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Q: We adopted a terrier-mix puppy when he was 10 weeks old. He is 11 months old now and has become very skittish in the dark. We have trouble walking him after dark because he gets spooked by familiar sights/noises: cars passing, neighbors hanging out on their porches or taking out their trash, etc. Once he’s done with his business, he pulls frantically on the leash toward home. He doesn’t even like being let out in our fenced-in backyard and stays close to the doorway until he’s let back inside. He has started whining and crying in his crate at night again, like he did when we first got him. In the daytime, he’s fine and calm on the leash. We’re puzzled by his behavior and wonder if there is anything we can do.
Dr. Chris Miller, AtlasVet DC:
Anxiety in dogs is a very common problem that can be triggered by a variety of stimuli. While “being scared of the dark” isn’t a common diagnosis in many veterinary behavior cases, it makes sense that decreased light will strike an evolutionary chord that tells your dog to be on high alert. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration to understand what can be making a dog nervous.
When sudden behavior changes are noted in your pet, a consultation with your veterinarian is always a good place to start to rule out possible medical causes. In this case, poor vision could easily explain why the dog is more fearful at night. One of the first symptoms noted in patients that are having trouble seeing is strange behavior at night. A quick look with an ophthalmoscope and neurologic exam can help make sure that poor eyesight isn’t contributing to the dog’s night fears.
The first year of a dog’s life is extremely important when it comes to proper mental and physical development. Much like humans, phobias in dogs are most likely to form at an early age. Any negative experience that occurs can have a lasting effect and can be associated with the conditions in which they happened. Also, terriers are high energy dogs that were bred for their perceptive nature, their knack for hunting vermin, and for sounding the alarm if trouble is perceived. These traits can backfire in urban situations when there is poor light and multiple unexplained sights and sounds. Understanding a breed’s natural instincts can help prevent, or at least minimize, some undesired behavior.
If medical causes have been excluded then working on desensitization and counter-conditioning can be helpful in changing the way a dog feels in a particular situation. The best way to do this is with the help of a certified trainer or veterinary behaviorist. Introducing the dog to gradually increasing amounts of the fear-triggering stimulus over and over while rewarding the dog with positive treats or other incentives can help change the way the dog observes a situation. The keys to helping stop a seemingly small behavioral problem from snowballing into a lifelong phobia are early recognition, confirming that there are no health problems, and teaming up with a professional to help prevent negative actions and promote positive behavior.
Find Dr. Chris Miller on Twitter at @DCVet.