Science tells us that dogs have dreams much like humans do, and the process is very similar. You have likely seen your dog's paws twitch and heard the growling and bubble sounds as your dog is fast asleep. As we know, not all of the dreams we have are good dreams and often times we can have nightmares.
Since dogs dream like we do, it is safe to assume that dogs can have nightmares as well. Instead of them chasing a squirrel up a tree, maybe in their nightmare, the squirrel is chasing them around and they are running from it. Let's explore why dogs have nightmares and what you should and should not do if they are having a bad dream.
Signs of a Dog Having a Nightmare
If your dog is having a nightmare, there are a few common signs you can look out for. If they are having a pleasant dream, your dog may just have twitchy paws, move their ears a bit, or you can see their eyes moving or their eyelids twitching. There will likely be no signs of any blatant fear or stress in your dog's sleeping state and they will appear to be peaceful and content in their sleep.
However, if your dog is having some kind of nightmare, you may notice that they are growling in their sleep along with some other signs like moving eyelids and twitching paws. You may also hear them bark a little bit or even howl while they are dreaming. This could indicate that something is frightening or bothering them as they are dreaming. Your dog could also whine and whimper in their dream state.
If you notice your dog wake up from a deep sleep suddenly and like something has startled them, this may also indicate they just woke up from a nightmare. It is similar to when humans wake up frantically from a nightmare in the middle of the night to find themselves sweaty, hot and flushed. After your dog wakes up, you can often feel they have damp and sweaty paws.
History of Dogs Having Nightmares
It has not been until recently that science has confirmed that dogs do actually dream. A study was conducted in 2001 at MIT that used rats to run a maze during the day while they monitored their brain activity. Later at night while the rats were in REM sleep stage, the researchers again measured their brain activity and found that the rats were dreaming. In fact, the brain activity during their waking state and their sleeping state were so similar, the rats were likely dreaming about their experience running through the maze from earlier in the day.
Since it was confirmed that animals like rats dream, more complex animals like dogs dream as well. Research shows that dogs, and other animals, dream about events that happened during the day or versions of events that happened earlier. Dogs will also dream about their owners or common dog activities, but not all dog activities are positive.
Dogs that suffer from nightmares may dream about things they dislike or fear, such as taking a bath, going to the groomer, or getting chased by another dog. Dogs also have great memories, so rescue dogs will often have nightmares about events that happened when they were alone, abandoned or hurt.
For example, one dog owner rescued a dog who had a particularly rough life before she was adopted. Almost every night, the dog would wake up in the middle of the night screaming and squealing so loudly that she would wake up her owner. The dog's noises were so loud and terrible the owner often though the dog was in pain or something was attacking her. However, in reality, the dog was just waking up from a terrible nightmare, likely about a past event that traumatized the dog.
Science Behind Dogs Having Nightmares
So know that we know your dog can have nightmares and what they may have nightmares about, what exactly happens during a bad dream? Firstly, dogs have a very similar dream pattern to humans. Dog's brains are structurally similar to ours, so their dream process is similar as well.
Dogs will go through a few different sleep stages, the two main stages being REM and SWS or Slow Wave Sleep. The SWS stage of sleep is when a dog's mental process and brain activity has reduced, but the muscles and reactions are still the same as if they were awake. From there, they will enter the stage of REM sleep where their body will fully relax and the mind is still working at full ability - thoughts in the mind are still working rapidly and vividly.
REM is where your dog will experience their nightmares. The nightmares will feel very real and vivid in their minds, which is why we see twitching paws, growling, snarling, and even getting up and walking around from time to time. Studies on dreaming dogs have found that your dog will enter into REM and begin dreaming about ten to fifteen minutes after they fall asleep.
Training Dogs Who Suffer from Nightmares
You cannot necessarily stop your dog from having a nightmare, but you can do a few things to help keep them more comfortable if they suffer from regular nightmares.
The first thing to keep in mind is to never wake them up from a dream or a nightmare. Waking them up from an intense dream can confuse and startle them and they may even think they are still in the dream. This can lead to safety issues for both you and your dog. Your dog may go to lunge or bite at your unintentionally or even hurt themselves by getting up too quickly. Waking them up in the middle of their sleep can also disrupt their sleep pattern leaving them tired and cranky after waking up. It is important to let them sleep when they need to.
You can invest in a DAP collar or place an essential oil diffuser where they like to sleep and diffuse relaxing and calming essential oils like lavender and ylang-ylang. This will help keep them calmer and in a more relaxed state. If you witness your dog in the middle of a nightmare, you can try and call their name gently and softly. This may wake them up, but in a soothing and non-physical way. The process of gently calling their name will bring their mental awareness back to the present and away from their dream-state. It will help ground them to their physical environment and reassure them you are near.
Another option is to play soothing music or leave the TV on for some calming and grounding background sound. This can help keep your dog calm and relaxed while they sleep.
Written by a Samoyed lover Kayla Costanzo
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 03/02/2018, edited: 03/31/2021