People who do not own dogs often ask if it is possible for dogs to dream, and the answer to this is a very resounding yes! Just like people and other mammals, dogs go through distinct sleep cycles throughout their rest periods, including periods of REM sleep, when dreaming occurs. Anyone who owns a dog will almost certainly have witnessed their pet playing out a dream at some point, and canine dreaming may be accompanied by various obvious behaviour such as sighing or making audible sounds, twitching, fidgeting, or even appearing to run in their sleep!
However, much as is the case with human dreams, canine dreams can be something of a mystery, and you are unlikely to be able to tell for sure what your dog is dreaming about, or why. One thing that most dog owners can identify through experience though is if their dog appears to be having a nightmare, and this can be just as distressing for the owner to witness as it is for the dog to sleep through.
But if your dog is having a nightmare or seems to be prone to them, is there anything that you can, or should do about it? Read on to find out!
We can never know for certain what is going through our dog’s heads when they are dreaming, just as it is highly unlikely that any other person can know what your own dreams are about when you are asleep! But if you think about how your own dreams connect to your day to day life, you can gain something of an insight into the normal dreaming patterns of the dog.
Like people, dogs dream about the things that have happened to them during the day or in the past, things that they wish for and things that they expect, and while asleep, the brain wanders unmonitored to play out scenarios and possibilities that may not ever have happened in real life.
Just as this can lead to good dreams of chasing a ball, being loved or doing something that your dog really enjoys, so too can it lead to nightmares, although hopefully, these will not be particularly common.
As your sleeping dog cannot communicate with you directly, you will need to observe their sleeping behaviour to make a judgement on whether or not they are having a happy dream or a nightmare. Whining, grumbling and paddling of the legs may simply indicate excitement or that your dreaming dog is involved in something that is causing them to run the normal range of canine emotions, but if your dog is crying in their sleep, appears tense, afraid or stressed, you will normally be very aware of this.
Understandably, if you think that your dog is having a bad dream, it is only natural to wonder what you can do to help them through this, much as you might with a child going through night terrors. It might seem instinctively obvious that the best thing to do is wake your dog up from their nightmare, but in fact, this is not recommended for a variety of reasons.
First of all, if your dog is ripped from an involved dream state back into normal wakefulness, they will be confused and disoriented, and in their head, still very connected to the dream. This can cause them to respond aggressively or lash out, as well as exacerbating their unhappiness by the process of confusion. Added to this, you will interrupt your dog’s normal sleep pattern, which is never a good idea. A dog dreaming, even through a nightmare, needs to complete their sleep cycle, and in some cases, playing out their dream or nightmare naturally is an integral part of this.
There are various things that you can do for your dog to help to direct their nightmare to a nicer place or reassure them, without waking them from sleep. First of all, consider using a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) collar or diffuser in the area where your dog sleeps, to instil a general sense of comfort and peace in your dog before they go to sleep.
If your dog appears to be in the throes of a nightmare, try calling their name softly and warmly from a safe distance, as dogs will register the sound of their name even when asleep, and this comforting, grounding process may help to re-direct their nightmare to more positive thoughts.
You might also wish to consider playing some form of soothing music, or leaving the sound of the TV or radio on while your dog sleeps, to help them to relax and feel comfortable.
Don’t sit or stand too close to your dog when they are having a nightmare, in case they wake up suddenly and lash out; but if you can do, stay in the same room, so that when your dog does awaken, they can seek comfort or come round to see you and hear you, and feel reassured that everything really is alright.
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