Is My Dog Having Nightmares?

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, CBD dog treats, 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 mos