Should you wake a sleeping dog? We’ve all heard the phrase “let sleeping dogs lie,” but how true is that statement? The answer is a little more complicated than it might seem. Let’s dig into how dogs sleep, how much they sleep, their dreams, and their sleep rhythms to find out.
What Are Your Dog’s Sleep Cycles?
Dogs need much more sleep than humans, at 14-16 hours per day. Despite the need for more sleep, your dog has the same sleep cycles as you:
- REM or rapid eye movement
- SWS or short-wave sleep
It takes about 20 minutes for an average sized dog to reach REM cycle, and it’s during REM sleep that your dog dreams most heavily: twitching, paws running, yipping, even barking.
The Secrets In Dogs’ Sleep
There’s little question that dogs dream. An often-cited experiment from 2001 proved that rats are dreamers, and the logic goes that dogs, with much higher brain capabilities, must also dream.
Most dog owners will tell you not only that their dogs dream, but owners always have theories about the content of their dog’s dreams, usually based on what their dogs love to do most. Like humans, dogs seem to dream more in youth and old age. There’s even evidence that dogs dream about common dog activities, no surprise to dog owners who recognize the same growls and yips observed at the dog park, during squirrel stalking, and other fun activities such as tug-of-war.
Is There Any Truth to the Old Saying “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie?”
Chaucer first wrote a version of the phrase in the 1300s, and it soon became a common saying suggesting one should ignore a problem in order to avoid even more trouble. But taken literally, it’s best to ask yourself if it’s necessary to wake your sleeping dog before proceeding.
Those adorable growls and yips may seem mournful, but ask yourself if you’d like to be woken from a deep sleep, even if the dream might be a bit scary. We all need our rest.
What Are the Risks of Waking a Sleeping Dog?
Dogs deep in sleep, particularly older dogs, may be startled if suddenly awakened, leading to nipping the hand that shook them awake. Even if they’d never do harm in normal situations, a startled sleeping dog can be accidentally vengeful.
To avoid a reactive response, it’s best to use a gentle voice to wake your dog. However, waking up your dog probably isn’t necessary. Remember that 14-16 hours of sleep your dog requires every day? It takes some serious commitment to get that much rest.
Bad Dog Dreams Are Normal
Though it can be hard to watch when your dog is clearly having a bad dream, most veterinarians believe that like people, dreams help your dog to work through thoughts and feelings. Like people, letting a bad dream progress and come to a conclusion can allow your dog’s subconscious to sort through recent experiences.
Waking your dog during a bad dream may not allow for that resolution, or for as much sleep as your dog needs. A bad dream now and then is normal.
My family’s last dog, Ace, came from a bit of a rough start in life. We adopted him at age 4. Within the first couple of nights with us, we woke to a siren-like howl coming from the living room and raced to find Ace sitting up, muzzle raised, in a full bay that sounded as if he were in terrible pain. Incredibly, he was still asleep. We woke him up and he whimpered.
For the next 8 years of his life, Ace had many more bad dreams or night terrors like that first one, each sounding as dire as the last. Even though we knew if you should wake a sleeping dog, we never could just let the sleeping dog lie, or sit in this case. We would wake him gently and gave him lots of hugs.
If your dog has such reoccurring nightmares, consider a visit to a behaviorist to work out any latent trauma that may be causing the nightmares.
Just In Case: What Does a Dog Seizure Look Like Vs. Normal Sleep?
If your dog’s sleep movements seem out of the ordinary, you may want to check for signs of a seizure. While seizures are more likely to occur when a dog is awake, some dogs do occasionally have seizures while asleep. Twitching is normal for a dreaming dog or may indicate that your dog is cold. Stiffness or rigidness along with twitching could suggest a seizure.
The key indicator of a dog having a seizure while sleeping is an unusual breathing pattern. A dreaming dog will breathe deeply, while a dog having a seizure will have labored breathing, or difficulty drawing breath.
If you think your dog is having a seizure, do not intervene and contact your vet.
Letting Your Sleeping Dog Lie
So should you wake a sleeping dog? The old saying about letting sleeping dogs lie, when taken literally, has merit. Even if your dog seems to be having a bad dream, it’s best to let them sleep it off.
If you must wake your dog, say, to get them into the car for a trip, use a low, cheerful tone to avoid startling them and allow for a smooth, non-reactive transition.