It’s midnight. You hear a howl. Does your dog want to go out? Has he found a squirrel?

Like most pet owners, your first impulse is probably to check to see whether your beloved pup is okay. But when you check, you find that he’s not only perfectly fine — he’s completely asleep.

What gives?

Why does my dog howl in his sleep?

A dog will usually howl in his sleep for the same reason he does anything in his sleep: He’s dreaming.

Dogs, cats, and many other animals dream in their sleep. While we don’t know exactly what they dream about, we can occasionally guess. In their sleep, dogs will:

  • Run. Running and walking will look as though your dog is actually moving his feet and legs back and forth. This is very common; your dog could be chasing rabbits in his dreams! Alternatively, he might be running away from other dogs at the dog park.
  • Bark. This could happen if your dog is trying to alert you while he’s dreaming. Barking could indicate that your dog is having a bad dream, but it could also just indicate that your dog is excited.
  • Howl. Similar to barking and whimpering, this happens because your dog is trying to communicate in his dream. It’s very similar to someone “talking in their sleep,” and it’s possible your dog has no idea that he does this.
  • Whimper. When your dog whimpers in his sleep, it’s very likely he’s having some kind of nightmare. He also might be experiencing some kind of pain, such as arthritis, that you might not realize. This is a good time to wake him, so he can get back to pleasant dreams.
  • Scratch. This is a more autonomous action; dogs, like people, will frequently scratch in their sleep when they’re itchy. This is less likely to be a dream reaction and more likely to be a reaction to the environment. If your dog is scratching a lot, it may be time to check for skin irritation or fleas.

And more. It could be that they’re remembering a time when they stole a roast from the dinner table. It could be that they’re remembering a vet visit. It could be that they’re experiencing something that never happened at all.

If your dog is howling in his sleep, he may be recalling a time when he howled, or his dream-like conditions may just have convinced him that he should be howling. He might just be howling at sirens he once heard!

Either way, it’s not something that you need to be concerned about. It’s perfectly normal for a dog to do just about anything in their sleep.

When animals sleep (humans included), there’s a part of the brain that governs movement. This movement sector is “turned off” so you don’t go barreling into walls or punching your partner while you’re sleeping. But it’s not turned off completely. If it’s very weak, people can experience things like “sleepwalking.” If it’s just a little weak, people can talk in their sleep.

It’s similar with animals. Some dogs are going to be predisposed to being very active in their sleep while others might not. You might see your dog acting more active in its sleep when it’s on medication, such as after being put under at the vet for teeth cleaning. This is because anything that can disrupt natural sleep patterns can also disrupt that movement sector of the brain, making your dog more akin to “half-asleep” than truly asleep.

Regardless, it isn’t harmful — at most, it’s distressing or annoying.

What to do about my dog howling in his sleep?

If your dog is howling in his sleep, there’s a very simple answer: Wake him up!

Your dog could be howling in his sleep because he’s having a bad dream. This can occasionally happen; you’ll see your dog whimpering, crying, barking, and howling. Just like people, dogs can have nightmares, too. 

Usually, gently rousing your dog will help. You don’t even need to wake him up the entire way. Just nudge him a little until he stops howling and he’s likely to settle into more pleasant dreams.

But if your dog is constantly howling or having nightmares, it might bear some consideration. Could there actually be something that’s giving your dog nightmares?

Again, like people, dogs can have anxieties. If your dog is in a new location or doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping, he may be more agitated and more likely to have bad dreams. A dog might also have an increase in bad dreams if he’s sick, if he’s on a new medication, or if he’s going through a medical treatment; these will hopefully fade once he is well again.

The occasional howl doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog is having a nightmare, though. It may mean he’s having a bad dream. It could also mean that he’s dreaming that he’s a wolf, calling to his pack; there’s really no way of knowing. If your dog appears to be in distress, it’s prudent to wake him. If your dog simply habitually howls when asleep, you might want to just let it go (unless it’s alarming the neighbors).

Of course, it bears mentioning that a dog can’t control whether he howls in his sleep. It’s not as though he can be trained to not dream and he has little control as to what he does when he does dream. So, methods of correction (such as scolding) are futile in this scenario. It’s more likely that he might need positive reinforcement, such as designing a den that he can venture into if he feels safer sleeping there.

Why does my dog only howl during his sleep?

Dogs howl because of certain triggers. They might hear another dog howling, a car alarm going, fire department sirens, tornado warnings, and so forth. Howling is meant as a social call. Dogs howl when they need to find other members of their pack. This is why you will hear wolves howling, too; often, you can hear exactly where the wolves are. They are calling for each other so they can find each other.

If your dog isn’t around other dogs, there’s really no reason for your dog to howl. Likewise, if your dog isn’t separated from his pack frequently, he again isn’t going to howl. But you might notice that if you take another of your dogs out of the house, your dog might start to howl — or if you start to howl, your dog will howl.

If your dog only howls during his sleep, it’s likely that he’s only experiencing conditions he would howl under during his sleep. It’s a myth that dogs will “howl at the moon” or “howl at night”; it’s very situational. It only seems as though wolves are doing this because they tend to track their pack at night.

Regardless, you’re unlikely to want your dog to howl anyway! The sound of howling can go quite far and it’s a very easy way to get noise complaints. Plus, if you get your dog howling, you stand a pretty decent chance of getting every dog in the neighborhood howling, too. 

Author

I created and currently manage Pet Dog Owner, the website you can go to when you have questions about your dog's behavior. It is my hope that you find Pet Dog Owner to be a helpful resource. It is also my hope that it will help you to improve your relationship with your dog. You can read more about me and my website here.