Can Dogs Have Nightmares? What To Do When Your Dog Has A Bad Dream


Have you ever wondered what happens when your dog closes its eyes and sleeps?

Dogs and puppies spend a significant amount of time sleeping and playing. In fact, a dog will sleep an average of 12 to 14 hours each day. As puppies grow, they often spend the entire day sleeping! That’s because they need as much as 19 hours of sleep every day.

So during all that sleep, can dogs have nightmares? Let’s find out!

How Do I Know That My Dog Dreams?

Science indicates that dogs do, in fact, have actual dreams. Scientists have researched the brain waves of dogs through their sleep cycles and compared the results to human brainwaves. 

Through this process, researchers found that just like humans, dogs experience REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep patterns. Dogs also experience SWS (Slow Wave Sleep) just like their humans.

REM is a deep sleep state during which dreams may occur. Dogs spend 12% of their sleeping time in this dreaming phase.

What Do Dogs Dream About?

After establishing that dogs do dream, researchers naturally wanted to discover what exactly dogs dream about too.

Michel Jouvet was among the first scientists to study REM sleep and find out what animals dream about. To get answers to his questions, the scientist used cats as a study subject. 

As his research progressed, he disabled the pons, which is the part of the cat’s brain that inhibits movement during deep sleep. When a cat is asleep, the pons tell the muscles to relax, preventing the cat from enacting its dreams.

Once the pons could no longer inhibit the cat’s body movement during REM sleep, the cat performed motions that he would do when he was awake. The cat walked around, groomed himself, and even stalked imaginary prey while asleep!

Based on the evidence, Michel Jouvet realized that the cat was dreaming about the activities he performed during the day when he slept every night.

Recently, researchers have replicated Jouvet’s research by temporarily disabling the pons in several dog breeds. Under controlled conditions, the dogs were allowed to perform what they were dreaming about. 

The results matched what everyone had been curious about: dogs dream about regular dog activities.

As they dreamt, the dogs acted out the routines they usually enjoyed while they were awake. For example, dogs that liked to chase after birds would run around in their sleep, appearing to chase another creature.

Does My Dog Have Nightmares?

Since scientists have established that dogs dream similarly to humans, they also have nightmares just like their owners do. However, given the lack of vivid imagination in dogs, they are not dreaming about monsters from Planet X.

Rather, dogs dream about their owners, events, and activities. These three primary areas are not always positive, and that’s typically where a dog’s nightmares come from. 

Dog nightmares are caused by things that they fear or dislike. For example, common nightmare themes may include taking a bath, visiting the vet, or being chased by other dogs.

It’s interesting to note that rescue dogs have more frequent nightmares than other dogs do. If you have a rescue dog, it may be dreaming about the trauma it endured before coming into your care: abandonment, fear, or physical pain.  

Signs That Your Dog Is Having a Nightmare

If your dog is experiencing a nightmare, there will be some obvious signs that you can observe.

When your dog is having a pleasant dream, it may move its ears and eyes slightly, and its eyelids and paws will twitch. While this is happening, the dog will appear peaceful in their sleep. There will be no signs of stress or fear.

However, if your dog is having a nightmare, they tend to growl in their sleep. The growling will be accompanied by shifting eyelids and twitchy paws.

A dog having a nightmare may even let out a bark and even a howl while it is sleeping. These are signs that your dog is frightened or stressed by something in its dream. A nightmare will also cause whining and whimpering.

Sometimes, your dog will suddenly jump up from a deep sleep and look very startled. This indicates that your pup could have just woken up from a very frightening dream.

Humans sometimes wake up abruptly from a nightmare and find that they are flushed, sweaty, and hot. Your dog may experience similar sensations due to the activation of its amygdala during a frightening dream.

Top Signs That Your Dog Is Having a Nightmare

  • Growling
  • Barking
  • Whining 
  • Whimpering
  • Panting 
  • Sweaty paws
  • Twitchy eyelids and whiskers

Additional Signs to Watch Out For

  • Eyelids twitching
  • Fast-paced breathing 
  • Heavy breathing 
  • Bubbling noises 
  • Eyes moving 

Does My Dog’s Breed Get More Nightmares Than Other Breeds?

People differ in how they dream and how often they dream. Scientists believe that it is the same way with dogs.

Studies have shown that small dog breeds tend to dream more frequently than large dogs. The dreams of small dogs also tend to last for a shorter period of time. Large dog breeds have fewer dreams, but the dreams last longer than smaller breeds.

Since the activities and thoughts of your dog remain vivid in their sleep, I can safely assume that its regular thought patterns tend to determine its dreams.

This means that behaviors that are common or specific to a certain breed will likely show up in its dreams. For example, a Labrador Retriever will usually dream about playing fetch with a ball more than a pug will.

Does My Dog’s Sleeping Position Affect Its Dreams?

Dogs will sleep in any position they feel comfortable with and can still have a nightmare. 

Side Sleeping

Your dog will sleep on its side if it’s feeling relaxed. You will observe relaxed limb movement in your dog’s dreaming phase. A dog this relaxed is unlikely to be experiencing an unpleasant dream. 

Note: If your dog lies on its side against your body, it is a display of affection. To your dog, such naps serve as a great time to bond. 

Curled Up in a Ball

If your dog is curled up, you won’t be able to observe much movement going on. Your pup will still dream in this position, it will just be accompanied by minimal body movement.

Sleeping in a curled position means that your dog only feels safe to fall asleep while the vital organs are protected. It may also be feeling a bit cold, and it can conserve warmth by sleeping in that position.

A curled-up position can also indicate that your dog thinks it may need to get up quickly. This sleeping position admittedly isn’t as relaxed as side sleeping, and it may indicate a more troubled sleep. 

Superman Sleeping Position

In the superman sleeping position, your dog lies on its stomach with its legs splayed out. 

This sleeping position is common and comfortable for playful puppies who are prepared to jump on their feet in a split second to play.

Puppies are more relaxed in this position, and you will observe them dreaming since they have less control over their body. A relaxed puppy means pleasant dreams.

Back Sleeping

When your dog sleeps on its back, its paws are up in the air. Your dog sleeps in this position only if it’s very relaxed and feels safe in that room. This also indicates a very peaceful sleep.

Note: Sleeping on their backs is a very effective position that can help overheating dogs to cool down.

How to Train a Dog Who Gets Nightmares

Humans may have a lot of superpowers, but I cannot completely stop our dogs from having any nightmares. If your dog is having a nightmare, there are several ways that you can help it be comfortable.

Most importantly, never wake up a dog having signs of a nightmare or a dream. 

Waking a dog up from a deep dream state will confuse and alarm them. They often wake up thinking that they are still in the nightmare. This could cause your dog to unintentionally hurt you or themselves. For example, it may jump or bite you or hurt itself by getting up too quickly. 

Waking a dog in the middle of the sleep cycle has other consequences, such as disrupting their sleep pattern. When this happens, your dog will be tired and in a bad mood. Let your dog sleep through their bad dream because they need to.

Luckily, you don’t need to feel helpless when your dog is in distress. You can do several things to help your beloved pup.

Ways to Help Your Dog

Invest in getting your dog a DAP collar.

Alternatively, if you already own an essential oil diffuser, you can place it near their nap spot. Place calming lavender or ylang-ylang into the diffuser. Doing this will help keep your dog in a calm and more relaxed state. 

Call your dog’s name softly.

If your dog is having a particularly bad nightmare, call its name gently and quietly to draw them away from the nasty dreamscape. Calling your dog’s name softly will help it to gradually adjust its mental state to the present without an abrupt or startling transition.

Reassure your dog.

After your dog experiences a bad dream, you can soothe it by reassuring your dog that you are near.

Play soothing music.

The steady, pleasant noise will be a comfort to your pup. You can also try leaving the TV on, which works for some dogs. Playing music or TV grounds them in their physical environment and keeps them relaxed when they sleep. 

Create a dedicated sleeping spot for your dog.

This gives your dog the opportunity to identify this corner with a sense of safety and familiarity. It also helps fulfill the den instincts that every dog has, which can help your dog feel more secure.

Leave a blanket with your scent with your dog.

You can leave your human-scented blanket on the dog bed or on the floor where your dog likes to sleep if you don’t allow your dog to sleep in your bed. Something with your scent will remind your dog of you, which can have a very soothing effect.

Control the temperature of your dog’s sleeping area.

If you want your dog to sleep comfortably, make sure that the sleeping spot doesn’t get too hot from direct sun exposure. Also be sure to check for drafty areas that may make the bed too cold.

Help your dog get plenty of exercise and activity.

During the day, play your dog’s favorite games and take it on a walk or jog to get some exercise. This will help your dog release any anxiety, stress, and pent up energy. It will give your dog pleasant topics and memories to dream about when it sleeps!

Consider purchasing an orthopedic dog bed.

If your dog is older or injured, it will undoubtedly be more comfortable in an orthopedic dog bed. Although this may sound expensive, there are a lot of affordable orthopedic dog beds that your dog will be happy to sleep in.

Visit the vet regularly.

Regular pet checkups at the vet can go a long way in preventing issues that could impact your dog’s sleep and overall health. If your dog’s nightmares seem persistent or extreme, visit your vet to rule out any illnesses that could be causing discomfort and disrupting its sleep. 

Provide a low-stress environment for your dog.

Earlier, I mentioned that trauma, fear, and stress play a big part in your dog’s nightmares. Although there are many aspects you can’t control, you can definitely familiarize yourself with your dog’s stressors and then minimize them.

Create a consistent routine.

Following a regular, predictable schedule provides your furry companion with some structure it can rely on. For example, do your best to schedule regular times for things like playtime, walks, and food. As naptime or bedtime approaches, your dog will comfortably fall asleep on its own.

Follow the advice of behavioral scientists and dog trainers.

If your dog’s nightmare phase persists, consider seeking out advanced tips recommended by specialists. Two examples that may help include desensitization and classical counterconditioning:

  • Desensitization utilizes progressive exposure to the stimuli that evoke the undesirable behavior. For example, if your dog hates nail trimming, slowly expose it to more and more of the process. Show your dog the nail trimmers, pick up its paw gently, and touch his nails with the trimmers without trimming. Over time, this can desensitize your dog to its fear.
  • Classical counterconditioning changes your dog’s negative emotional response to a stimulus by pairing the stressor with something your dog likes. Using the example of the nail trimmers again, this could involve following up trimming or exposure to the trimmers with head scratches, a yummy treat, or a fun toy. 

For maximum effectiveness, combine your desensitization techniques with classical counterconditioning.

If you feel like you’ve tried everything and nothing helps, take a video of the concerning behavior or to show the vet. Observe your dog both in his wakeful and sleeping state. Document everything that you think is not the dog’s usual behavior. 

In case the nightmare episodes are extremely violent, use a padded crate to contain your dog temporarily. This is both for your safety and his. 

What’s the Difference Between a Nightmare and a Seizure?

There are times when your dog may exhibit symptoms similar to a seizure during a nightmare. When a dog is dreaming, the body language often includes twitching muscles and padding paws. Although seizures have similar symptoms, they present differently. 

Here are some helpful ways to distinguish between nightmares and seizures:

  • In a dream, the twitches are gentle and only last for a short time.
  • When a seizure occurs, the convulsions are violent and last for longer.
  • Seizures make the limbs stiff and rigid. 
  • A dog experiencing a seizure drools or foams at the mouth.
  • When seizure convulsions are over and the animal regains consciousness, it will appear confused and distressed.
  • When a dreaming dog wakes up, it may appear sleepy but otherwise fine without signs of distress.  

Seizures in dogs are unusual motor responses generated by the brain. Dreams, however, are natural electrical impulses. When your dog moves its limbs a lot in its sleep, it could just be dreaming about chasing balls and squirrels!

Final Thoughts on Dog Nightmares

The answer to the question, “Can dogs have nightmares?” is yes, they can!

When your dog has a nightmare, remember that this process is normal and that everything is likely okay. However, persistent bad dreams accompanied by extreme emotional responses are a cause for concern.

For your peace of mind, don’t hesitate to consult with your dog’s vet or an animal behaviorist. Vets also have the ability to write prescriptions that can alleviate your dog’s anxiety, while dog behaviorists will help you identify the source of your dog’s anxiety and fears.

Although there is only so much within your control, I hope this guide helps you with practical tools that will give your dog more peaceful sleep. Be sure to reference back to our tips and suggestions to help comfort and soothe your dog before, during, and after nightmares.

Love you guys,

JTB

P.S. If you’re new to this world, you may want to check out my Ultimate Guide for First Time Dog Parents. It’s a great reference to get you started on this journey.

 

This article has been reviewed by our Editorial Board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our Editorial Policies.

Disclaimer: The Can My Dog articles contain information based on the individual research and opinions of the author of the site – who just so happens to be a dog. How you utilize the information given is completely up to you. Proceed at your own risk.

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