Canine Behavior/Vicious upon waking
I, too, have a 4 year old rescue that occasionally wakens aggressively. I have had him for 3 1/2 years. He is very loving otherwise. He has a crate and uses it as a home.
These episodes were getting few and far between, but last night he reverted back to waking viciously. His eyes do get glazed and he looks like he does not know where he is. I just call his name gently and later he comes to me trying to get close, talking, growl like and pushing into me. I do not touch him until he comes to me.
It amazed me how vicious he appears and how sweet otherwise.
Also, the rescue group I got him from claimed to have rescued him from the animal shelter, as he was to be put down that day. Is there anything else I can be doing?
So your dog has what I call Cujo moments. My soul dog had these. It's when the dog is awakened suddenly and feels startled and disoriented and comes out all teeth - bite first, ask questions later.
It's a defensive reflex and actually quite normal. Some humans also react violently - flailing and kicking if wakened suddenly, especially from a deep sleep or out of a dream state.
The glazed eyes suggest disorientation, which will make that response even greater because sleeping is the most vulnerable thing any living thing can do and so it can be extremely scary to be startled awake.
Now, before I can talk about things you might do to avoid setting your dog off, or dealing with it once he has triggered, I do need to talk brain health.
Has this always happened? Is it a recent change in behavior? It might be worth while having a vet do a neurological examination, and if indicated, get an MRI to make sure his brain is healthy. Tumors can cause erratic behavior, including violent outbursts. So you should tell your vet that this happens and let them decide what kind of exam is warranted.
Now, after the vet gives your dog a clean bill of health, we can move on to behavior (yours and his) to deal with this.
Your response of speaking gently and waiting for him to clear his head and come to you is perfect. This is exactly what I used to do with my dog when she had these moments. Her name was Cashew. I'd say in a syrupy sweet voice, "Cashew.... it's OK, sweetie. You're safe. I'm here. You're OK...." and the like. I'd keep a safe distance because she was an Akita/Chow and had quite a set of teeth on her (she never, ever bit me during one of these episodes, though the first few times it happened I was terrified! Then I figured out how to best help her through them and I wasn't scared anymore).
I'd just speak sweetly and wait until her eyes cleared. As soon as the glaze was out of her eyes, I knew she was fully awake. At that point, I'd invite her over to me if she didn't promptly come on her own. I still didn't invade her space, but instead, called her to me sweetly, "Cashew... do you wanna come sit by me??" as I patted the floor or my leg. She'd come over and put her chin on my lap and I'd pet her and reassure her that she was safe.
For Cashew, I discovered two things. First - if I touched her to wake her up, she NEVER Cujo'd at me. This may be unique to Cashew, so your dog may not like it
. She would sleep on the floor up against my bed. If I reached out and petted her gently, she'd flinch awake, nose to where she was being touched. She'd smell that it was my hand and she never got upset by it. So for Cashew, that was useful if she fell asleep while I was close to her, and if I had to step over her.
On the other hand, if I was coming into the room or into her space and saw that she was asleep, I'd simply stop and stand about 8-10 feet away from her and call her name gently. I'd wake her up from this distance, using my voice, rather than walking directly toward her (which is what always triggered her). Once she woke up, I'd make sure to get her attention. I'd make kissy noises or whistle and clap my hands gently and talk to her until she looked me in the face and I could see that her eyes were clear and that she obviously recognized me. If I did that, then she never had a Cujo moment at me. It sounds like a lot and perhaps inconvenient, but honestly, it added about 10-20 seconds to whatever I was doing.
Of course, the first few times, I probably took a good minute to make sure I got her attention and that she was clear it was ME and not some stranger there to kill her. But, once we both got the routine down, it didn't add very much at all. And instead of her getting up to see me, she'd lift her head, look me in the face and then put her head back down. Then I knew it was OK to pass her and she wouldn't freak out. Of course, I still spoke sweetly as I approached, and I might stop first and squat and make sure she STILL knew it was me if I was going to have to step over her rather than go around her - she used to fall asleep stretched across doorways (Akitas are great guard dogs that way). But this worked for us really well for about 12 of her 14.5 years of life. It didn't become an issue until she was about 2 years old. The first 6 or 8 months immediately after this started were difficult. It only happened maybe 6-8 times during that window, but then I had figured out how best to handle it when it did happen and how to avoid it, and I never had a problem with it again for the rest of her life. Of course, in her last year, she slept so soundly that it was no longer an issue. She didn't hear me coming and never woke up as I approached anymore, but that's a different process.
So, this is what worked beautifully for MY dog. It's where I would start with another dog showing similar issues (after making sure it's not a health issue), but you may need to tweak it or refine it to work for your dog.
As for why it happened suddenly again when it hadn't for a long while, I'd suggest replaying the moments leading up to it in your head. Where exactly were you, what exactly were you doing? Were you watching TV and totally ignoring him, and suddenly he was doing this? was there a loud noise on the TV just before he reacted? Were you walking toward him, stepping around him or over him? Encroaching his space in any way? If you can pinpoint what you were doing, and think back to the last couple episodes and see if you can find a pattern in your own behavior, then this will help you figure out what to avoid, and thus how you might change the interaction to make sure he knows it's you and not a stranger there to kill him.
I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance, or if you have details from your experience and would like me to help you work out how you might alter the situation to avoid future episodes.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist