By Tracy Ahrens
I remember waking one evening to the sound of howling. It startled me out of deep sleep––convinced that a coyote was in my bedroom. The source of this howling was actually my Pointer/Greyhound-mix, Trucker, lying on his bed beside mine. I had to touch him, tell him it was okay, and wake him from an apparently distressing dream.
Trucker is the first rescue dog I’ve had. My first dog, a Brittany Spaniel named Speckles, I purchased as a puppy. His sleep was always calm and deep. He loved sleeping upside down, on his side; most of his life he found comfort snoozing in his crate.
With Trucker, I still find myself shedding tears when I see him kicking and hear him barking and whimpering while in the throes of obvious nightmares. Thankfully, with my love and my devotion to bring Trucker peace, these dreams have decreased in intensity since he came into my life at the age of 5 nearly four years ago.
I read that it is not known if dogs have nightmares, but many rescue dogs that have suffered physical and/or emotional trauma are known to shake, bark, and whimper in their sleep.
A fellow animal rescue volunteer told me that her rescue dogs also went through this “nightmare stage.” She said that it can take years for the bad dreams to stop completely.
From what I learned through shelter workers about Trucker’s past, I can understand his tormented mind.
As a puppy Trucker survived being tossed out of a semi cab. Someone rescued him and then sold him at a garage sale. The couple that purchased him divorced, and Trucker moved into a new residence with the man. The man’s roommate threatened to hurt Trucker because he tore things up during bouts of separation anxiety. The man surrendered him to a shelter. His ex-wife reclaimed Trucker when she spotted him at a pet adoption fair; however, she returned him to the shelter when he tore up her home due to anxiety.
While Trucker was at the shelter, he had to be placed on two medications––Prozac and a sedative––just to help him stay calm and to keep him from injuring himself by trying to escape from his cage while the staff was away.
The first night that Trucker was at my home, he hopped onto my queen-size bed, made a nest in the blankets, and placed his head on my pillow. When I saw how relaxed he was, I covered him up with a heavy blanket and left him there to sleep. He kept opening his eyes slightly to make sure I didn’t leave him as others had before.
From what I’ve read about the sleeping behavior of dogs, those that have been kept outside or feel they need to jump to their feet quickly will sleep in a curled-up position. They rarely relax and seldom fall into the deep REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep where the body is relaxed but the brain stays active.
The evening when I woke to Trucker’s howling, he was lying on his side––a sleeping position that experts say shows a dog is comfortable with its surroundings. When he relaxed, his mind hit REM and howling began.
When Trucker was living at the shelter, he found comfort lying on an old blanket on the office floor while workers interacted around him. One volunteer said she’d find a quiet area, spread a blanket across the floor, and sit with Trucker on it while reading to him. She said it helped to calm his nerves.
Since Trucker appeared to love the warm, snug feeling of blankets, I started purchasing fleece throw blankets to keep in every room of our home. Today he has 12 little blankets of various colors and motifs. Wherever he sleeps in the house, I make sure that he has a blanket over or around him.
When I first saw Trucker sleeping upside down on my bed with his long legs sticking straight upward, I smiled. Sleeping upside down, experts say, is the most comfortable and restful position for a dog.
Today I do not care where Trucker sleeps in our home as long as he is happy. To see him spread out on his side or upside down brings tears to my eyes because I’ve helped him find this peace. Sometimes he drifts off while lying lengthwise beside me in bed. I cover us both up and we wake hours later, together.
A fellow animal rescue worker told me to keep doing what I was doing with Trucker and eventually his nightmares would pass. Slowly over the past four years, they have eased, and together Trucker and I have found peace.
Tracy Ahrens is a veteran journalist, author, artist and mom to three rescued cats and one dog. See her web site at tracyahrens.weebly.com and add her book, “Raising My Furry Children” to your collection, raisingmyfurrychildren.weebly.com.
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