  6. Click dial on/off in association with food.
  7. Begin DISHWASHER ON: motor on/off brief intervals of seconds, high value meat, then end with easier tasks with the machine off.
  8. Incrementally increase the duration (in seconds) of time machine is running, carefully observing for excess stress. (all in association with treats, hand targeting etc) end with happy happy play/trick.
  9. PROGRESS: drawing out session during a meal, alternating hand feeding, kibble toss, higher value treats randomly, hand targeting, tricks. Now happily tolerating ~ half a cycle without undue stress, ending with play, going outside. At one point Talley would not return inside when the machine was running. Now she will, staying downstairs instead of fleeing to an upstairs cave. Oh, happy days.
Dogs communicate to us all the time, and bizarre behaviors happen for a reason. 

My labs are always giving me a new challenge, allowing me to help others with my experiences. Seeing our dogs terrified is very upsetting; can you imagine how happy I am to have my bright eyed playful English Lab restored to her normal self. Happy days are here again.  To our dogs, the offending noises truly are monsters and they rely upon us to make the monsters go away.


  1. Hi Y'all,
    Great article.
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  2. I'm so glad you mentioned anti-anxiety medication. I took a course in applied clinical behavioral medicine from Dr. Overall and completely agree that medication has its place, and it can help accelerate training/behav. modification.

  3. Yes, there definitely is time and place for that.


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