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My Dog is Afraid of the Dark - Causes and Solutions

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. April 9, 2019
My Dog is Afraid of the Dark - Causes and Solutions

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Fear is as natural an emotion as it is necessary. Wild dogs need it to evade predators and be vigilant against threats. Being vigilant can be more difficult when their environment is in darkness. If our companion animals are well-cared for, they may have less reason to fear, but it won't go away completely. How a dog's fear manifests itself and what they might be afraid of will vary according to the individual. It is not necessarily common, but certainly not unheard of for a dog to be afraid of the dark. Although it may be influenced by their instincts, we need to look for the specific causes of this fear before we find the solutions. If you are saying to yourself ‘my dog is afraid of the dark’, let AnimalWised help you work out why.

Can dogs see in the dark?

There are various myths about dogs and their abilities to see. One such myth is that dogs can't see color. While their sight is much more limited in terms of color recognition when compared to humans, they can see some colors. Another myth is that dogs can see in the dark. While this isn't exactly true, the reason for the myth holds some clues to the quality of a dog's eyesight.

Although dogs can't see as well in terms of color, they do have greater ability in terms of light. Cone cells in the eye detect color and rod cells detect light. Dogs don't have as varied a set of cone cells, but they do have more rod cells in the retina which means they can better detect images in low-light scenarios. Their lens is also close to the retina, affording them a brighter image[1].

Perhaps most importantly, dogs have what is known as a tapetum lucidum. This is a reflective membrane at the back of their eye which reflects light back into the retina to better see an image. No dog can see if it is completely dark, but they can use even small amounts of light to registers shapes and forms. How sensitive is a dog's vision is very difficult to tell, but they can see well in both bright and low-light situations.

None of this means that a dog will never be afraid of the dark. Although they may be able to see in low-light, they can't see as well as can in brighter environments. Why then might a dog be afraid of the dark?

Physiological reasons your dog is afraid of the dark

While a healthy dog will have relatively acute vision, there are reasons why they may not be able to see well. Various vision problems can affect a dog, for various reasons. They may include:

  • Glaucoma
  • Epiphora
  • Corneal ulcers
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Dry eye syndrome (keratoconjunctivitis)
  • Cataracts
  • Uveitis
  • Cherry eye
  • Keratitis
  • Tumors/cancer

Some of these eye problems in dogs may be temporary and can be reversed with the appropriate treatment. Others cause long lasting damage or are a type of degenerative disease. In the latter cases, either treating the symptoms or finding ways to slow the progress of the disease are likely. Problems like cataracts may be helped with surgery, but it will depend on the advancement of the disease. There are some risk factors for eye problems in dogs:

  • Age: senior dogs are more likely to develop eye problems through wear and tear. Tissues are more easily damaged in older dogs, one of the reasons they need more regular checkups as they age.
  • Breed: genetic problems are linked to eye disease in dogs. Certain breeds are more likely to inherit these issues such as Cocker Spaniels and Poodles, but brachycephalic dogs such as Pugs are, according to a 2015 report in PLOS One, are twenty times more likely to experience vision problems[2].
  • Trauma: if a dog has been involved in a physical injury, they may have had their eyesight damaged.
  • Underlying health problem: certain diseases or types of infection may result in deterioration of the eye.

If a dog has vision problems, it can mean their eyesight is severely depreciated. These may not be very acute when there is sufficient light. However, when the lights go out and the dog is in the dark, it might cause them trauma. Their lack of vision can cause them to be scared, especially if they hear sounds for which they can't account.

A dog which has suddenly become scared of the dark needs to be first taken to the veterinarian for a medical evaluation. If there is a problem with their vision, it can either be treated or managed. They may need some extra care during the night or be left in a room with the light on. If a dog's vision cannot be treated, they may become blind. Read further with AnimalWised if you need to know what to do when a dog becomes blind.

My Dog is Afraid of the Dark - Causes and Solutions - Physiological reasons your dog is afraid of the dark

Psychological reasons why a dog is afraid of the dark

While we may think of how dogs and other companion animals can help with our own stress and anxiety, we too often neglect the causes of stress in the animal. There are many factors which can lead to anxiety in dogs, so we need to be attentive to their behavior and body language (see below).

Even humans aren't really afraid of the dark. Rather, they are afraid of what the dark represents. Dogs are the same. When the lights go out, your dog is vulnerable and any pre-existing anxieties are exacerbated. In these terms, being afraid of the dark is a symptom of some underlying anxiety. The cause of being afraid of the dark is, therefore, the cause of the anxiety.

Reasons your dog might be anxious include:

  • Poor socialization: if your dog has not been appropriately socialized as a puppy, they can develop generalized anxiety as a result. They become fearful of others and the dark can intensify this fear. Puppies should not leave their mother and litter before a minimum of 8 weeks, otherwise it is likely to negatively impact their socialization.
  • Trauma: if a dog has been traumatized in the past, then anxiety is likely to develop. This could be in the form of neglect, physical abuse or temperamental previous owners. This is something which can be particularly common in adopted adult dogs, especially if the trauma originates while they are young.
  • Changes in routine: dogs are routine orientated animals. They need to know their needs are being met, otherwise they can develop insecurities which manifest themselves as anxiety. Being left in the dark can bring these insecurities to the surface.
  • Chaotic home-life: if a dog lives somewhere they cannot get peace, it can lead to anxiety. Lots of people passing through, loud music and any disturbance in the home can mean the dog does not get the rest they need. A 2018 study reports that dogs need more sleep at nighttime[3], so if the home is active at night, it can disturb the quality and quantity of sleep they get. This means, when the lights eventually do go out, the dog might be grow anxious because they are not used to it.
  • Moving home: big disturbances such as moving to a new home can cause insecurity in the dog as they may fear the change of location will put their basic needs in jeopardy (food, comfort, companionship, etc.). When they are in the new home and they are in darkness, they may fear this new environment and show signs of anxiety.
  • Change in family dynamic: a new member of the family, whether animal or human, can also threaten a dog's sense of security, especially if they have been poorly socialized. This might manifest in being afraid of the dark.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons stress in a dog can lead to being afraid of the dark is due to separation anxiety. Separation anxiety occurs when a dog is stressed because they are not with their human guardian. It is something which commonly occurs in dogs which are left home alone for long periods of time. Poor socialization is a big factor, but spoiling the dog can also contribute.

We may love that our dog lavishes attention on us, but being too needy and anxious if we leave their presence is not healthy. It shows that they are scared of being alone and are therefore anxious and frightened when we're not around. When they are alone in the dark, their separation anxiety can be exacerbated as they may feel abandoned by us.

Symptoms of a dog being scared of the dark

If your dog is scared of the dark, then there are various ways this can manifest. Some of them will be fairly obvious, but not all of them:

  • Vocalization: howling and barking are common symptoms of a dog afraid of the dark. As soon as the lights go out and they are on their own, they may start to whine and gradually build up to louder vocalizations. They might also start barking immediately. Some dogs might settle down after a while, but cases of acute anxiety mean the dog might bark all night.
  • Pacing: if a dog is afraid of the dark, they will not easily be able to get to sleep. They may pace up and down the room or area in which they are supposed to be resting. They may also jump on furniture or scratch at doors.
  • Destructiveness: if a dog is frustrated because their anxiety is not being addressed, they may take it out on objects in the home. They can scratch at furniture, chew objects or even rip fabrics. While some of this might be part of healthy inquisitiveness on the part of the dog (especially in younger individuals), if destructiveness becomes acute it is a problem which needs to be resolved.
My Dog is Afraid of the Dark - Causes and Solutions - Symptoms of a dog being scared of the dark

How to help a dog which is afraid of the dark

The best way to help a dog no longer be scared of the dark is to treat this underlying anxiety. For example, if poor socialization is the problem, then you will need to socialize them properly. Take them out for more walks around other animals, provide positive reinforcement when they behave well and don't give them reason to be fearful of others. It is important to know that even adult dogs can be socialized, so you can read about socializing puppies and adult dogs to learn more.

If there are any stressors in the house (such as loud noises or busy areas), then you need to either remove them or keep the dog sufficiently away from them. Your lifestyle can affect the dog, especially if you work at night or have varied shift patterns. You may not be able to change this, but you will need to find ways to ensure the dog's well-being is looked after. You can increase their comfort levels and provide more reassurance the time that you are around.

Separation anxiety is tricky as we are not always able to provide the amount of time they seem to require. You may be able to have someone visit to give them some reassurance, but generally you will need to make them feel OK when you are not around. This is the same for when you go to bed and turn off the lights. Normalize your departure by not giving them too much attention when you leave and not making a big deal of when you return. You can read more about treating separation anxiety to help resolve this problem.

Ensure the time you do spend together is fruitful. Provide them with lots of exercise, give them positive reinforcement and don't scold them when they do something wrong. If a dog is happier when the sun is out, it means they should be less anxious when it's dark.

Some practical ways you can help the dog is to provide a nightlight for where they sleep. However, it's not a great idea to waste electricity. One way which might help solve this is to gradually lower the lighting in their sleeping area until you turn it off completely. Ensure their sleeping area is comfortable and give them their favorite toy for company.

You can also leave them in the dark completely for shorter periods and reward them afterwards when they behave well. Extend the periods of darkness until they are able to spend the whole night free from fear. Essentially, a fear of the dark is anxiety of what the dark represents. If you can alleviate their anxiety, then they should have nothing to be scared of when the dark comes. If you cannot find a way to treat them, you should seek the guidance of a qualified canine ethologist who can provide some practical ways to help.

This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to My Dog is Afraid of the Dark - Causes and Solutions, we recommend you visit our Mental problems category.

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