Dogs can be very active, but they also love to sleep. However, at times their sleep does not even seem that restful because they are whimpering, twitching, and sometimes kicking their legs or running in place. A dog moving in his sleep is very normal and is one of the ways he is similar to you. Theorists and researchers believe that your dog is dreaming just as you do, and his movement is his reactions to his dream. It is important to know signs of seizures in dogs to ensure that your dog is simply dreaming and not suffering from a medical problem.
The Root of the Behavior
A sleep study that records brain waves is called polysomnography. When conducted on dogs, it shows that dogs actually have similar sleep and dream patterns as you do. Myoclonus is involuntary muscle twitching that both humans and dogs do, most often while sleeping. Almost all studied animals exhibit signs of myoclonic twitches, especially infant animals such as puppies. Like humans, dogs cycle through sleep cycles with periods of wakefulness, deep rapid-eye-movement (REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement or slow-wave-sleep (SWS). As he first falls asleep your dog enters into SWS, where his mind goes to sleep. Muscle tone remains but mental processes are shut down in SWS. This is a transitional state, so it is a lighter sleep and the muscles are not completely relaxed. Your dog will appear at rest and calm in SWS. REM sleep, however, produces brain waves that are irregular and rapid and testing shows dogs have heightened senses of mental activity. It is during the REM phase that your dog will most likely move in his sleep, whine, breathe rapidly or even bark. You may also see his eyes moving back and forth behind his lids and at times his eyes may even be slightly open. When humans are awoken during REM sleep, they often report they are dreaming and the same is most likely true for dogs.
Typically, dogs spend roughly twelve percent of their sleeping time in REM sleep. Puppies and elderly dogs spend more. Theorists believe puppies need that time to deal with all of their newly learned information. Elderly dogs have aging mental processes so theoretically it takes longer for them to process their thoughts thus spending more time in REM to do so. Another theory for more physically active sleep in elderly dogs and puppies is that the part of the brain that inhibits large muscle groups during sleep, called the pons, is less efficient in elderly dogs and not fully developed in puppies. Also worth noting is that for reasons that have yet to be discovered, the size of your dog also determines his dream cycles. Larger dogs have longer dreams but they are less frequent while smaller dogs have shorter dream cycles that are more frequent.
Encouraging the Behavior
Knowing that your dog dreams can warm your heart, and you may also smile and laugh a bit as you watch him wag his tail, run his legs, and give a gentle woof. If he is particularly active, you may ponder as to the activities of the day and how he must have had a great one. But what if he seems like he is upset? It appears that dogs do have nightmares, just as humans do. He may be crying out in his sleep. Your inclination is probably to go and comfort him, to wake him from this terror. This is not recommended. The old adage ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ has a practical basis. Just as you can be a bit incoherent and confused when woken suddenly out of a dream, so can your dog. And because he is a dog, he does not discern dreams from reality as well as you do. You may be waking him from a dream where he needs to protect himself. This could lead him to be aggressive towards you when in his wake time that is the last thing he desires. In the event that his dream seems to be a real problem, it is recommended that you call to him loudly enough to wake him. When he does wake, keep talking to him in a soft and compassionate voice and call him to you so that you can then reassure him and provide comfort once he is fully awake and conscious.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Involuntary movement while sleeping is typical, but it is important to know the difference between myoclonus and a seizure. If you call your dog’s name and he wakes up, he was dreaming. However, if he does not wake easily he could be stuck in a seizure. A sleeping dog will have his eyes closed or partially closed while a seizing dog will have his eyes wide open. A sleeping dog will move around while a dog seizing will be rigid and stiff in his movements. Moving during dreams is short and periodic while a seizure tends to last longer. A dog coming out of dream may be groggy, but a dog coming out of a seizure will be completely disoriented. He may vomit, drool, have an accident, or have difficulty walking. Talk to you veterinarian as soon as possible if you fear your dog is having seizures.
Dogs move when they sleep because they cannot help themselves. While in REM sleep, he is dreaming. Myoclonus, involuntary muscle twitching, is seen in most animals and is more common among infants and elderly. Like humans, dogs dream and involuntarily move and respond to their dreams with movement and sound. Do not wake your dog and if you feel he is having a nightmare, only wake him by calling his name. If your dog’s movements are more rigid, his eyes are open, and he cannot be woke up by having his name called he may be having a seizure and will need to be seen by a veterinarian.
By a Black Lab lover Zoe Byer
Published: 02/15/2018, edited: 01/30/2020