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.


  1. What if your dog start crying loudly and frequently when she sleeps. It is waking everyone up several times a night. It has been going on for almost a week now.

  2. I took in an ancient dog 3 days ago; his owner fell and broke her hip. She already had memory issues and is going to a nursing home after hospitalization. A friend told me she laid in the bathtub screaming till a neighbor could get an ambulance there. A day later, when I heard about it, I rescued the dog from another neighbor who was wheelchair-bound and couldn’t care for it properly. So far, pretty good. But last night at 2am I heard what I can only call terrified screams coming from the living room. I thought the dog had fallen off the sofa and broken bones. But no, he was sitting up staring wildly into whatever nightmare he was having. I can only imagine — he’d witnessed his owner in extreme pain, gone to the apartment of someone he didn’t know, and now to my own apartment. Maybe he woke up and didn’t know where he was. Anyway, he was fine physically. I moved him into my bedroom next to the bed so I could stroke his fur till he went back to sleep. This is going to be a challenge for us both.


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