Can Dogs Have Nightmares?

Closeup of a Yorkshire Terrier sleepingResearch strongly suggests that dogs can dream, and in fact the process probably isn’t all that different from humans. But then, if you’ve ever owned a dog, you likely don’t need a scientific study to tell you that. You’ve probably seen your pooch twitch and make strange muffled noises in its sleep. Maybe you’ve even wondered if the dog was dreaming about chasing a squirrel.

But what if it’s the squirrel who is chasing your dog? If dogs can have dreams, it’s pretty much a given that they have nightmares as well. Without a canine mind meld, there’s no telling for sure. However, the signals are certainly there for certain dogs at certain times – whining, extreme twitching, startled or fearful behavior on waking, etc. If that’s not a nightmare, what is it?

Maybe the more interesting question is, what exactly do dogs have nightmares about? It’s impossible to say for sure, but there is at least some basis for speculation.

Nightmare Scenarios for a Dog

Squirrel with red eyes

“Welcome to your nightmare, Fido.”

People have nightmares about things they fear, so it’s reasonable to assume that dogs do too. The difference is that humans are capable of imagining lots of possible – and even many impossible – scenarios. Dogs aren’t good at anticipating the future or visualizing possibilities, so it could be that their dreams are more closely tied to memories.

What sorts of memories? In most cases, probably the short-term variety. A brain study using rats indicated that they tended to dream about whatever activity they were doing when awake (in this case, running a maze). The same might be true of dogs. In other words, the impetus for most nightmares in dogs could be a recent event – a trip to the vet, toenail clipping, altercation with another animal, or something else that made a huge negative impression.

That said, dogs clearly do have long-term memories (after all, they don’t just remember the latest trip to the vet – they recall that the vet clinic is a bad place every time you pull into the parking lot). And, as with humans, memories involving abuse or other traumatic events probably stick with dogs for a long time. It’s not a stretch to suppose that long-held unpleasant memories could be the cause of many canine nightmares.

What to do if Your Dog is Having a Bad Dream

Experts say you should let a sleeping dog lie, even if that dog seems to be having a whopper of a nightmare. A dog can snap any time it’s abruptly awakened from a deep sleep. But if that dog is waking up from a harrowing scenario, it’s that much more likely to bite – or even attack.

If you do decide to wake the dog, you should attempt to do so by gently calling its name. If that doesn’t work, try speaking progressively louder until the dog wakes. The point is to wake the dog up without startling it (if at all possible).

While it can be upsetting for both you and the dog, nightmares generally aren’t anything to worry about. However, if the dog is acting unusually stressed to the point where you’re concerned, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact your vet.

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