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How Can I Manage Sleep Startle?


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I'm not sure whether this is a training or a medical question, but it's about sleep startle. I'm increasingly becoming concerned, as there have been a couple of times where I've nearly been bitten. In both instances, I was relaxing on the couch with Bonnie beside me. She had fallen asleep and I just moved my position to get comfortable when she suddenly startled with a knee-jerk snap and some scary, growly barking.

 

Then, early this morning and for the first time, Bonnie came in to sleep at the bottom of our bed. Lo and behold, when I moved my foot, the same thing happened, but she was wearing her muzzle. Her startle, startled me, and I thought I might have a heart attack!

 

Is it possible to condition a dog to being touched when it's asleep? Is this a medical issue that a vet can help with? Or is there just no answer, and I have to avoid cozying up to the dog and nix anymore future bed hopping?

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Forever Home on December 20, 2012
Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
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Dogs that sleep startle don't get furniture privileges in my household... though it hasn't actually been a problem for us. One the rare occasion that someone does growl while on the furniture with us they lose their furniture privileges for awhile. We also don't allow new dogs up on furniture. Summit was not allowed on furniture until we'd had him about 4 months. Kili we've had since 8 weeks and she only started being allowed on furniture when she was about 7 months old. I like to have a solid obedience foundation and an established relationship with a dog before I start letting them on the furniture. I also like to have been observing and testing them on their dog beds to know whether they are likely to startle. If no signs of startling while on dog beds then I will start trying them on the furniture just asking them to hop up and right back off. I like to have a reliable "off" command so that if a dog growls or startles I just ask them to get down. No fuss, no drama.

Kristie and the Apex Agility Greyhounds: Kili (ATChC AgMCh Lakilanni Where Eagles Fly RN IP MSCDC MTRDC ExS Bronze ExJ Bronze ) and Kenna (Lakilanni Kiss The Sky RN MADC MJDC AGDC AGEx AGExJ). Waiting at the Bridge: Retired racer Summit (Bbf Dropout) May 5, 2005-Jan 30, 2019

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My boys with sleep/space aggression are not allowed on the furniture or my bed. Until those issues are resolved, they sleep on dog beds. All but two of the greyhounds we have had have eventually gotten past that stage with time and patience. As soon as they learn to trust you completely in most cases those issues go away. Unfortunately I still have two that are like that after several years and believe it or not, they prefer to sleep on dog beds out of the way of traffic. If one of the dogs gets too close while they are sleeping you will definitely hear a warning growl/bark out of them.

Judy, mom to Darth Vader, Bandita, And Angel

Forever in our hearts, DeeYoGee, Dani, Emmy, Andy, Heart, Saint, Valentino, Arrow, Gee, Bebe, Jilly Bean, Bullitt, Pistol, Junior, Sammie, Joey, Gizmo, Do Bee

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Like Krissy said above, training a solid foundation started happening right away in our house. When we adopted Maya, we enrolled in an all-greyhound training class with Mary Waugh Swindell. It was THE BEST THING we could have done! She understood greyhound physiology, and she understood dog training extremely well. Not only did she understand training, but she did a great job teaching us how to interact with Maya. All this is to say that I truly recommend getting into training classes... whether or not they're all-greyhound isn't the issue. The classes are there so that you and your dog learn how to interact. I can't recommend this enough! If I were you, I'd contact the local adoption groups and see if they can recommend a trainer or two.

 

Okay, on to my suggestion. Maya would be in a sound sleep and, if one of us made a sudden move, she would snap awake and growl, bark, and/or snap her teeth. I'm not talking about being on the bed... I'm talking about just walking by her while she slept on her bed on the floor. I'm not sure if it was our trainer or not, but someone mentioned wadding up small balls of paper and throwing them at her while she was asleep. If she "snapped to attention" when being woken up, she'd see there wasn't any danger and quickly mellow out.

 

We used the crumpled paper balls for a while and she'd snap awake, as expected. After a while, she stopped snapping. It was as though she was thinking, "Oh... it's just another one of those stupid balls of paper." We started sitting on the floor a few feet from her while she slept and gently throwing the balls at her. She'd wake up, look at us, and put her head back down. Over weeks, we slowly inched closer. Eventually, we were able to let our hands (and voices, giving an auditory clue) be the thing that was waking her up... and she wouldn't snap.

 

It was a LONG process, but it worked for us. Give it a try, and hopefully it'll work for you, too.

 

-Joel

Edited by IAMs

Gwen (07/2003-11/2009),  * Maya (cancer , 06/2003-10/2013), *Ollie (cancer 07/2013 - 10/2018), *Azalea (cancer, 7/6/2015 - 5/20/2019), Ashe (cancer 04/2011 - 03/2020)

*Aztec (sister of Inca, 12/1996-08/2011), *Inca (half-Siamese kitty ,12/1996 - 9/2016)

 

 

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Might sound silly, but someone gave me the advice of throwing soft toys on my greyhound while she was sleeping, so that after a while she'd be like "oh no big deal". I did that when I first adopted her...however she had no sleep startle issues at all, but I learned that from a distance.

Greyhound Collars : www.collartown.ca

 

Maggie (the human servant), with Miss Bella, racing name "A Star Blackieto"

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Ace had sleep startle when I got her. She slept on a bed on the floor for the first few months I had her. Over time they get used to noises, etc and the general rhythm of the house and that lessens a bit.

Kristin in Moline, IL USA with Ozzie (MRL Crusin Clem), Clarice (Clarice McBones), Latte and Sage the IGs, and the kitties: Violet and Rose
Lovingly Remembered: Sutra (Fliowa Sutra) 12/02/97-10/12/10, Pinky (Pick Me) 04/20/03-11/19/12, Fritz (Fritz Fire) 02/05/01 - 05/20/13, Ace (Fantastic Ace) 02/05/01 - 07/05/13, and Carrie (Takin the Crumbs) 05/08/99 - 09/04/13.

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Our Diego has this. He sleeps in a crate next to the bed and has for the nearly 5 years we have had him. That's just the way it is, he is fine with it. When he's on the couch we know to call his name first. We have learned however that he just growls, but does not try to bite. We just live with it and have had no problems.

Tin and Michael and Lucas, Picasso, Hero, Oasis, Galina, Neizan, Enzo, Salvo and Noor the Galgos.
Remembering Bridge Angel Greyhounds: Tosca, Jamey, Master, Diego, and Ambi; plus Angel Galgos Jules, Marco and Baltasar.

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If the dog is genuinely asleep, you may not be able to change the behavior. Or, it may not be safe to determine whether the behavior has changed.

 

My angel Batman would startle awake with a snarl and a giant snap @ once every 8-9 months. He didn't get on the people furniture. I snuggled with him while he was awake. If he started drifting off to sleep, I moved away and let him be.

 

He was the gentlest dog when awake and helped many children and adults reconsider their fear of large dogs.

Star aka Starz Ovation (Ronco x Oneco Maggie*, litter #48538), Coco aka Low Key (Kiowa Mon Manny x Party Hardy, litter # 59881), and mom in Illinois
We miss Reko Batman (Trouper Zeke x Marque Louisiana), 11/15/95-6/29/06, Rocco the thistledown whippet, 04/29/93-10/14/08, Reko Zema (Mo Kick x Reko Princess), 8/16/98-4/18/10, the most beautiful girl in the whole USA, my good egg Joseph aka Won by a Nose (Oneco Cufflink x Buy Back), 09/22/2003-03/01/2013, and our gentle sweet Gidget (Digitizer, Dodgem by Design x Sobe Mulberry), 1/29/2006-11/22/2014, gone much too soon. Never forgetting CJC's Buckshot, 1/2/07-10/25/10.

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Love your paper ball throwing suggestion Joel. Thank you; at least it's something I can start with her on my own, right away.

 

I didn't connect the obedience/trust dots, for those of who are pro training. Our girl is dominant and it makes sense that she will respect and trust me if I'm the one guiding and leading her. I've been too afraid of somehow "damaging" her psyche, and don't want to be harsh. I know you have obedience classes that cater to greyhounds only in the States; something I wish we had here, so I will need to do my homework and look for classes with an excellent reputation. I really do know it's the best thing I can do if she is to thrive and reach her potential.

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Forever Home on December 20, 2012
Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
My Etsy Shop

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Is it possible to condition a dog to being touched when it's asleep?

 

Absolutely and here is how I trained Capri out of her sleep startle:

 

First, the Prime Directive Which Is Never Broken: Her bed is her own and she is never disturbed there. In our house, this now means only her night time bed in our bedroom, but during her first few months with us it meant anywhere she was laying down.

 

Caveat: the couch is not her bed. Ever. It is a privilege she has for good behavior and is instantly revoked when she doesn't share nice.

 

So, with these rules in mind: I started out letting her on the couch next to me and I would stroke her gently until she almost fell asleep. I wouldn't let her actually fall asleep, make a noise to wake her up again - awake but very pleasantly comfortable. Get her used to me touching her.

 

There were a couple times in the first year when she growled or snapped at me on the couch. Each time I immediately stand up and pull her off the couch. I didn't get angry or afraid. No emotions or punishment, just "snap at me, off the couch you go, on with my day". The last time she did that (which is over three years now) I could see in her face that as soon as she snapped she knew she messed up. I took her off the couch and she rolled tummy up on the floor at my feet. I stood there not looking at her for a minute, and then knelt down and petted her and told her I understood and it was okay. Then I went on with my day. I think her behavior in that episode was profound, and showed me that we understood each other very well.

 

So anyway, very gradually over the span of about three years, she learned to fully trust that someone touching her when she was asleep was not a danger so she didn't snap or growl. Actually it is a combination of trusting that we won't hurt her and also knowing it's bad behavior. She still does growl and snap at dogs that approach her when she's laying down. Just not humans. The final proof: a couple years ago we were on vacation with my in-laws in a shared rental house in the Outer Banks. I walked into the living room and saw DH's 10-year old niece and Capri laying on the couch together. Niece was laying her head and shoulders ON TOP OF Capri's butt. I had to stand there and analyze Capri's body language for a minute to really comprehend. No stress, no annoyance. She was awake, but they were comfy all cuddled up watching tv!

Sharon, Loki, Freyja, Capri (bridge angel and most beloved heart dog), Ajax (bridge angel) and Sweetie Pie (cat)

Visit Hound-Safe.com by Something Special Pet Supplies for muzzles and other dog safety products

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It doesn't need to be greyhound only. My dogs have always attended class with a mix of other breeds. What is important is finding a positive reinforcement trainer. You cannot damage a dog's psyche with positive reinforcement training. The whole point of it is to use only positive markers to show your dog what you want. The ultimate in positive reinforcement training is not using ANY sort of negative, not "no" or even "ah ah". I personally will say "oops!" In a happy voice when my dogs get something wrong and then take them back and start again. So when Summit pops out of the weaves I say "oops!" And happily run him back to the start and try again, then huge party when he does it right. It works for sit, down, stay, and come as well. So this way the dog is never really wrong. She is only ever right or not quite right. You can't really discourage a dog this way. If she keeps not quite getting something you're too far ahead and you make things easier so she can get her rewards, boost her confidence, and then you make it harder again. There are lots of positive reinforcement trainers around these days so shouldn't be too hard to find one in Toronto.

Kristie and the Apex Agility Greyhounds: Kili (ATChC AgMCh Lakilanni Where Eagles Fly RN IP MSCDC MTRDC ExS Bronze ExJ Bronze ) and Kenna (Lakilanni Kiss The Sky RN MADC MJDC AGDC AGEx AGExJ). Waiting at the Bridge: Retired racer Summit (Bbf Dropout) May 5, 2005-Jan 30, 2019

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Guest FastDogsOwnMe

My girl doesn't snap, but will yelp with surprise or growl a little sometimes. She does sleep in bed with me and the others, and it's never been an issue, and most of the time when I touch her, she doesn't react. In your case, I'd definitely be careful, and you've gotten some good tips above.

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It doesn't need to be greyhound only. My dogs have always attended class with a mix of other breeds. What is important is finding a positive reinforcement trainer.

Thanks. I should have said this. We just lucked out and found our way into an all-greyhound class.

 

-Joel

Gwen (07/2003-11/2009),  * Maya (cancer , 06/2003-10/2013), *Ollie (cancer 07/2013 - 10/2018), *Azalea (cancer, 7/6/2015 - 5/20/2019), Ashe (cancer 04/2011 - 03/2020)

*Aztec (sister of Inca, 12/1996-08/2011), *Inca (half-Siamese kitty ,12/1996 - 9/2016)

 

 

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If the dog is genuinely asleep, you may not be able to change the behavior. Or, it may not be safe to determine whether the behavior has changed.

 

My angel Batman would startle awake with a snarl and a giant snap @ once every 8-9 months. He didn't get on the people furniture. I snuggled with him while he was awake. If he started drifting off to sleep, I moved away and let him be.

 

He was the gentlest dog when awake...

 

Agree with Batmom. One of our hounds has sleep startle and is not able to control it because she's asleep when it happens. She awakens snarling loudly with open mouth snapping. This happens daily (for years).

 

We don't allow dogs with sleep startle on human furniture for everyones' safety (humans, plus the dog with sleep startle that could get blamed for an injury). We give her plenty of undisturbed space around the dog beds.

 

Not all Greyhounds are candidates as furniture dogs (some dogs become more territorial over time). We recommend not allowing newly retired hounds on human furniture for at least 6 months and preferably much longer. Greyhounds blossom over a long period of time. Helpful to get to know the dog's true personality first. MUCH easier (and safer) to prevent a potential problem from starting (i.e., not allowing dog on furniture) rather than trying to correct heavily ingrained behavior later (trying to teach dog to stay off favorite furniture).

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I'm going to try and desensitize the startle response and see if makes any difference. As for the training, yes, I'm sure there are a ton of positive reinforcement trainers in my city and I know the class doesn't need to be for greyhounds only, but I do want a trainer who's had the experience of working with at least one greyhound.

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Forever Home on December 20, 2012
Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
My Etsy Shop

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Guest Doggone

Although Autumn doesn't go on furniture, she tends to lie down either close to where I am, or sprawled across doorways, fast asleep :(. Since I need to climb over her to go anywhere (which oddly enough, doesn't bother her at all), as a precaution, I do make sure to waken her before I start moving, usually by making noise or calling her name.

I've always startled very easily (no "fun houses" ever for me!), I wouldn't want her sharing my bed (even though I neither growl nor snap :D). She moves around a lot and I wouldn't want to be "scared" awake.

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Guest FreeholdHound

Harry has never tried to get on any furniture & he's never been asked. He has his spaces, we have ours. Unrelated, but he has sleep startle also. If something touches him raises his head snarling & snapping lime Cujo, it's pretty evident he's usually still asleep. Everyone who comes into the house knows the rules: let sleeping dogs lie. I don't think much about it, I've had several non Greys w/it and Lord knows I'm NOT Miss Mary Sunshine if someone startles me awake - I don't expect him to be any different.

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Guest grey_dreams

When she's asleep, toss a rolled-up sock at her (aim for a foot or rear-end) with a good distance between her teeth and you. When she is awake (and not growling/snapping), toss a treat where the sock landed. It will take some time to desensitize, and it might be that some will never become totally desensitized, but hopefully the the startle-snap response will decrease. Until then, it would probably be best not to let her sleep on your bed or under your arm on the couch.

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And when Bonnie's asleep on a dog bed, never bend or lean over her unless her eyes are open and she's actually wide awake and tracking you. Too many owners have been fooled by the old sleeping-with-the-eyes-open routine, and gotten nipped (or even badly bitten) by a startled dog.

 

If I'm not sure about Silver, I put my hand across her muzzle before I move my head/face into range. If she startles awake and comes up teeth first, I can push her head safely to the side--and the most I'm risking is a nipped finger. But usually, when she feels my hand, she realizes it's me--mostly because Sam is afraid to touch her when she's lying down--and she'll open her eyes and blink before I move closer.

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Kathy and Q (CRT Qadeer from Fuzzy's Cannon and CRT Bonnie) and
Jane (WW's Aunt Jane from Trent Lee and Aunt M); photos to come.

Missing Silver (5.19.2005-10.27.2016), Tigger (4.5.2007-3.18.2016),
darling Sam (5.10.2000-8.8.2013), Jacey-Kasey (5.19.2003-8.22.2011), and Oreo (1997-3.30.2006)

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Our first greyhound had very bad sleep startling. Unfortunately, no one told us this before she came home. We had just had three very large dogs that we'd had from puppies, who always slept with us, with no problems. The first week we had her, Libby drew serious blood on both DH and me, simply because we had never heard of this before.

 

Libby never did completely get over her sleep startling. She was totally fine sleeping on her dog bed, it was DH and I who had trouble not having a dog in bed with us! She got so where she could sleep on the bed for naps and cuddles, but not at night. Of the greyhounds we've adopted since then, three have had sleep startle syndrome. All three got better to some degree with time and patience. Two now routinely sleep with us with no problems whatsoever. Because of Libby, we have trained ourselves to always say their name and make *sure* they are awake and aware before we come near them - even if they don't have any problems. We don't touch them, we don't step over them, we don't jostle their bed, or anything, without them being awake enough to not be startled.

 

It's perfectly obvious why they have this problem. In the kennels, their space is ALWAYS their space, and they are never woken up by getting jostled or poked. There's always a lot of warning when someone comes in, and time to wake up, stretch, scratch, before a person is anywhere near them. It's a matter of trust, yes, but it's also a matter of what they are used to. So it will probably get better the more she settles in to the home routine.

Chris - Mom to: Lilly, Felicity (DeLand), and Andi (Braska Pandora)

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Angels: Libby (Everlast), Dorie (Dog Gone Holly), Dude (TNJ VooDoo), Copper (Kid's Copper), Cash (GSI Payncash), Toni (LPH Cry Baby), Whiskey (KT's Phys Ed), Atom

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