TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
We have a 5-month-old puppy named Lilly who is afraid of the dark. We can’t get her to go potty outside at night unless there is a full moon. We use a flashlight and have tried coaxing her with treats, but she’s so scared that she won’t eat them. Is there anything we can do to help her get over this?
The first question I have is whether Lilly has a problem with her eyesight. It is interesting that she is okay on nights when the moon is bright. I would have your veterinarian or an eye specialist check her eyes so you will know if there is a problem that could be corrected.
Whether there is a medical problem or not, you still need to help her learn to overcome her fear of the dark. The best way to help a fearful dog is to teach her cues. A cue can be a hand signal, a word or a sound. Since her problem occurs when it’s dark out, a verbal cue is probably the best choice. Also, if Lilly does have something wrong with her eyesight, she will rely heavily on audible sounds for instruction and information. When a dog is executing a cue, their brain is working in a productive way. This mental engagement can decrease the instinctual fear based fight or flight response.
The next question is what cues to teach her. Start with some easy, fun cues and work in an environment where she is comfortable. She can’t learn if she is frightened. I teach all dogs in my classes a skill called hand targeting. They learn that touching the palm of my hand with their nose is the trick. Start by putting some smelly treats in one hand then switch the treats to your other hand. Hold the smelly hand out and when she moves her nose forward to sniff it, say “Yes” or “Good” and give her a treat from the other hand. Once she masters this, begin to move your hand farther away from her. The cue for this trick is “Touch.” Many dogs seems to enjoy the Touch cue and once they learn to move toward the hand you can use Touch to move them from a stationary position.
The other cue I would work on is a leash walking or “Heel” cue. Hold a leash loosely in one hand with Lilly positioned next to you. There should not be any tension in the leash. Give her a cue like “Heel” or “Walk With Me” and start to walk. When she is walking next to you and the leash is loose, say “Yes” or “Good” and give her a treat. Gradually increase the distance she needs to walk with you before rewarding her. Remember, when she is executing a cue that she knows, she is less likely to be frightened. A motion oriented cue like Heel will help you move her away from the comfort zone of the house at night.
Once she has learned a few cues somewhere she feels safe, begin to work outside at night, preferably when there is a full moon. Start at a place where she will still take a treat and very gradually move her farther away from the house. Don’t expect her to magically walk down the street the first time you try. This process will take some time and patience, but should help her build confidence that nothing bad will happen.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.