If you have ever watched your dog sleep, you may have noticed his legs moving or his mouth twitching. He may even yip or growl a little. Since dogs are very physically active and spontaneous, it would make sense that a dog would act out his dreams. Perhaps he is dreaming about running or barking at someone–doing the kinds of things that dogs often do. But how do you know if your rescue dog is having normal dreams or nightmares?
Most dogs will move, twitch, let out muffled growls or barks as a normal part of their REM sleep routine. However, some rescue dogs who have had abusive or frightening pasts exhibit heightened vocalizations and extensive movement. If they are flailing about; tossing and turning; or whining loudly, it may be a nightmare. Fortunately, you can do a lot to help. Probably, the singular, most important way you have already helped is by bringing him home to a new, loving environment.
What is the Difference Between Normal Dog Dreams and Nightmares
Dogs sleep a lot! They usually average 12-14 hours per day compared to our 7-9. And, like humans, they have similar sleep cycles like REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-rapid eye movement. Dreams can occur in both cycles but are most vivid in the REM stage. Dreams are a way that both humans and dogs process actual events in their lives to try to make sense of them or work through problems.
Dr. Stanley Cohen. Ph.D. wrote about dog dreams in an article for Psychology Today. He wrote that dogs have a similar brain structure as humans and process electrical brainwaves in the same way. He also pointed to MIT studies of rats that demonstrated that rats do, in fact, dream.
Dogs do not have the same imagination as humans have. So, their dreams are probably less creative and based more on actual events in their lives. Cohen tells the story of a man whose dog had nightmares about getting a bath. The dog in the story was terrified of water and always hid between his owner’s legs to escape getting wet. After one such bath by the man’s wife, the dog had a nightmare that seemed to reenact his bath day. He woke up suddenly and darted between his owner’s legs shaking and shivering.
These types of dreams seem to be normal for most dogs. Every dog will have some type of scary or challenging event to deal with in their daily lives. While dreaming, a dog’s eyes will move rapidly behind their eyelids; their legs may move a little bit; their mouths may twitch; they may even release a muffled bark or yip. This is all pretty normal.
When a dog’s movements become more pronounced and they also shiver, shake, cry out, whine, or growl loudly, they could very well be having a nightmare. This may be especially true if it becomes a repetitive event several nights a week. Dogs who have been abused, abandoned, or exposed to some other trauma may be trying to work through their fearful past via their dreams. Researchers have done studies that show that dogs can have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) just like humans after living through traumatic events or long periods of stress. See my post on Rescue Dog PTSD for more information.
Some dogs’ nightmares become so severe, that they will actually lunge or snap at someone near them. They may even get out of bed and run around the room. In these cases, medication and crating may become necessary. See more about some of the challenges rescue dogs have in my post How to Comfort and Heal a Rescue Dog.
Do Rescue Dogs Re-Live their Past?
Dogs do remember their past, even though not in the same way that humans do. But there is a preponderance of evidence that they can recall past events. Therefore, it is no wonder that rescue dogs can have nightmares.
Short Term Memory
Dogs have what is known as associative memory. Certain triggers, sounds, smells, places can bring back an instant recall of a challenging or horrific event. They may not even be aware of the specific memory that is triggering their sudden sense of fear and anxiety. But some sounds or triggers can send them into a tailspin. This often happens during their waking hours, so undoubtedly it haunts their dreams as well. Too us, their sudden acting out may seem illogical as we cannot make the connection and may know little about their past. But for rescue dogs who have been subjected to poor treatment or traumatic events, it is very real for them and very scary.
Long Term Memory
There is some evidence that dogs also have episodic memory which is another term for long-term memory. Dogs may not remember specific situations and feelings, but they do have expansive memories of their past living circumstances such as being abandoned to a shelter for a long period of time. I wrote a post “Do Rescue Dogs Remember their Stay at a Shelter” which dives into this whole topic of past memories.
My two rescue dogs seems to remember being left at a kennel/daycare facility for nine months. They were adopted out as sibling puppies for five years but were given back to the kennel where they were adopted. The staff took great care of them, however, a kennel is a noisy place. Night after night they were subjected to the sounds of a lot of other dogs who barked or howled. They no longer lived in a warm, cushy home. And they probably missed their family a lot.
Although these dogs were not abused or neglected, they developed some anxieties especially when separated for brief periods from me or each other. My guess is that they felt a lot of grief and insecurity after losing their home and being placed in a kennel. But with the exception of one or two times, their dreams have been, thankfully, pretty peaceful.
What You Can Do to Help
Probably the most important thing you can do is to provide a very stable, loving environment. I put both of my dogs together in a large crate with a huge stack of blankets for the first few nights. I think they felt secure in the crate. But they really wanted to be close to me at night. As soon as I allowed them to sleep outside the crate in a doggie bed, they both decided that sleeping with me was better!
See my funny story, The Argument–Sleeping in Mom’s bed or the Doggie Bed.” Even though I tell this story tongue-in-check, on a more serious note, I think they desperately needed to snuggle with me to feel secure. They had probably slept in the same bed with their prior family members and really missed it. Each night they curled up next to me in the nook of my back, legs, or arms and slept soundly all night. And I couldn’t resist!
So, make your new dog feel welcome and at home. If he has nightmares, do not try to rouse him, as he may lash out or bite you. Plus waking anyone from a nightmare can be startling for them. Instead, if your dog seems truly tormented, you can gently call his name in a soothing way. You can also play calming music and wrap him up at night in blankets or a ThunderShirt, which people often use during thunderstorms or on the 4th of July. The Thundershirt vest can be wrapped snuggly around your dog to give him a feeling of reassurance and protection.
Consider Medical Interventions
If your rescue dog’s nightmares seem to get worse or more intense, take him to a vet. It will be important to rule out medical issues such as seizures or some other neurological or mental disorder. Your vet can also prescribe anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax or Prozac to help calm him down. dogs usually do heal from past trauma. They are very resilient. However, in some severe cases it may take a few years for a dog to fully recover. That does not mean, that he will not make progress. With your love, attention, and care, he can heal a little bit each month and year in a loving home. Pleasant experiences will slowly replace bad memories.
Just be patient sensitive, and kind and you will help a dog who is badly in need of love recover ad have a happy life. It may not always be easy, but you can make a huge difference for your new furry friend!