Yesterday, a friend IM’d me and said “Hey Stephen, you write about dogs, right? Well, my Corgi seems to be having night terrors lately. Maybe you could write something about that.”
The tale of my friend’s Corgi and her uneasy sleep led me into a world of research. My little guy, a Min Pin named Herschel, sleeps pretty soundly. He’s in his middle years, so he sleeps a lot anyway– and I’ve only ever heard so much as a peep out of him once or twice when he’s in snooze mode. The concept of dogs and dreaming, though, is something I understand. My childhood Border Collie would often kick her legs in her sleep and let out tiny barks. She never seemed upset– she just seemed like she was chasing a tennis ball on the astral plane. That’s where the research comes in. I obviously didn’t know enough to answer my friend’s question, so I had to dig a little bit deeper.
Biologists have no doubt that dogs dream. They enter the REM cycle just like people (and most other mammals) and probably experience something similar to what we do. Scientists assume that dogs, again just like people, use dream time as a way to organize their thoughts and experiences from the day. While there’s no way to tell exactly what a dog is dreaming about, common sense tells us it’s a fantastical version of that great walk they took or that squirrel they didn’t quite catch.
A few years ago, Stanley Coren wrote an article for Psychology Today in which he found out that it would be strange if dogs didn’t dream. Scientists have found that rats dream, and in those dreams they process all of the information from their day. Their brainwaves were the same at various points in their dreams as they were when they were awake and exploring various points of a maze. So they were, in effect, re-living the maze.
The article also tells the story of a Basenji who hated bathing. Whenever this woman would bathe him, he’d run to her husband and hide behind his legs directly afterward. Well, one day he had a bath and went through his usual routine. Then, he bolted up and ran behind the husband’s legs as he awoke from the dream– while the man was on the toilet.
When my friend told me about his Corgi, he wasn’t talking about run of the mill dreams. This dog wakes up scared and violent. She is barking out of sheer horror and can’t seem to figure out what’s going on. I did some research, and the prognosis seems to depend on how frequent the night terrors are.
Many people don’t remember their night terrors. They wake up with a start and then fall back asleep without remembering the in between. That’s what separates them from normal nightmares – the violent awakening and lack of remembering. With dogs, it’s really hard to say. Common sense tells me that if it’s just a once-in-a-while type of thing, then it could just be a nightmare. If it happens frequently then it could be trouble.
I read a great article on ThePetDocs about night terrors that put me in a state on unease. Basically, if a pet has recurring night terrors (waking up violent and anxious, unable to go back to sleep, unable to settle down) then it’s probably indicative of another problem. The hero of the ThePetDocs story is Tucker, a Beagle. It turned out that his night terrors were a symptom of an undiagnosed tumor. If your dog is suffering frequent night terrors, take them to the vet immediately.
A little bad dream once in a while is normal for humans, and dogs dream just like people do. Watching them dream is often amusing – the faces they make, their little noises and the way they kick their legs are all great. When they start having frequent night terror-like dreams, however, it’s time to take them to the vet. Be sure to relay any other pertinent information you have as well (what tips off the vet to Tucker’s problem is that he’s having trouble defecating) so that you get the best diagnosis possible. Hopefully, though, your dog continues to have sweet dreams, even if they kick around a little – but for my dog, the only time he’s peaceful is when the sandman visits.
Stephen Burroughs is a writer, Humane Society volunteer and lifelong dog-lover. He spends most of his waking hours trying to talk sense into a Miniature Pinscher named Herschel. Stephen writes for Havahart, which specializes in a variety of dog doors.