Written by Ella White
Studies have estimated that 11% of the population of the USA is afraid of the dark. We know that children are often scared to be left alone in the dark, and even adults might prefer the lights on during horror movie night… But since dogs can see in the dark, can they be afraid of it?
You might think that animals, by nature, can’t be scared of the dark. But some dog owners have noticed that once the lights go out and the house shuts down for the night, their pup starts to whine and exhibit signs of fear.
In this article we’ll look at whether dogs can be scared of the dark, and the possible reasons for their fear.
It is possible for dogs to be scared of the dark – which usually presents as symptoms of anxiety. Dogs might become scared or anxious in dark rooms, shadowy areas, and even outside at night.
However, dogs’ fear of the dark is not rooted in the same place as human fear of the dark – which is usually caused by our inability to see our surroundings. For dogs, it’s more likely that they can hear or smell something in their surroundings that has sparked their anxiety.
Dogs are able to see much better in the dark than us humans, thanks to the tapetum on the back of their eye. This structure reflects light into the retina, meaning they don’t need much natural light to be able to see clearly. A flashlight or even the light of the moon is enough.
However, in pitch darkness, the tapetum has no light to reflect meaning that dogs can see just as little as we can. In these situations, for example if your dog is locked in a pitch black room, they might appear to be scared due to the anxiety of being unable to see.
Dogs that are scared of the dark might pace, whimper and bark, salivate, and even have toilet accidents. If you’ve noticed that your dog becomes especially anxious or scared in the dark, it could be due to one of these common causes.
Older dogs and dogs suffering with poor health can struggle with a range of issues that might make them scared of the dark. Diminishing eyesight, cognitive dysfunction and disorientation, and anxiety can all lead dogs to feel uneasy when they’re left alone at night.
If you think your dog might be unwell, and that their health is causing them to become anxious, see your vet. They will be able to diagnose and treat your dog’s condition but in the meantime, you might like to take measures at home to help them feel more comfortable.
Comfort them and help them feel calm before bedtime, invest in vet-approved anxiety medications, and try a night light or motion-sensor light to help your dog adjust to the darkness.
If your dog’s eyesight is bad, or is gradually getting worse due to old age or illness, it can affect the tapetum’s ability to reflect light onto the retina and in turn mean that your dog is less able to see well in the dark.
Not only does this mean they are more likely to be scared of the dark, but their anxiety might be heightened by confusion about their failing vision. As well as being scary, not being able to see in the dark means dogs will struggle to find their way around and might bump into things.
To help aid your dog with poor eyesight, you could keep night lights or lamps on, particularly near their sight line to help them find their way around the house without getting hurt.
Many dogs – particularly puppies and rescues that have recently been introduced to the home – suffer from separation anxiety when they are left alone or their humans leave the house without them. This often presents with symptoms like barking and crying, toilet accidents, and destructive behavior.
Dogs with separation anxiety might feel this same fear when their family goes to bed. So in fact, they might not be scared of the dark per se, but of being left alone. It’s important to train dogs out of separation anxiety as it can be incredibly distressing for them – not to mention the damage they can cause to themselves and to your home during their bouts of destructive anxiety.
To help your dog feel less anxious at bedtime, try crate training them and leaving a lamp or motion sensor light on so they aren’t entirely in the dark. A crate gives them a safe space that they feel secure in, so once they’re used to being there in the day they will consider it a sanctuary when they’re fearful at night.
Training a dog out of separation anxiety can be tricky, particularly if they are a rescue with an unknown or troubled background. Speak to your vet or work with a dog trainer or behaviorist to help your dog feel more confident when you’re not around.
If your dog has experienced a traumatic event, has been abandoned, or has been forced to spend long periods in dark spaces as a punishment, it’s likely that they will have anxiety related to the dark. Like separation anxiety, this fear can present itself through aggression and destruction, barking, crying, and cowering.
Don’t leave a traumatized dog alone in the dark and hope they will get over it on their own through exposure. If your dog has survived trauma, it’s highly important to work – either at home or with a professional – to help them feel safe and secure in their new family. Though it can be frustrating at times, training your dog out of their anxiety will help them live a longer and happier life – and will make them much easier to live with!
Once you have got to the bottom of why your dog is afraid of the dark, you can take steps to help them overcome their fear.
If your dog has previously been fine in the dark and is suddenly showing signs of anxiety, it could be due to a recent trauma or because their eyesight is getting worse. In this case, have a vet check their vision. If your dog’s fear is due to anxiety or trauma, you might want to try to work on the issue at home before investing in professional help.
In this case, treats are your friend. Dogs respond well to positive reinforcement – plus praise and cuddles will help ease their anxiety. So slowly expose your dog to darkness, rewarding them with treats and praise when they are doing well.
Don’t expose them for too long – a few minutes at a time will do – and allow them to lead the pace of their exposure training. Help them feel relaxed and safe, and as if the dark room or garden is a fun place to be where they get treats and belly rubs. And if they begin to show signs of anxiety, turn the light on and try again later.
If your dog doesn’t like going outside at night, a light-up collar or lead and a flashlight will be helpful tools for evening walkies.
If it’s at home that your dog shows fear of the dark, make sure there is a source of light available in the room where they sleep.
As with any training, you’ll need time and patience. Dogs have an amazing ability to learn so give them time and make sure you’re paying attention to anything they’re trying to tell you.
If you’ve got any great tips on how you helped your dog overcome their fear of the dark, we’d love to hear them!