Most folks will agree that there's nothing quite as adorable as seeing your dog bark in his sleep. We like to think that they are chasing squirrels in the park or playing with their favorite toy. How can you be sure your dog is having pleasant dreams, though and not a nightmare?
How Do Dogs Dream?
Dogs dream during REM sleep just like we dream during REM sleep, but dogs reach this stage much faster than we do. For dogs, REM sleep usually occurs within 15 to 20 minutes after falling asleep and can last just a few (less than five) minutes. Research has shown that dogs do in fact dream. While people may dream about the unknown or the future, though, most scientists believe dogs dream about memories, both in regard to their owners and past experiences.
Do Dogs Have Nightmares?
A dog having a nightmare may be dreaming about something they don't like or even something that gives them anxiety. This can vary depending on the dog, but most dogs don't appreciate going to the vet or getting a bath/going to the groomer. Additionally, if your pup is a rescue, even though he's living in a good environment now, he may still dream about his pre-rescue life.
How Can You Tell if Your Dog Is Having a Dream or a Nightmare?
Being able to tell whether your dog is having a good dream or a nightmare may be tricky at first, but there are some subtle differences. The more you observe your dog while he is dreaming, the easier it will be to pick up on the various signs to watch out for. Generally, if your dog is having a pleasant dream you may see his paws twitching, his ears flicking, and his eyelids twitching. You should see no overt signs of stress in your dog. Nightmares, on the other hand, may cause your dog to growl in their sleep in conjunction with twitching paws and eyes. They may even howl, whine, whimper, or even alarm bark. If the nightmare is stressful enough, your dog may suddenly jerk awake just like you or I might jerk awake from a particularly jarring nightmare.
What to Do if Your Dog Is Having a Nightmare
If your dog is in the middle of a nightmare it's important that you don't wake them up unless absolutely necessary! Doing so may startle them and they may snap or even bite! Although it may be distressing for you, remember that most nightmares only last a few minutes. Oftentimes, they will return to a restful sleep in no time at all.
If your dog's nightmare lasts longer than a few minutes, waking them up would be a way to stop the nightmare, but be careful in how you do it. Always wake them up with your voice, never a touch. You can gently say their name, gradually getting louder if needed. Playing soft, gentle music or turning on the television might also gently rouse them from their slumber.
How to Help Prevent Nightmares
Although there is little you can do while your dog is in the midst of a nightmare, there are things that you can do to help prevent nightmares. Dogs will often have nightmares about things that cause them anxiety. Helping your dog get over his fears can not only help him in his waking hours but during his slumber as well.
Training methods like desensitization and classical counter conditioning are ways to help your dog with this. Desensitization is just a fancy word for gradual exposure to a stimuli that brings about the undesired behavior. If your dog hates nail trims, gradually exposing him more and more to seeing the nail trimmers, having his paw picked up, having the trimmers just touch his nail, are all ways to desensitize your dog to getting his nails trimmed.
Classical counter conditioning is a training term that essentially means changing your dog's emotional response to a particular stimulus. It is the pairing of a stimulus that would normally cause an undesired behavior or cause your dog stress with one of your dog's favorite rewards, be it a treat, toy, or head scratches. So you can pair your desensitization to nail trimmer sessions with your dog's favorite snack. If you are struggling with these methods at home or don't even know where to begin, your vet and/or positive reinforcement based dog trainer can help you and your dog out as well.
While we can't talk to our dogs to figure out what they dream about or what they have nightmares about, thanks to scientific research, we can safely say that they do in fact dream and they do in fact have nightmares. Thankfully, though, there are things we can do to help prevent nightmares and ensure they only have pleasant dreams. If you're concerned about your dog's nightmares, seek the advice from your veterinarian and trainer for ideas and ways that you can alleviate your dog's fears.