What Does It Mean When Your Dog Whimpers While Sleeping?


If you own a dog, you have probably witnessed it whimpering, crying, pawing, even barking in its sleep. In most cases, there’s no need for alarm. As the saying goes, they’re literally “dreaming half of their lives away.” Our canine friends sleep, on average, 12 to 14 hours per day — literally half of their lives. Researchers believe that their sleep is very similar to human sleep, filled with periods of restful sleep and periods of rigorous dreaming.


Dog Sleep Phases

According to a recent article on Vetinfo.com, studies show that dogs experience the same two major phases of sleep that humans experience — rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement, including slow wave sleep. As with humans, both types of sleep are very important to your dog’s psychological and physical health.

Slow Wave Phase

In the slow wave phase, your dog will sleep deeply. Its heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and breathing rate will decrease and it will not usually react to noises and outside influences. This sleep phases usually lasts about 10 to 15 minutes, followed by the REM phase.

REM, or Dream Phase

Experts believe that dog dreams typically occur during the REM sleep phase. In this phase, your dog’s mind is active, awake and aware but its body is at rest. During the REM phase, your dog can replay images of the day’s events or past events and its body can react to those events by happily yapping, whimpering or crying, or even barking and pawing.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Experts note that whimpering, shaking, and crying are a normal part of your dog’s sleep cycle. When dog owners witness these behaviors, they often try to wake up the dog to stop what they perceive as distress. However, researchers believe that dogs need undisturbed sleep and that dreaming is an important and healthy part of a canine’s life.

There are some exceptions, however. Excessive shaking during sleep can be an epileptic seizure or the result of cardiac problems. Get to know your dog’s sleep habits, and see your veterinarian if you notice any abnormal shaking.

Why Is My Dog Trembling While Sleeping?

By Rebecca Bragg

Though sleep rests and restores the body, studies of brainwave patterns reveal that a dreaming mind is at least as active as an awake, alert mind. Your dog can’t tell you what he dreams about but research suggests that sleeping animals weave dreams from recent waking experiences. Dogs love to run but obviously, doing so while asleep would be dangerous. To keep them safe, their brains block their muscles from actively participating in dreams. So if your dog is dreaming about chasing squirrels, the twitching and trembling of his legs and paws may represent the visible evidence.

French bulldog with teddy bear

Small dog sleeping with teddy bear
credit: Patryk Kosmider/iStock/Getty Images

Dogs, People and Dreaming

The brainwave patterns of sleeping dogs and people are much the same, says Stanley Coren, professor of psychology, animal behaviorist and author of many books about the canine mind. Dogs pass through the same series of sleep cycles as humans, with vivid dreams occurring during the REM — or rapid eye movement — stage. To some extent, how frequently REM cycles occur depends upon the size of your dog. Small dogs may have dreams every 10 minutes but large dogs have fewer dreams that last longer. An average-sized dog will start dreaming about 20 minutes after falling asleep, Coren says. That’s when you’ll start to see his legs twitching and his eyes darting around behind closed lids, as though he’s watching something only he can see — which he is.

The Brain Stem Inhibits Movement

All mammals dream but luckily for dogs and others, when they enter REM sleep, a section of the brain stem called the pons kicks in to partially paralyze their muscles, thereby preventing them from physically acting out dream experiences. Otherwise, a dog dreaming that he’s enjoying a good romp in the park might be up racing around and barking instead of just making twitchy leg movements and funny little whimpers.

Re-experiencing the Day’s Highlights

If an ingenious experiment conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has general application, your dreaming dog may be reliving — and thereby creating permanent memories of — all the fun he had that day with you. Researchers at MIT’s Center for Learning and Memory compared the individual waking and dreaming brainwave patterns of rats trained to find their way through a maze to win food treats. After examining more than 40 REM episodes in the sleeping rats, researchers discovered that about half the brainwave patterns were almost identical to those recorded while the same rats were in the maze. Authors of the study, published in the January 2001 edition of the journal “Neuron,” concluded that while asleep, the rats relived that event to create and preserve a permanent memory of it.

Rehearsing for Threatening Situations

Since dogs and people have similar dream cycles, and people sometimes have bad dreams, it seems reasonable to assume that dogs do as well. However, if your dog’s dreaming sometimes appears a little distressed, that might be healthy too. According to “threat simulation” theory, throughout evolution, one key function of dreaming may have been to simulate virtual realities of dangerous situations that dreamers might encounter in waking life. This allows the dreaming mind to rehearse tackling them without physical risk, thereby increasing preparedness. So if your dog considers protecting his home and humans to be his sacred duty, troubled dreams might be his brain’s way of rehearsing strategies in which his heroic actions save the day.

My Dog Howls in His Sleep

If Scruffy’s whimpering, barking or howling during his sleep have scared the living daylights out of you, rest assured you are not alone. Countless dog owners are startled by such dramatic vocalizations. If Scruffy is sleeping, he’s most likely not sick, in pain or suffering; chances are he is simply having a bad dream. What dogs dream about remains a mystery. Perhaps your bird dog is flushing imaginary birds, your terrier dog is searching for fantasy rats or your guardian companion is being chased by a burglar.


Doggie Sleep Patterns

Dogs appear to share similar sleeping patterns as those observed in humans. When your dog hits the pillow, he enters a non-rapid eye movement phase that is followed by the rapid eye movement phase. This latter phase is when people acknowledge having dreams. Dogs during this phase appear to become more agitated and start twitching, rolling their eyes, moving their legs, whining, barking and even howling in some cases. These behaviors are a normal part of your dog’s sleep cycle.

What’s Going on in There?

Spared from the ability to express themselves, dogs will never be able to reveal their wildest dreams. Most likely, dogs dream about common dog activities. To be more specific, Scruffy could be dreaming of activities he engaged in during the day. Perhaps he is dreaming about those loud police sirens he howled along with earlier or being left alone in the home, triggering his mournful howling.

Sleeping or Awake?

Make sure your dog is actually sleeping when you hear the howl. If your dog is actually awake, make sure there is nothing physically wrong with him. Sudden pain may cause howling or yelping in dogs and so can seizures, so it’s best to check with your vet if you cannot find a possible explanation for the howling. Other causes of howling when a dog is awake can be attributed to triggers, such as other dogs barking, a siren or the sudden absence of a person the dog is attached to.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Once you have assured yourself that your dog is actually sleeping, you may feel compelled to awaken your howling dog. The famous saying “Let sleeping dogs lie” is a wise approach in this case. Some dogs may startle when suddenly awakened and may even engage in a defensive bite. Also, keep in mind that just as in humans, dogs require a certain amount of uninterrupted sleep in order to keep their healthy mental activity in top shape.

By Adrienne Farricelli


About the Author
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in “USA Today,” “The APDT Chronicle of the Dog” and “Every Dog Magazine.” She also contributed a chapter in the book ” Puppy Socialization – An Insider’s Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness” by Caryl Wolff.





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This is an excellent article on canine sleeping and dreaming..  Bella will often whimper and move her paws while under a  deep sleep.    While sometimes I am tempted to wake her up, I live by the prase “let sleeping dogs lie”.  Bella turns 9 yrs old this month.    I have never heard her howl while awake untli about 4 months ago.  I never knew why this behavior started, but after reading this article there is an explanation.    Recently Bella discovered a toy poodle next door.   This dog is frequently on the deck of the neighbors townhouse.   When Bella discovered this pup, and they are both out on their respective decks, Bella will howl to get his attention.    Quite funny now.  But for a dog that never howled. in 8,5 years to suddenly begin howling was quite jarring.    I did have her examined by her vet to make sure that there was nothing physically wrong with her.   Now it is just amusing that it appears Bella is responding to the little dog’s barking.     I also love the fact that there are other articles for you to review on aligned topics.Make sure you check them out!

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Make sure you share your love with your pet each and every day!

Bella- the howler! LOL



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