There are hundreds of different dog breeds out there, and they’re all unique. But there is one thing that every doggo loves, and that’s getting some quality sleep. Even the most energetic pups like to catch some Zs whenever they can. And, just like cats, rabbits, and other pets, they dream when falling asleep. Unfortunately, that also means dogs can have nightmares.
Is this normal? Should you be worried? What can you do to protect the fur baby? What are the most common signs of a dog having a nightmare? Should you wake the four-legged bud ASAP? And finally, how can you ensure the pet mostly has good, happy dreams? Our experts have the answers!
Can Pups Have Dreams Like Humans?
Of course, dogs can (and do) have dreams. And, while mature canines get enough rest in 12–14 hours, pups often sleep for 18–20 hours. But, in contrast to humans, they don’t take an hour to enter the deep phase. Tiny dogs only need about ten minutes to start dreaming. That said, dogs usually don’t spend more than 10% of the nappy time in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase.
That’s where the dreams happen. The rest of the long sleepy hours are filled with the light/slow-wave phase. Like many mammals, dogs have irregular sleep patterns. They can wake up and go back to sleep multiple times during the day. Also, while humans have 4–5 sleep cycles per day (each roughly around 1.5 hours), dogs get up to 20 cycles, but they’re much shorter: 15–20 minutes.
Do They Experience Nightmares While Asleep?
What about bad dreams? Do they ever occur in the middle of a dog’s REM phase? Sadly, yes, dogs do have nightmares, but they’re not based on any images constructed by the pup’s brain. Instead, it will be a scary or painful experience in the fluffy chap’s life. That’s right: if the pet went through something stressful recently, that’s probably what the bad dream will be all about.
And the reason for that is simple: while the body is asleep, the brain is trying to process everything that has happened. Therefore, the events that took place earlier directly impact what dreams the dog will see when dozing off. In many ways, dreams are like a combination of images, visions, and emotions. This is true for humans, dogs, and many other pets.
How Do You Know It’s Not Just a Regular Dream?
The brain waves of pups are very similar to those of the human brain. And, again, dogs dream about things that happened several hours ago (like walking, running, or playing with their owners). Or it can be something that took place a while back. Smaller breeds have dreams more often, yet they’re rather short. But is there a way to tell whether it’s just a regular dream or a nightmare?
In most cases, yes, it’s possible to tell. For example, if the doggo is growling, yelping, crying, or biting its tongue, most likely, it’s having a very bad dream right now. If it’s a good dream, the pet will occasionally twitch (this happens during the REM phase), whimper, snore, and grumble, but those noises won’t be at all loud or disturbing. And let’s not forget about the feet paddling and ear flapping!
Why Do Dogs Twitch in Their Sleep?
Don’t worry—this is completely normal behavior. When pups enter the Dreamland, their brains minimize muscle movement to avoid accidents. The dog might be jogging, jumping, or fighting someone in its dream, but almost no muscle will move during the REM phase. In this regard, dogs are very much like cats and humans. Oh, and we say “almost”, because the twitching does happen sometimes.
A quick note: Michel Jouvet, a renowned French neuroscientist, is famous for running tests on animals to study their sleeping patterns. In one of his studies, he deliberately transected the pons in a cat’s brain1. The pons is a structure that induces paralysis during REM sleep2. So, with this part of the brain “on hold”, the kitty was walking and even grooming itself while in a deep sleep!
Does the Sleeping Position Matter?
Doggos that sleep on their sides feel safe and secure. In this position, their legs and tail have more room for “maneuvers” during the deep sleep phase. But that doesn’t mean catching Z’s while relaxed will protect the pup from nightmares or make them less frequent. Even a puppy that’s curled up in a cute tiny ball can have this unpleasant experience.
As for the so-called “Superman posture” (when the dog rests comfortably on its belly and the legs are spread out), it’s the go-to position for active pooches. Also, dogs rarely sleep on their backs unless they feel 100% safe, as that leaves their weak spot—the stomach—exposed.
Waking a Dog Up Amidst a Nightmare: A Good Idea or Not?
If you’re convinced that your four-legged bud is having a nightmare, the first impulse is probably going to be to wake it up. That’s a % natural reaction: we want to help our fur babies, give them a hug and comfort them. However, it’s NOT recommended to get handy (like shake the pet). Waking a doggo up in the middle of a bad dream this way will only startle it and make matters worse.
The thing is—the dog will still think that it’s asleep and might throw its fists at you. So, to play it safe, just let the doggo “beat” the nightmare on its own terms. While this might sound a bit harsh, most nightmares last for 2–3 minutes and won’t damage the pup’s mental or physical health in any way. Once the scary dream is over, the pooch will get back to careless snoozing.
What Else Can a Dog Owner Do?
You could try to reach out to the sleepy head with your voice. Be patient: the pup might not wake up the second you call its name, but consistency usually gets the job done. Don’t yell or make loud noises, though. Use a reassuring tone and give the fur baby time to get back into the real world. Now, if the nightmares have started recently, they might be caused by an illness.
While dogs are more vocal about their pain or discomfort than cats, it’s still up to you to recognize the signs and stay one step ahead of a potential issue. So, make sure to have the doggo checked. It could be that the pup is hurting or just feeling anxious or scared, and that’s what’s causing all those bad dreams.
Helping a Doggo Avoid Nightmares: A Quick Guide
Make the pup’s life as stress-free as possible. See that it gets enough quality food, playtime, and exercise (preferably outdoors). Early socialization is also very important. If the fur baby is open and friendly toward other pets and strangers, the chances of it having a traumatic experience will be much lower. Next, focus on the room/crate that the doggo sleeps in.
Try to create the perfect environment that makes the dog feel safe and content. Some relaxing music, a cushy bed, and the pet’s favorite toys will help with that. Speaking of the crate, it needs to be big enough for the furry bud not to be cramped. If nothing helps, a stress-relief calming coat could do the trick. While there’s no science proving the efficiency of anxiety wraps, they do work sometimes.
Here are some extra things to consider:
Is It Really a Nightmare or a Seizure?
Sometimes, it can be a bit confusing because dogs having a nightmare act similarly to pups that have seizures. So, how do you know which one is it? First, a pet that’s having a seizure will keep its eyes wide open—that won’t happen in a dream (no matter how bad it is). The legs will twitch, yet the paddling won’t be very smooth; instead, the movements will be rather fierce and chaotic.
Bowel movement is another common sign. Essentially, a seizure is a rapid, rampant spike of electrical activity in the brain’s cells/neurons. This burst of energy often causes twitching, stiffness in the dog’s muscles, and other abnormalities. So, that’s where all these side effects come from. And one more thing: you won’t be able to reach the dog or wake it up from a seizure.
Dogs are precious, and seeing them suffer is never easy. That’s why many owners rush to “save” their pups from a bad dream. However, that’s not always the best course of action, especially if you start shaking or lifting the dog instead of calling to it with your voice. While nightmares can be scary, they are usually very short, and the pooch won’t remember them.
With that, it’s very important to make sure the fur-heavy family member is safe and comfortable in their bed. This way, you’ll be able to help it avoid most nightmares and live a healthy, happy life. Also, don’t forget to consult with a veterinarian if something’s bothering you in the dog’s behavior.
Featured Image Credit: Magda Ehlers, Pexels