Picture the scene. Your loving dog has enjoyed a wonderful day with you – you’ve played, been on a great adventure, they’ve enjoyed delicious food. You’re curled up on the sofa together, they’re snoring away. You move in for the last cuddle of the day and – seemingly out of nowhere – they snap, then growl when you try to touch them again. You’re hurt and confused. You might get angry and force them off the sofa. Or you might do the right thing and move calmly away.
Unexplained aggression during sleep can be worrying, especially if you have younger humans in your home… but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an “aggressive dog”. Sleep startles, pain, or even a specific form of resource guarding could be to blame. Let’s have a dive into these and some of the ways you can help your dog to feel more relaxed when they’re napping.
Sleep startles are an instinctive reflex in animals. A reflexive action is an automatic response to a stimulus. Just as we would move our hand immediately if we touched something scolding hot – our dogs have a natural response to react when woken suddenly to keep themselves safe from predators. You may be able to empathise yourself if you’ve ever experienced the feeling of immediate panic or anger when woken in the middle of a deep sleep.
Through my work with clients over the years, I hear of sleep startles causing challenges most commonly with puppies or newly re-homed dogs. These dogs are not yet ready to feel safe and protected within your home. They need time to realise that a predator or other danger is not present. In the meantime, you might see that your sleeping dog growls or tries to bite you when woken by being stroked, kissed, or even you sitting on the sofa next to them. While sleep startles are sometimes referred to as “sleep aggression”, remember this is a reflexive action – not an aggressive one. When we provide support, over time, most of our dogs are likely going to feel much more relaxed should we happen to disturb them accidentally.
The difficult part with sleep startles is that they’re hard to predict. The dog will offer no warning signals before reacting with the growl or bite. I would always encourage all guardians to treat a new dog in their home as if it potentially will have a reactive response to being woken up.
Pain or illness can be another reason a dog might react when woken up. When a dog is startled awake their muscles will likely tense up. If pain is present, this will cause discomfort. Coupled with the sleep startle itself, the feeling of pain may heighten your dog’s reaction. Even sitting next to your dog on the sofa could cause a reaction if they feel unbalanced with the weight shift as you sit. If you add to this by pushing your dog – either to shift their position or move them off the sofa/bed – the painful feeling is likely to be increased further.
There are other physical / neurological conditions that might be responsible for your dog’s sleep aggression as well – Hypothyroidism, cognitive decline, infections, and Cushing’s Disease for example. If your dog suddenly starts to act aggressively during sleep – or they change in their enjoyment of being touched – then it’s definitely worth getting a full health check carried out by your vet.
If you – or guardians in your dog’s previous home – have been guilty of punishing your dog when they react during sleep, it can build up a history of discomfort for your dog. This can mean that they become suspicious of people approaching them when they’re relaxing on a sofa or bed – even when awake. This then can become a more proactive behavioural reaction… so now they may growl as you approach.
If you see your dog getting tense when you approach their resting spot, it could also be a form of resource guarding. If they’re constantly being removed from that spot when they’re feeling comfortable, your dog might feel the need to protect their ability to stay put. Imagine if you’re snuggled up in bed – and just as you’re getting ready for sleep, someone comes to move you from the warm spot on your nice comfy mattress to go and sleep in a cold spot on a camp bed. Would you feel good about that person approaching you each evening? I very much doubt it! Our dog’s can’t tell us verbally to go away, but they can attempt to protect their comfy spot by growling at us as we approach.
So what can we do?
Give Your Dog Space
While some dogs might be fine settling during the day in a busy part of your home, a sleep-aggressive dog may prefer their own calm sanctuary to rest in. Choose an area of your home where they can sleep without too much disturbance. This needs to be a no-go zone when your dog has taken themselves off for a snooze. If you have young children in your home, task them with creating a “do not disturb” sign for this space – so they also get on board with leaving your dog to their quiet time.
Although you may enjoy the feel-good vibes your dog provides as they curl up on your bed, if they are likely to react if disturbed during the night, it is advisable to either have them sleep on their own bed in your room or in a completely different room.
Wake from a Distance
Before going near your resting dog, say their name loudly. Give them a few moments to fully wake up. Praise them for looking at you with a warm tone of voice. Don’t approach until they are definitely awake and welcoming your attention. If your dog guards their sleeping spots you will want to invite them to stand up, getting off their bed/sofa before you move towards them – this can be easily achieved by throwing a toy or treat.
Teach “Off” and “On”
Teaching your dog to get off its bed or the sofa on cue is a great way to be able to positively move them. Start when your dog isn’t on the sleeping spot, by just saying “off” then throwing a treat to the other side of the room. Do this over a few days and then try it when they first get up onto a favoured resting spot, before they fall asleep. I also like to teach my dogs “on” or “up” too. This means I can also invite them to get up onto their sleeping spot – so they feel like I’m not always removing them from it. It creates more of a positive connection between you and their favourite place.
Be Willing to Walk Away
Unless it’s an emergency, if your dog doesn’t move or stays very sleepy when you speak to them, leave them alone. Allow them to continue their rest and return later to try again.
As a dog’s sleep cycle (the process of moving into deep sleep and back out in repetitive cycles during a period of rest) is shorter than ours – they will enter the REM period of sleep quite quickly. So even if your dog has only recently nodded off, you should assume they’re more deeply asleep than you might expect and always approach in the suggested ways above.
If we can create a history of respect for our dog’s rest and their favoured sleeping areas, you will slowly build confidence in your dog. They’ll learn to trust that if you’re close when they’re resting, it’s a positive thing rather than something to fear. Even with this change in emotions, sleep is so vital to our dogs – so whenever you can, just let sleeping dogs lie.