We’d all love to believe our sweet pups are having pleasant dreams while they sleep. We’d like to think they’re imagining them self running through fields, chasing little critters, and eating a bottomless dish of treats. Unfortunately, your dog’s dreams might be just the opposite. Rather than dreaming of the best doggie-life possible, they may be having nightmares about the worst.
Scientists have long known that dogs dream while they sleep, just like humans do – granted, your dog’s dreams are probably nothing like your dreams, but the mechanism is basically the same. Since humans have both good and bad dreams, it stands to reason the same is true for dogs; and it’s actually pretty easy to tell when a dog is having a bad dream.
Not only are experts certain that dogs do have nightmares, they are beginning to understand what might cause those nightmares, and what they may even be about.
What Causes Dogs to Have Nightmares?
When your dog is having a nightmare, they’re dreaming about something that scares or upsets them. This could have something to do with a negative experience they’ve had, or it could be the result of your dog just feeling bad in general – e.g., stressed out, angry, anxious…
This is based on the fact that people have nightmares for the same reasons. Suppose you were recently in a bad car accident. The trauma of that experience could likely cause you to have nightmares about it. Or, suppose you have a deadline at work that you’re way behind on, and tomorrow you have to explain to your boss why it’s taking so long. The anxiety of that dreaded meeting may cause you to have a nightmare about it.
Dogs have fears and worries, too, and those anxieties cause them to have nightmares.
What Do Dogs Have Nightmares About?
You might want to brace yourself because this next bit of information may be a little upsetting…
There’s a really good chance your dog is having nightmares about you. Clinical and Evolutionary Psychologist at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Deirdre Barrett, theorizes that dogs are most likely to dream about their owners.
Human beings tend to dream about things they’re interested in and fixated on. Our dreams are mostly a visual experience, and they don’t have to follow a logical pattern, so the things we’re thinking about end up being pretty weird and abstract when we dream about them. Nevertheless, if you’ve been obsessed with fixing up an old car recently, then you’re likely to have dreams about cars, no matter how weird they are. Dr. Deirdre Barrett believes there’s no reason to think dogs dream any differently.
The only real difference is, your dog doesn’t have a lot of hobbies and interests, or a job, or a social life, or even much self-awareness. Therefore, your dog’s main fascination is probably you. Your dog relies on you for literally everything, which not only causes them to be loyal to you, but to think about you all the time. They want to know what you’re doing, where you’re going, when you’re coming back… they’re obsessed with you.
When your dog has a nightmare, it’s likely they are dreaming about you doing something upsetting to them – e.g., yelling at them, punishing, abandoning them… The thing they’re most obsessed with – you – is the thing they’re most likely to have the most anxiety about.
However, there are plenty of other things your dog could be having nightmares about. My dog loves chasing rabbits; maybe she has nightmares about giant rabbits chasing her. Who knows? We can’t actually see dogs’ dreams, so we just have to guess. More realistically, though, any trauma your dog has ever experienced could manifest as a nightmare; so if, for example, they were once attacked by another dog, that could likely be something they have nightmares about.
How Breed Affects Nightmares
Stanley Coren, the author of Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know (Norton, 2012), and a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia, found that the type of breed a dog is will have an affect on their dreams. It’s all pretty simple and straightforward: different breeds dream about what their particular breed does.
Hunting dogs dream about hunting, whereas lapdogs dream about being on a lap. It all goes back to the fact that dogs, due to their lack of imagination, mostly dream about their daily activities and experiences. What’s particularly interesting, though, is that Coren observed a correlation between dog size and dreaming.
Small dogs have more frequent, short dreams; whereas larger dogs have fewer but longer dreams. However, since all dogs sleep a lot – much more than humans – you can bet your dog is having lots of dreams, or possibly nightmares, regardless of their size.
Dog Nightmare Symptoms
Even though dogs sleep much more frequently than humans, mostly taking frequent cat-naps – oh, the irony – they go through sleep cycles just like people. They shift through cycles of wakefulness, rapid-eye-movement – REM – sleep, and non-REM sleep. For most dogs, dreams begin to kick in around 20 minutes after they’ve fallen asleep, so that’s about the time you can expect to see signs indicating your dog is dreaming.
Some of the things dogs do while they sleep are the same whether they’re having a good dream or a bad dream. Their paws and eyes may twitch, and they may wiggle and squirm around a bit, but these are not indications that their dream is either pleasant or unpleasant, only that they are dreaming.
Here are the symptoms to look for that indicate your dog is having a nightmare:
- Whimpering, whining, or howling
- Growling or light barking
- Heavy, fast breathing
You should also know, dog’s can develop sleep disorders just like humans. For example, some dogs are narcoleptics. While having a nightmare, your dog may exhibit a sort of “doggie sleepwalking” syndrome, in which they mimic their actions in the dream they’re having. Bear in mind, they cannot sleepwalk like humans do. They won’t get up and start walking around the house whilst still being complete zonked out, but they will jerk and move their legs around as an expression of what’s going on in their dream.
What to Do When Your Dog Has a Nightmare
The moment you realize your dog is having a nightmare, the best thing to do is actually nothing. You might be tempted to wake your dog, but that could startle them, which could be unsafe for you and your dog. For example, your dog may be having a nightmare about being attacked, and if you suddenly wake them, they might not differentiate between you and the attacker in their dream.
You can, however, do things to prevent your dog from having nightmares. Basically, just make your dog happy and be nice to them. A happy dog is less likely to have nightmares than a dog that’s sad, stressed out, etc. Click here to learn how to tell if your dog is sad.
Did you know scientists have evidence that rats dream? Even weirder, they think that fruit flies might also dream while they sleep. Imagine how terrifying the nightmares of fruit flies and rats must be. Nothing but larger insects and animals trying to eat you. Yikes!
Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC (October 28, 2010). Do Dogs Dream? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201010/do-dogs-dream
Charolette England (October 21, 2016). When your dog’s day is over it dreams of you, says Harvard psychologist. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/dog-dreaming-about-you-owners-psychologist-harvard-a7373571.html
Stephanie Pappas (February 17, 2016). What Do Dogs Dream About? Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/53743-dog-dreams.html