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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Expert Advice May 2017 Issue

Dear Doctor: Let Dreaming Dogs Lie

Q My dog does a lot of dreaming - you can see her limbs twitching a little. But she also often emits little cries or other sounds while dreaming that seem to indicate she’s in distress. Should I wake her at those times to relieve her from whatever anxiety she may be experiencing?

Leora Sadler
Redondo Beach, California

Dear Ms. Sadler,
A What you’re describing does not sound like nightmares, or even bad dreams, necessarily. Good dreams for dogs often involve twitching along with soft sounds. Granted, if the twitches are jerky and the body is stiff, the dog could be having a seizure. Dogs also sometimes twitch more during sleep when they feel cold. But what you’re describing doesn’t sound like the twitches of seizures. So let her remain asleep. If you feel she might be cold, you can always gently place a blanket on her without waking her.

Even if your pet is having somewhat unpleasant dreams, consider that just like people, dogs — social and emotional animals that they are — dream to process things they have experienced, commit new things to memory, and work through emotions. They may not always feel entirely comfortable as they do this in their sleep, just like people don’t always have wonderful dreams. But to interrupt the brain’s working to resolve issues during sleep will only hinder the psychobiology that restores equilibrium.

Some dogs, on the other hand, do experience nightmares. Some even have night terrors, where they scream in their sleep and are clearly afraid. Should you wake a dog in the throes of a nightmare? This is a tough call. Just as it’s hard to watch a loved human having a nightmare, so it goes with loved dogs. If your dog is growling or crying or otherwise appears distressed during a dream, try to wait it out. Dogs, like people, go through cycles in their sleep, including REM cycles, and “seeing” a nightmare through to its conclusion is part of this natural sleep progression.

But if your dog is clearly screaming or otherwise frightfully disturbed, you might consider gently rousing her by softly speaking her name. Don’t touch a dog to rouse her from night terrors. You could end up bitten. When she comes to, reassure her with warm words and loving petting that she is safe. If it happens regularly, or even rather often, consider taking her to a behaviorist to help her work through her fears so she doesn’t have to keep returning to them through bad dreams. It’s very possible that she had a traumatic experience (or experiences) that she’s having difficulty getting past. 

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