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Ask the pet expert: afraid of the dark

1:10 PM EST, January 4, 2013

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Is there anything I can do for a rescue dog that is afraid of the dark? She's fine going outside during the day but won't even go outside unless we go out first and coax her out once it's dark. We have a well-lit yard, but nothing seems to help. We literally have to stand next to her while she does her business at night or early in the morning.

While most dogs see better than humans in the dark, it would be reasonable to mention this to your vet and be sure your pup's eyes are functioning appropriately. In the meantime, you can teach your dog to rely on her nose, which is her strongest sense anyway.

You'll want to work in small increments — we're not going to get her through this by throwing her in the deep end of the pool in the beginning. Start by getting her just outside the door, but still close enough to the house so she feels comfortable. Let her eliminate, then praise her gently and scatter a small handful of her very favorite treats on the ground. Bits of hot dog or cheese work well for most dogs, but treats should be no larger than a pea. Resist the temptation to toss them out of her comfort zone; she'll get there soon enough. Let her use her nose to sniff and find the treats. As soon as she seems to give up the search, bring her back inside. When she starts to figure out the game, you'll see her venture a little farther outside her comfort zone to double check that she's not missing any treats. That's when you can start gradually tossing the treats slightly further away. Again, focus on baby steps, and don't push her too far. In time, she'll learn that it's safe and even fun to sniff around after dark.

This week's expert is Amie Glasgow, a Behavior & Training Coordinator with the Maryland SPCA (mdspca.org). Submit your questions to sun.unleashed@gmail.com.