Most of us have seen our dogs moving strangely while they’re sleeping, like they’re running away from or towards something, and there’s tons of video evidence about it on the Internet. But even though we may find it funny or cute, sometimes it’s not so for them: they might be having a nightmare!
I was looking for some research on the matter but I couldn’t find papers or studies that directly confirm that dogs have nightmares. Some research have been done with rats and cats, one by Dr. Michel Jouvet himself, the “father of REM sleep”, but there is proof —as we’ll see below— that dogs have similar sleep patterns to humans, and we can also assume from our own experiences, that dogs do have nightmares.
How to Know My Dog Is Having a Nightmare?
You have likely seen your dog’s paws twitch and heard the growling and bubble sounds as your dog is fast asleep. and this is one of 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.
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. Here are some signs you may notice if you dog is having a nightmare:
- Tense jaw
- Fast-Paced Breathing
- Heavy Breathing
- Bubble-Like Noises
- Twitching whiskers
- Sweaty paws
- Eyes Moving and Eyelids Twitching
What Does Science Says About Dogs Having Nightmares?
There is no study I’m aware of that directly confirms dogs do have nightmares or even actually dream. However, we can assume they dream not only because of our own experience with them but because there are studies made on the matter with other animals, like rats.
A study conducted in 2001 at MIT 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 researchers come to the conclusion 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, it is fair to assume more complex animals like dogs dream as well. Dogs and other animals may dream about events that happened during the day or versions of events that happened earlier.
Dogs may also dream about their owners or common dog activities, but not all dog activities are positive. A dog’s nightmare may be about things they dislike or fear, such as taking a bath or water itself, going to the groomer, or getting chased by another dog.
Dogs also have great memories, so rescue dogs may be prone to have nightmares about events that happened when they were alone, abandoned or hurt. Dogs that have been rescued, abandoned or abused are more likely to suffer from nightmares than dogs that have always had a stable home.
It is also proven 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. Just like us humans, dogs can dream about their memories and they do it to process the emotions they’ve experienced during the day like chasing, playing or hunting.
Scientists reporting in the journal Physiological Behavior in 1977 recorded the electrical activity of the brains of six pointer dogs for 24 hours, and found that the dogs spent 44 percent of their time alert, 21 percent drowsy and 12 percent in REM sleep. They also spent 23 percent of their time in the deepest stage of non-REM sleep, called slow-wave sleep.
Dogs will go through a few different sleep stages, the two main stages being REM and SWS (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.
As humans, the REM stage 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.
What Should I Do When My Dog Is Having a Nightmare?
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 do.
The first thing to keep in mind is to never wake them up from a dream or a nightmare. Let sleeping dogs lie. A dog that is startled out of a frightening dream is more likely to growl or even bite out of fear.
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 cause 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.
If you feel like you must wake your dog, gently call out their name and wake them without touching them. This may wake them up, but in a soothing way and keeps everyone safe and comfortable in the aftermath of the bad dream. Gently calling their name will bring their mental awareness back to the present and away from their dream-state. It will also help ground them to their physical environment and reassure them you are near.
You can also invest a bit in making your dogs sleeping space more confortable. This will help keep them calmer and in a more relaxed state.
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.
Here are some other suggestions I found useful:
- Supply a cozy bed
- Use a crate to give them a secure sleeping spot
- Let them rest, even if they’re in the throes of a bad dream
- Remain calm and let the dream pass
- Do not startle them while dreaming
Have your dog had nightmares? Let us know how you reacted!