Is your dog aggressive when woken up? If so you’re not alone. It’s called the sleep startle reflex, and it’s the reason “let sleeping dogs lie” is more than just a popular proverb; it’s solid advice.
The sleep startle reflex is an instinct in animals, and it’s one many of our domestic dogs carry. In this article we’ll go over why dogs have the reflex, and some practical tips to prevent the behavior.
Why Is My Dog Aggressive When Woken Up?
Simply put the sleep startle reflex that many dogs have is an instinct to protect themselves from danger. In the wild it’s a defense mechanism that helps keep animals safe when there’s an unknown disturbance nearby.
Those seconds upon waking can mean life or death, and it’s why they awake in an aggressive manner. And like many other instincts, it’s a trait some of our domestic dogs still carry.
It’s especially common in ex-racing greyhounds who grew up in a kennel environment, used to long periods of undisturbed sleep. Although being locked up in a kennel most of the day isn’t the “best” life for a dog, it is one that is predictable, which is why adapting to a normal home with a new routine and new disturbances can be quite an adjustment for some dogs.
Sleep startle is also seen in stray dogs, and those who grew up in a not so secure environment where being prepared for anything immediately upon waking kept them safe.
Of course the exact reason why some dogs have the sleep startle reflex and some don’t isn’t 100% clear, as well as the reason why some dogs seem to “grow out of it” while others have it for life.
Just because your dog exhibits sleep aggression doesn’t mean they’re an aggressive dog either, it’s seen in otherwise well adjusted dogs. Sometimes it’s simply caused by being in a new home or by a change in their environment.
How To Prevent Your Dog From Waking Up Aggressively
Keep in mind these tips aren’t going to be 100% successful for every dog. Some dogs may never “grow out of” the sleep startle reflex since it happens unconsciously, while others may get better over time.
Don’t feel bad if your dog’s sleep aggression isn’t cured overnight; remember that it’s not your fault. It’s a normal instinctive reflex, and it’s one that is much stronger in some dogs than others.
The best way to help prevent your dog from waking up aggressively is to give them their own bed, in a quiet area where they can feel secure. Easier said than done if you have other pets and children at home, but do your best to encourage everyone to leave the dog alone when they’re resting as to prevent any aggressive behaviors.
It’s also a good idea to wake up your dog with a verbal command when you need to get their attention, rather than coming up and startling them by touch.
As tempting as it may be, if your dog exhibits aggression in their sleep it’s probably a good idea not to have them sleep in bed with you. It’s impossible to predict if your movements at night might trigger their aggression, so a dog bed next to yours might be a better option.
Unfortunately you can’t simply train your dog out of sleep aggression, the best you can do is make sure they feel secure to lessen the chances of it happening.
If you punish your dog for waking up aggressively you’re just going to make them even more insecure in their surroundings, leading to even more behavioral issues. Remember; they’re not being aggressive on purpose; it’s an unconscious reflex.