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Let’s Talk: Is It Normal for a Dog to Have Nightmares?

My rescue dog Tucker had terrible nightmares, but now he often sleeps happily on his side.

Tracy Ahrens  |  Mar 13th 2014

I remember waking one evening to the sound of howling. It startled me out of deep sleep — I thought a coyote was in my bedroom. The source of this howling was my Pointer/Greyhound mix, Trucker, lying on his bed beside mine. I had to touch him, tell him it was okay and wake him from an apparently distressing dream.

Trucker is the first rescue dog I’ve owned. My first dog, a Brittany named Speckles, I purchased as a puppy. His sleep was always calm and deep. He loved sleeping upside down, on his side and most of his life he found comfort snoozing in his crate.

With Trucker, I still find myself shedding tears when I see him kicking and hear him barking and whimpering while in the throes of obvious nightmares. Thankfully, with my love and devotion to bring Trucker peace, these dreams have decreased in intensity since he came into my life at the age of five nearly four years ago.

I read that it is not known if dogs have nightmares, but many rescue dogs who have suffered physical and emotional trauma are known to shake, bark and whimper in their sleep.

A fellow animal rescue volunteer told me that her rescue dogs also went through this “nightmare stage.” She said, “It takes years before the bad dreams stop completely.”

From what I learned through shelter workers about Trucker’s past, I can understand his tormented mind. As a puppy Trucker survived being tossed out of a semi cab. Someone rescued him and then sold him at a garage sale. The couple that purchased him divorced and Trucker moved into a new residence with the man. The man’s roommate threatened to hurt Trucker because he tore things up during bouts of separation anxiety. The man surrendered Trucker to a shelter. His ex-wife reclaimed Trucker when she spotted him at a pet adoption fair; however, she returned him to the shelter when he tore up her home due to anxiety.

While Trucker was at the shelter, he had to be placed on two medications, Prozac and a sedative, just to help him stay calm and not injure himself trying to escape cages while workers were away. He also has a fear of thunderstorms, probably due to a former owner leaving him outside for a time in a fenced dog run.

The first night that Trucker was at my home, he hopped onto my queen-size bed, made a nest in blankets and placed his head on my pillow. When I saw how relaxed he was, I covered him up with a heavy blanket and left him there to sleep. He kept opening his eyes slightly to make sure I didn’t leave him as others had before.

From what I’ve read about the sleeping behavior of dogs, those who have been kept outside or feel they need to jump to their feet quickly will sleep in a curled-up position. They rarely relax and seldom fall into the deep REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep where the body is relaxed but the brain stays active.

The evening when I woke to Trucker’s howling, he was lying on his side — a sleeping position that experts say shows a dog is comfortable with its surroundings. When he relaxed, his mind hit REM and howling began.

When Trucker was living at the shelter, he found comfort lying on an old comforter on the office floor while workers interacted around him. One volunteer said she’d find a quiet area, spread a blanket across the floor, and sit with Trucker on it while reading to him. She said it helped to calm his nerves.

Since Trucker appeared to love the warm, snug feeling of blankets, I started purchasing fleece throw blankets to keep in every room of our home. Today he has 12 little blankets of various colors and motifs. Wherever he sleeps in the house, I make sure that he has a blanket over or around him.

When I first saw Trucker sleeping upside down on my bed with his long legs sticking straight upward, I smiled. Sleeping upside down, experts say, is the most comfortable and restful position for a dog.

Today I do not care where Trucker sleeps in our home as long as he is happy. To see him spread out on his side or upside down brings tears to my eyes, because I’ve helped him find this peace. Sometimes he drifts off while lying lengthwise beside me in bed. I cover us both up and we wake hours later, together.

A fellow animal rescue worker told me to keep doing what I am doing with Trucker and eventually his nightmares will pass. Slowly over the past four years, they have eased. That rescue worker also noted, “Trucker would thank you if he could.”

Does your dog have nightmares? Does she sleep upside down, on her side, or curled up? Tell us about it in the comments!

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About Tracy Ahrens: A modern-day Tasha Tudor with a pen as an eleventh phalanx, Tracy is a magnet for small children and creatures, along with strange mishaps and writing errors in need of correcting. Her mind is akin to a 24-hour bustling liquor store and prone to late-night inspiration. She’s most happy planting or pruning something, drinking tea, throwing a tomahawk, drawing or napping. Her obsessive compulsions include planting a peck on each of her pets’ heads before leaving home and brushing/flossing her teeth before bed. Add her book, “Raising My Furry Children,” to your collection.