My Dog Has Nightmares — Here’s How We Dealt With Them

My rescue dog has nightmares. By Clarissa Fallis/Pets Adviser

Poor Addisen has had nightmares, but seems to be getting better. By Clarissa Fallis/Pets Adviser

One of a psychiatric service dog’s jobs is to awaken their handler while they are having a nightmare. Last week, I was working with my new service dog in training, Addisen, on how to awaken someone during a night terror. But I was not expecting that I would have to interrupt a night terror of Addisen’s instead.

The first time this occurred, it was 2:30 in the morning; I awoke to terrified, violent screaming coming from this 11-pound chihuahua mix.

I quickly flipped on the lights to see if she had fallen off of the bed, had gotten stuck somehow or if I had been suffocating or hurting her unintentionally. But nothing obvious was wrong. She had woken up and was screaming like someone was trying to kill her. My roommate thought I was throwing Addisen out the window!

The second time, the screaming started around 4:00 in the morning. This time, it was loud and violent…then trailed off to a noisy whine…and then back into a scream, all of which totaled about 5 minutes.

Do Dogs Have Dreams? Nightmares?

The next day I drove an hour and a half to a holistic veterinarian. Addisen was most likely having a nightmare, the vet told me, and suggested a supplement called Composure to help with the dog’s anxiety at nighttime.

It has been one week on Composure, and so far so good — no ear-shattering scream in the middle of the night. It got me to thinking, though: do dogs really dream?

According to psychologist and dog behavior expert Stanley Coren, dogs definitely dream. He proved that while dogs are dreaming, their brain waves look very similar to the brain waves of humans while dreaming. People dream to process memories, commit new things to memory and to work out emotions. Because dogs are social and emotional animals like us, we can assume dogs dream for the same reasons we do.

Watch this dog dream and bark about it:

Given that Addisen had been pulled from the death row of a high-kill shelter in Georgia, I can only assume she was dreaming about her traumatic past. Like any other caring dog owner, I want to wake her up when this happens, but it’s not always best to awaken a dog during a dream.

Should You Wake Your Dog Up During a Dream?

Service dog chihuahua

Signs of a dog that is having a bad dream include growling and crying.

Common signs that your dog may be having a good dream are twitching, kicking and making quiet noises.

If your dog is growling, crying, appears disturbed or in my case, is screaming, you can assume he is having a nightmare or a bad dream. I suggest waking your dog up if you feel he is having a bad dream.

The only way you should wake your dog is through your voice. Do not touch him because you could be putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Dogs that are woken up mid-nightmare have been known to growl and bite.

If your dog is urinating or defecating after a particularly violent “dream,” you should go to see a vet quickly. Dogs will typically lose control of their function to eliminate appropriately after a seizure. Night terrors and seizures can sometimes look very similar.

To be on the safe side, I suggest taking a video of your dog’s episode and showing it to your vet. If he is, in fact, having frequent nightmares, consider a natural anti-anxiety supplement like Composure or Calm Shen. If your dog responds to this the same way Addisen has, you will find it is a very simple solution to a violent problem.

If you are interested in learning more about dogs and dreaming, I recommend Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know, by Stanley Coren.

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  • katwazz

    hello, my dog recently had a operation and since has changed her sleeping behaviour. She is appearing to have nightmares and I think this is causing her a little distress, she is fine when awake and happy but this has really upset her. She hates the vets anyway and has to wait in the car till they are ready to see her as waiting is too much for her, she shakes all over and becomes vocally distressed. She is 10, now on medication for arthrisis and I want to use something which is natural and won’t damage her liver or kidneys. Any suggestions ?

    • Darla Hill

      There is a natural aid called “Composure” for anxiety and nightmares that works well. Poor dear, I wish her well and hope this helps you and her!