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Canine Behavior/Night Terrors?


I have 3 St. Bernard dogs, they are my babies. My husband and I had four but we had to put the mother down two years ago this November because of bloat. The ones we have now is the father and two "little" girls that are turning 5 in September. We had Jasmine (the mother and my husbands dog), Cujo (the dad, my husband got him the year we met) and Beaner and Cindi (the puppies, Jasmine had one litter). My question is regarding one of our girls. Her name is Cindi and she is much more active than her sister and father. We play with them tons, pretty much whenever they ask and even when they don't. Cindi will chase a ball until she can't breathe but we stop her before it gets to that point. The problem is about a week or two ago she woke up and started jumping on the bed and off the bed and nudging me with her nose and getting real close. Assuming that she had to go out because she had never done this before I let her and the other two out, as they had awoken when I got up. When they came back in she continued to nudge me with her nose and be real clingy. I spoke calmly to her and petted her telling her that everything is okay and I was right there. After about 5 or 10 mins she relaxed and went back to sleep. She slept fine the rest of the night and for a week or so after that. Then  she has another one of these episodes and this time I just comforted her from the beginning. She calmed down quickly and went back to sleep next to me. Those were the only times they happened and they happened at night but tonight my husband and I were watching tv and she comes running out of the bedroom like somebody was here, looks around, sees I am sitting in one of our recliners she tries to get up with me. Realizing this is one of her dreams again, I go into the bedroom and sit with her and the other two because of course they need to join in as well. She takes almost 15 mins to calm down this time and then she is fine and I was able to get back up. They seem to happen on the days that my husband and I are gone for a whole day (I try to come home at lunch and hang out for a bit but sometimes I don't have enough time). Can she be having night terrors about us not coming home? When we come home we always play with them and give them lots of attention. What is strange is I am now in a job where I am able to come home from work at lunch where before my husband and I would be gone for a full work day and she didn't have any trouble before. We love our dogs very much, at this point they are our "children" and we don't want her to be in any pain even emotional. I know that dogs have dreams but can they have night terrors and can I do anything to help her? Our dogs do sleep in our room at night, and sometimes sleep on our bed with us. In the morning if they wake up before we do, after we let them out to go potty we let them out of the bedroom to eat breakfast if they want at that point. Thank you for your time and your help.

Thank you for contacting All Experts. Cindi's behavior does sound quite puzzling and I understand  how concerned you must feel in not being ale to understand what exactly may be going on. This is one of those cases we would love if dogs could just talk to us and explain what is exactly crossing their minds. From what you describe, it sounds like Cindi wakes up suddenly and in quite an agitated state. It sounds as if she is seeking comfort from you once she wakes up and since you mention she nudges and that petting her and talking to her helps her calm down, it may be truly comfort what she is looking for. You question if dogs have night terrors is very valid and something that is worth pondering.

So do dogs have night terrors? As thinking beings capable of feeling emotions such as happiness, fear and anxiety, it makes sense for them to be capable of dreaming and even having a bad dream. After all, if we look at a dog's brain and compare it to a humans' we will notice many similarities at a structural level. To further prove their capability of dreaming, many dog owners can attest that as dogs sleep through the REM cycle, they literally quiver, twitch their legs, their eyeballs start moving under their eyelids, and in some cases, may exhibit a vast array of vocalizations such as barking, growling, whining and even howling.

Interestingly, research conducted by Matthew Wilson and Kenway Louie of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that even rats seem to be capable of dreaming. In their studies, rats were exposed to a maze while electrical recordings of their hippocampus were taken. Such recordings demonstrated specific electrical patterns occurring specifically when the rat was engaging in specific tasks. When the rats fell asleep, their brain waves exhibited similar patterns as if the rats were recalling memories of those daily tasks taking place in the maze. So if rats dream, dogs must dream as well, and of course, not all dreams will be about bones raining from the sky or the exciting adrenaline rush derived from chasing squirrels in the yard.   

Dogs, just like people and rats, also seem to re-live episodes that occurred earlier during the day. And their dreams may vary from one dog to another, according to Stanley Coren. Indeed, researchers suggest that a pointer may dream about hunting game and pointing, a Springer Spaniel may dream about flushing some birds from a bush, while the Doberman pinscher may dream about the occasional burglar. So if something unpleasant may happen during the day, the dog may very well dream about it and have a nightmare. You may find Stanley Coren's article about dog dreams interesting as it features a story a bit similar to yours. (link below)

According to a dog owner, his Basenji hated baths and every time he was bathed by his wife, he would run out of the bathroom and try to hide behind him. Later that night, after having a bath, the owner recalled that his basenji was sleeping and then suddenly woke up startled and bolted to hide under the owner's legs. "I believe that he was dreaming about having a bath because he only engages in this behavior when a bath is involved." explained the owner. The article featuring this story can be found here:

It may be disheartening to witness your dog having a bad dream, but what can you do about it? In most cases, it's best to adhere to the old adage of "letting sleeping dogs lie." Indeed, waking up a dog when it's having a bad dream may only cause confusion. Not only, in some cases, dogs may also become aggressive if they're startled mid-dream. Never get too near or touch a dog who is sleeping, whether he's having a bad dream or not. Doing so may be an easy trigger for an unintentional bite.

Instead, if you think your dog is too distressed and you're getting worried, you can try calmly calling his name. This should wake him up so you can assess the situation. If your dog was having a bad dream, most likely he should awaken upon hearing his name and then as he goes back to his normal world, he should go back to sleeping soundly in no time.

On the other hand, some dogs as in your case, may have a bad dream, wake up and then seek comfort from their owners. On a less lighter note, count your blessings if your dog seeks out comfort, as there have also been reports of dogs becoming aggressive after a bad dream and waking up growling and even trying to attack their owners!

In other cases, some nocturnal behaviors can be triggered by a psychomotor seizure. Any time your dog exhibits odd behavior during or after sleep, it's best to gather as much information about the episodes. When does it happen? How often? How long do the episodes last? Are you able to wake up your dog by calling him or his she totally unresponsive? If she's unresponsive, you may be actually dealing with a seizure. Here is a story about a dog who had an actual seizure after the owner thought it was just a bad dream. "I thought it was a dream"

It's always a good idea to mention the behavior you are seeing to your vet. As mentioned, in some cases, what looks like a nightmare, may be actually a seizure. Some dogs do have seizures during their sleep. I am not sure if you were ever able to see the behavior prior to when she starts seeking you for comfort but paddling, frothing at the mouth and unresponsive behavior can be signs of a seizure and should not be confused with a bad dream. After ward, dogs can be nervous, pacing, disoriented and confused and some may display extra clingy behaviors.

If you really want to provide your vet with the best "evidence" bring along a recording of your dog's behavior and let the vet see it. A video can really speak 1000 words. Also, if you're concerned about her getting anxious when left alone in the home, try recording her behavior when you leave the house. Owners often are not aware of their dogs' behaviors when outside, and at times, by taping, they may discover the first stages of separation anxiety.

To help your dog relax in the evening, you can try calming diffusers such as Comfort Zone or Adaptil. Playing soothing music such as "Through a dog's ears" may help as well. Bach flowers/Rescue remedy may help in some cases. If after consulting with your vet nothing going on medically is found, you may want to consult with a behavior professional if her episodes are long-lasting and you think they have an impact on her emotional well-being. Calming aids may be prescribed for severe cases. I hope this helps, my very best wishes!

Disclaimer: this answer is not a substitute for professional veterinary or behavioral advice. If your dog displays erratic behaviors or abnormal sleeping patterns see your vet. At times, they can be triggered by a medical condition. Afterward, after obtaining a clean bill of health, consult with a behavior professional.

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Adrienne Janet Farricelli CPDT-KA


I can answer questions pertaining dog psychology and general dog behavior. Why is my dog doing this? And what can I do about it? are common questions I am asked. I will not answer questions concerning health problems as this is out of my spectrum, but I can recommend a vet visit if there are chances behavioral problems may stem from a possible underlying medical problem.


I am a certified dog trainer (CPDT-KA) that has attended seminars on dog behavior. I am acquainted with behavior modification programs and have read several books from reputable authors such as Patricia McConnell, Turid Rugaas, Nicholas Dodman and Bruce Fogle to name a few. I have rehabilitated dogs affected by moderate to severe behavioral problems.

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