I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day – Vincent Van Gogh
Here’s what I know about Porter’s past:
- He lived on the streets for about 6-7 months
- He was put into the shelter where he was soon adopted
- His adopters kept him for a few days, but then returned him because he was too energetic and their dog didn’t like him
- He found himself 2 days from being put down
- His foster mom pulls him from the shelter and he gets to live on a huge farm for about 48 hours
- Then I, along with Tall Guy, adopt the little guy and give him a forever home
In the big scheme of things, I don’t know too much. A lot probably happened to him in those 6-7 months. Things I don’t even want to know, most likely. But guess what, the goofball is used to the good life now. He has to have his blankets, if we have music on too loud he’ll put his head under his blankets, if we’ve tired him out too much he’ll go to the bedroom and go to sleep. He has lost all of his “street sense” if you will.
But there’s one thing that still occurs that I can’t protect him from. I can Pilot him all day, but, I can’t Pilot him when he goes to sleep.
Porter has nightmares. Now, I know you’re thinking, how do you know they’re actual nightmares? Maybe he’s just chasing something and you’re overreacting. Well, trust me; if you heard him you’d know they were nightmares.
There are heart wrenching whines, shelter barks (you know, the high pitched anxiety ridden ones), and panicked breaths. If he wakes up too suddenly from them, the barking is intense and he will back himself into a corner desperately trying to scare off whatever monster had been chasing him.
These nightmares don’t happen all the time. It’s hit or miss. He’ll go weeks without one, just some soft snores and an occasional twitch. And then one will creep up on him, just when I thought the nightmares were past us. They’ll wake me up out of a sleep and instantly my heart wants to break. I’m supposed to be the one that makes him feel safe and it kills me that I can’t reach that part of his subconscious.
But, when I start to feel that way, I remind myself that we all have nightmares. Once in a while they’ll surprise us. The other thought that comforts me is that our nightmares don’t always make sense. The situations he’s facing when he’s dreaming don’t necessarily have to be about his past. Could they be? Sure. But they also could be about some huge giant turtle chasing him through the woods. (Porter was afraid of our pet turtle for the first few months he was with us. Now, Scooter, the turtle, is about 6 inches wide and long. Yeah, he’s super scary).
So, I hold on to the fact that maybe these nightmares don’t have to contain horrid memories. Maybe Porter is just a dreamer. Maybe he just has an imagination that runs wild and sometimes takes over a peaceful night’s sleep.
I don’t wake him up from these nightmares. I don’t want to startle him. I calmly say his name in a soft voice. Many times this is enough to ease him out of his nightmare and into a more steady sleep without even waking him up. However, on the nights when he wakes up too suddenly I have to calmly Pilot him back into reality. This means that I sit down on the floor giving him a safe distance. I tilt my body so it’s sidewise and he doesn’t feel as though I’m being confrontational, and I stay still. I don’t let his barks back me up, but I don’t move forward until he has calmed down. It takes a few minutes, but soon he realizes where he is and I have a 35 pound dog in my lap begging for some comfort.
I’ve met a few clients who think their dogs have nightmares too. I want you to know that you’re not the only ones that are woken up by the cries of your four legged friend that make you want to curl up in a ball yourself. I’m right there with you. Don’t harp on what the nightmares might be about. Just give your pup a safe environment while they are awake and take some deep breaths if you’re trying to help them through their nightmare. It’s not about knowing what happened in the past, it’s not about that huge turtle chasing them through the woods, it’s about providing them a safe space to wake up to and a Pilot that loves them enough to stay calm.
Darwin Dogs, LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, OH