There are few cuter things than watching a beloved dog dream – from his paddling legs to the little noises he makes in his sleep, it can be a heartwarming thing to witness, as any pet parent will attest. However, it can be worrisome to see one’s pooch in the midst of a nightmare, which might include twitching, growling, crying, or whimpering. As science has pointed out, dogs can dream just like humans – and that includes nightmares.
While it’s easy to imagine a pooch dreaming of a favorite toy or playing with a beloved family member, dogs – just like people – don’t always experience the most pleasant imagery while sleeping. In fact, a dog’s bad dreams may be quite lifelike – and as terrifying as his human counterpart’s. This article will explore dog nightmares and dreams, including helpful tips to assist dogs who may be suffering from disrupted sleep patterns, sleep-related canine anxiety and other behavioral issues.
Your Dog & His Sleep Cycle: Understanding The Canine Brain
Quite similar to their pet parents, dogs have a predictable cycle of sleep, too. Moreover, studies have shown that the brains of people and pooches structurally resemble one another. For example, canines actually experience similar electrical activity to humans during their sleep cycle. Based on this data, scientists believe dogs dream nearly the same way as people do.
To understand a dog’s sleep cycle, it’s important to look at the two stages of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-rapid eye movement sleep. These sleep phases are usually the time when dreams occur for dogs and humans. In fact, scientific studies have indicated that the most memorable and intense dreams take place during REM sleep for both pups and people. This is because REM sleep is a deep restful phase when the brain (canine as well as human) is trying to process challenges that have taken place during waking hours. In addition, important memories are committed to the “long-term” storage section of the brain during REM sleep. Consequently, once a dog hits REM sleep, he’s open to experiencing very realistic dreams – which may include nightmares.
Dogs Having Nightmares: What Is My Pooch Dreaming About?
Although it’s perfectly natural for canines to have REM activity during slumber, some dog owners may wonder: “Is my dog having nightmares?” While humans have active imaginations that elicit all kinds of detailed scenarios, thoughts and emotions – which sometimes manifest themselves as scary nightmares – a dog’s brain isn’t quite as creative. As a result, most scientists theorize a dog’s dreams are based primarily on his past experiences and memories, since canines aren’t hardwired to envision the unknown.
With that said, dogs are generally thinking – and dreaming – about ‘dog’ things, as illustrated by a widely-accepted theory by Dr. Stanley Coren in Psychology Today. For example, a canine might dream about everyday activities he engages in, such as spending time with his family, chasing squirrels, playing a game of fetch, or digging in the dirt. But just as a dog may have plenty of pleasant memories that he’s able to re-live in the form of dreams, the canine brain will also process actual events that were frightening or anxiety-provoking to the dog during his waking hours – thus manifesting the information as a nightmare.
Some real-life experiences that may trigger dog nightmares/bad dreams include:
- Abuse: Dogs who were abused, mistreated, abandoned or neglected may experience nightmares. Any sort of trauma in a dog’s past can manifest itself in his sleep in the form of a bad dream: signs may include the dog shaking, barking, or displaying aggressive or agitated forms of behavior while sleeping. Recognizing a dog’s past history is essential to understanding why he’s experiencing frequent nightmares – and formulating a compassionate plan of action to treat canine PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Although it’s perfectly normal for dogs to experience the occasional nightmare, dogs who have suffered excessive trauma may benefit from a number of treatments, which may include natural CBD supplements for dogs, a consultation with a dog behaviorist, or other similar course of therapy. Speak with a trusted vet to determine the best way to care for rescue dogs who suffer from frequent nightmares, since, like people, every pooch is different – and requires individualized attention.
- Fear/Anxiety: A dog who fears something – for example, taking a bath or being attacked by another dog – may suffer from stress or anxiety as a result of that real-life event. In turn, it can trigger memories during sleep that lead to recurrent bad dreams. Signs to observe may include snapping at imaginary things, growling, or twitching while asleep.
Experts recommend paying close attention to the dog to ascertain his fears, and showing him extra love and attention during the day to help alleviate his anxiety. Try to make otherwise unpleasant activities (such as bath time for dogs) more enjoyable so that the negative stigma is removed from the activity. Creating positive associations with places and things can help to calm fearful dogs. A professional dog trainer that specializes in canine behavior modification can assist concerned pet parents if it becomes an ongoing issue.
- Pain/Discomfort: Another cause for nightmares: canine chronic pain (such as joint pain due to dog arthritis) and excessive noise. As a result of his discomfort, a dog may exhibit any number of signs – including an inability to lie still, pacing, readjusting, or problems with his sleep patterns (i.e., sleeping too much or too little) – which may result in nightmares.
Since bad dreams can be triggered by pain, discomfort and disruptive sounds, it’s important to make dogs as comfortable as possible; creating a cozy sleeping environment free of loud noises can really help sensitive pups.
In any case, be sure to provide pooches with a designated sleeping area, such as a crate with his favorite blanket and toys, or a soft doggie bed that he can call his own. Additionally, some experts recommend swaddling dogs in a blanket to promote a sense of security while alleviating anxiety and night terrors. Pet parents may also want to consider a ThunderShirt to calm nervous pups, particularly for those who suffer from very loud noises (e.g., thunderstorms, fireworks, etc.)
It’s also important to recognize signs and symptoms that may indicate more pressing health conditions, including:
- Urinating/defecating during asleep
- Sleeping with eyes open
- Body appears tense/rigid
- Difficulty being woken
If any of these signs are observed, the dog may be experiencing canine seizures as opposed to a bad dream. In some instances, canine seizures and nightmares are mixed up, which can pose a serious danger to the affected pet. Therefore, it’s imperative to contact a vet immediately to determine next steps.
Dogs & Bad Dreams: Should You Wake Up A Sleeping Pup?
Although it may be instinctual to wake up a dog who appears to be having a bad dream, it’s not always the safest move for pet parents. So when is it okay to rouse a sleeping pooch?
- Give him a moment: For starters, consider the length of time: if he’s only been whimpering or twitching for a moment, give him a few minutes. Waking up from a deep sleep can be very disorienting for anyone (dog or human), so it might take him a couple of seconds to realize he’s awake. Remember – if he’s in the midst of a scary nightmare, any sudden movements or contact may result in the dog accidentally lashing out, which may entail growling, kicking, nipping or even biting. For most canines, bad dreams usually last only a minute or so, and he’ll likely fall back to sleep without human assistance.
- Wake him gently if necessary: If the dog appears to be having a nightmare for more than a couple of minutes, owners may want to wake the dog – but proceed with caution. For example, most canine behaviorists recommend waking a dreaming pup using the human voice, not the hand. Begin by saying the dog’s name in a quiet tone, and gradually increase in volume if he doesn’t wake up right away. Another option: turning on soft music or the TV can also help rouse sleeping pups. Ultimately, the objective is to gently awaken the dog from his nightmare without startling or scaring him.
How To Help Your Dog Avoid Nightmares: What Every Owner Should Know
As discussed, it’s totally natural for dogs to experience the occasional bad dream – after all, even a well-adjusted pooch can have a nightmare. However, it can be just as distressing for pet parents as it is for pups when the dog in question is constantly experiencing nightmares and disrupted sleep. For canines who are having chronic nightmares that cause them to whimper, cry, growl, bark, kick and/or lash out in general, owners may want to figure out a game plan to make the animal more comfortable. First and foremost, knowing the dog’s history (particularly if he’s a rescue) is helpful in identifying any preexisting trauma or abuse issues so that owners may proceed accordingly. Next, make sure the dog has a clean bill of health – identifying physical pain and/or noise sensitivities can provide insight into making him more comfortable.
Finally, familiarizing oneself with a pup’s likes, dislikes, and behavioral cues can help to foster a better understanding between dogs and owners. By spending quality time during the day with the family dog – including positive reinforcement and reducing stigmas that may have formed by negative associations with specific people, places or things – pet parents can help dogs overcome learned fears and anxieties that may be triggering troublesome nightmares. A trusted veterinarian or dog behaviorist can provide further expertise, educating dog owners and providing sleep-deprived pooches more peace of mind – so everyone in the household can finally get some much-needed rest!
- “Why Dogs Have Nightmares.” Wag! (wagwalking.com), (no publish date), https://wagwalking.com/behavior/why-dogs-have-nightmares. Accessed March 10, 2020.
- King, Amber. “What To Know If Your Dog Has Nightmares.” I Heart Dogs, (no publish date), https://iheartdogs.com/what-to-know-if-your-dog-has-nightmares/. Accessed March 10, 2020.
- McManamna, Arah. “True Story: My Dog Was Having Terrible Nightmares. Here’s What I Did.” The Dog People (Rover.com), (no publish date), https://www.rover.com/blog/dog-nightmares/. Accessed March 10, 2020.
- Clinebell, Vicki. “How To Tell If Your Dog Is In Pain And What To Do To Help.” Dogtime.com, (no publish date), https://dogtime.com/dog-health/dog-behavior/22203-how-to-tell-if-my-dog-is-in-pain-and-what-to-do-to-help. Accessed March 10, 2020.