SLEEP AGGRESSION-Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Let sleeping dogs lie. We’ve all used or heard that proverb.  It’s the best advice for anyone who has a dog that shows signs of “startle aggression” or “sleep aggression.”

Sleep aggression is a knee jerk reaction. Your dog has no thought processes before growling or snapping when his sleep is suddenly or abruptly disturbed.  Many pet parents report that usually their dog only growls but doesn’t bite and would like help to stop the growling.  This is a situation where “leave well enough alone” might apply. The reason is that growling is a warning. If you remove the warning, you are creating a more dangerous situation. Think of a bomb that doesn’t tick.  For pet parents with an invisible fence, it would be like having a setting for a shock with no warning beep.

Sleep aggression does not mean your dog is aggressive, as long as there are no other signs of aggression when he is not sleeping. It’s important to recognize any unacceptable behavior like guarding resources, for example, which is aggression toward anyone touching food or objects that your dog perceives as belonging to him. It could also include guarding another family member. If sleep aggression is the only sign of aggressive behavior, it is most likely that your dog will be an affectionate, sociable, trainable, and well-behaved member of the family.

Though a newly adopted puppy or adult dog may exhibit signs of sleep aggression, a well-adjusted family dog may begin to show this behavior due to stress brought on by extreme changes to his environment. Even the loss of a family member, human or canine, can cause a stress level that might manifest into sleep aggression.

Dogs that live more stressful lives like guard dogs, need a restful sleep and should never be disturbed abruptly by touching them. Senior dogs, dogs with medical issues, or dogs that have been abused, abandoned, or neglected may react quickly if touched while sleeping, by biting without warning. This may be a survival instinct kicking in while asleep.

The best, easiest and quickest remedy, especially if you have children in the family, is to keep your dog in a confined/gated area, playpen or crate when he is sleeping.  You should instruct your children to never touch your dog when he is asleep. In fact, as a trainer, I recommend that for all dogs. Simply clap your hands and call the dog’s name when you want to wake him. Once he is standing, he should be safe to approach.

Dogs with sleep or startle aggression should never sleep in a bed or even on the couch with a human family member, especially a child. The slightest touch or disturbance may lead to a dangerous situation.

Routinely pet your dog gently when he is relaxing but not sleeping may be beneficial. This works well after a long walk or exercise.

Never punish a dog for sleep aggression. It is a defensive reflex that your dog does not have control over. It will not help and may make the situation worse.

Dogs that have a startle aggression response need to be under the care of a veterinarian and a professional trainer/behaviorist.

Leave a Reply