No matter how old you are, it’s pretty normal to feel afraid or at least a little uneasy in the dark. Because there’s so much you can’t see, it’s easy to hear a rustle in the bushes or a creak in the hallway and imagine the worst—like a wild animal or a home intruder.
If you’ve noticed your pup seems afraid during nighttime walks, cries or howls at the door when you put her to bed, or bounces off of the walls when she *should* be going to sleep, you might wonder: Can dogs be afraid of the dark, too? And if not, why is my dog freaking out at night?
Read on for the answers, with insight from experts in dog behavior.
Can Dogs Be Afraid of the Dark?
“Are dogs afraid of the dark?” is an ever-Googleable question, but it’s rare that dogs actually have a standalone fear of the dark. Chances are, your veterinarian won’t diagnose your pup with “nyctophobia,” even if it might seem like darkness is the problem.
Why? For one, dogs can see better in the dark than we can, says Dr. Mary R. Burch, a certified applied animal behaviorist and the director of the American Kennel Club (AKC) Family Dog Program. That’s because their eyes have more rods, or light-sensitive cells, than ours do.
Although dogs don’t experience darkness the same way we do, certain factors could still cause a dog to feel afraid in the dark. For instance, a dog with failing eyesight might find herself bumping into furniture or bushes at night, which could make her feel confused and anxious when it gets dark outside. Even bad memories from puppyhood linked to darkness or the nighttime could cause your dog to begin behaving strangely when that triggering time comes around again, says Emma Bowdrey, an ISCP-trained (International School for Canine Psychology) dog trainer based in Prague.
While there’s not a great deal of data related to dogs and darkness-induced anxiety, dog breeds that are typically more susceptible to anxiety might be more likely to get anxious at nighttime, says Dr. Burch. These include toy breeds such as Italian Greyhounds, Chihuahuas, and Yorkshire Terriers as well as Bichon Frises, Border Collies, and German Shepherds.
Reasons Why Dogs May Seem Afraid of the Dark
All dogs are different and how they process information can vary. So, it’s important to consider your dog’s behavior, health and home life to figure out why exactly she gets anxious in the dark.
Here are a few possible reasons why your dog may appear to have a fear of the dark:
Her eyesight gets worse at night. Sometimes, getting older can contribute to anxiety. If your dog seems to stumble around or even become more aggressive at night, she may have poor eyesight—which tends to affect dogs even more in the dark, says Bowdrey. Because a fear of the dark is such a rarity, it’s key to rule out eyesight problems before you assume your dog has a purely behavioral issue, she says.
Being separated from you stresses her out. Got a clingy pup who follows you everywhere? Your dog may get anxious at night when you tell her to get in her crate or bed due to separation-related anxiety rather than a fear of the dark, says Dr. Burch.
She’s had some rough nights in her past. Certain experiences can lead a dog to associate darkness with bad things like being attacked by another dog when the rest of the family has gone to bed or hearing loud and terrifying fireworks during a nighttime walk, says Bowdrey.
Then, there’s also evolutionary history to take into account. Since dogs once needed to be on guard from predators who could sneak up in the darkness, being alert at night is sort of the smart thing to do, says Dr. Burch.
Why Is My Dog Freaking Out At Night?
Of course, there’s a difference between a healthy dose of alertness and a total freakout. A seriously anxious dog is painful to watch, as she may whine, bark, tremble, or even drool excessively or lick at herself compulsively—just as you should be settling into bed.
Ultimately, reasons for these concerning behaviors can range vastly, Dr. Burch and Bowdrey agree. The problem could be as simple as your pup needing more exercise during the day so she’s tired out and ready to settle down come bedtime. However, she could also have underlying health or behavioral problems at the root of her darkness-related fears.
If your dog is unable to relax at night—and you’ve tried increasing daily exercise—it’s a good idea to visit your veterinarian to rule out a medical cause. If your dog comes back with a clean bill of health, consulting a behaviorist or dog trainer may help you adjust your pup’s routine so that you can both get a good night’s sleep.
What to Do If Your Dog Seems to Be Afraid of the Dark
Dog phobias are no fun. So, if you suspect darkness is stressing out your pup, here’s how to get her the relief she needs:
Try a dog night light. If you believe the cause of your dog’s anxious behavior is related to darkness, it’s very easy to test this theory, says Dr. Burch. Simply leave your pup with a dog night light to see if it helps.
Keep your pup close. Got a dog who barks like the house is burning down every time you leave them alone in a dark room? If possible, allow her to settle down closer to you—like on a dog bed in your bedroom. This may help calm her down, says Dr. Burch.
Schedule play time before bed. Set aside some time for a walk, run, game of tug-o’-war, or whatever other activity you know will wear out your dog so that she’s not so high-energy at night.
Try calming products. There are a wide variety of calming product available to help ease your dog’s anxiety. These include everything from calming beds and sprays to hemp oil products and anti-anxiety chews. Ask your veterinarian or dog trainer for advice on picking the right product for your pup.
Ask for professional help. If you can’t figure out what’s getting under your pup’s skin, call your veterinarian and consider asking them for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. They’ll help identify and treat exactly what’s causing your dog’s apparent fear of the dark.
If nighttime freakouts have you worn out and low on sleep, know that dog phobias (no matter the cause!) can be treated with training, medication, and calming remedies. Even if your dog isn’t actually afraid of the dark, no pup should have to suffer through nighttime anxiety, so be sure to seek out help if your dog needs it.