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Help, My Greyhound Has Sleep Issues!

What do you do if you get your new greyhound home and find out that he/she snaps out when touched during sleep?  My recently deceased Pharaoh was the king of sleep aggression.  If any animal (cat or dog) approached him and got too close while he was sleeping he would awaken with a roar. Only once did he roar to a human touching him and that was near the end of his life, so it’s totally forgiven.  I can attest to how scary it is to see your previously docile animal turn into a roaring Tasmanian Devil.

First of all, before you call GHG and demand to return your dog, sit down and think about why your dog might be doing this.  Greyhounds on the track never share their sleeping space.  They often spend the majority of their days in their crates alone and not touching another animal or human while sleeping.  Any sleep they get is typically not interrupted by being touched by another animal or human.  The idea of sleeping outside of a crate and in the path of a roaming cat, dog, or human is totally foreign to retired racers.

Greys who growl or bite upon being disturbed while sleeping are not necessarily aggressive dogs.  They can be the best adjusted, sociable and wonderful dogs.  Their behavior is aggressive, but I do not consider them to be aggressive dogs if this is the only aggressive behavior they display.  Again, the best theory to explain this behavior is due to their “sheltered” sleeping lives on the track.

Even though the behavior is aggressive, I do not think that they have any control over their sleep aggression.  My own experience with Pharaoh’s sleep issues leads me to believe this.  When awakened with a start, he would always look very puzzled and confused after a Tasmanian Devil episode.  Because this is not something our grays can control, it is not fair to punish them or yell at them.  Punishing or yelling at a grey for a behavior that they can’t control is unfair and also convinces the dog that bad things happen when woken from sleep.  You could actually make your grey’s sleep startle issues worse by using punishment/yelling at him/her.  What you can do is manage your grey and to address the behavior at the same time.

How can you manage your greyhound with sleep issues?  First, makes sure that you have given each of your dogs separate beds.  Greys can sometimes lie on top of each other, but that is more the exception than the rule and should be at their choice; they should not be forced to share beds or sleep with each other.  Greys should be able to randomly select the bed upon which to sleep, don’t worry about only permitting Grey A to sleep on bed A.  Second, make sure that there is adequate space between the beds.  If your grey is anything like my new grey, Phoenix, sometimes only ½ of his body is on the bed while the rest is sprawled on the floor next to his bed.  Make sure that each dog has room to spread out this way without spreading into the other dog’s space.  Third, many people do not give their dogs the run of the house when they leave or when the dogs are sleeping.  Crates can be good management tools for keeping all other animals and humans safe from dogs with sleep aggression.  If you isolate your dogs when you leave, make sure you don’t isolate them in a tiny space without being crated or separated by baby gates.  Putting too many animals in too small a space can be a recipe for disaster.  Fourth, if you have young children in your home, I would encourage your dog to sleep only in his/her crate and would consider a plastic airline crate as opposed to a wire crate because they are easier to keep small fingers/hands out of.  And, I would keep him/her off your bed if he’s got sleep aggression.

Addressing the behavior involves the process of desensitizing and counter-conditioning.  You want your grey to be touched so much while sleeping that it becomes no big deal and at the same time you want to condition your grey to think that good things happen when touched while sleeping.  To do this, start with your grey lying down while awake.  Sit down next to him and pet him, touch him, caress him.  Get him used to being touched while lying down. Do this every chance you get.  I would do this for 2 weeks without pushing any further.  The more you do it, the better.  After two weeks of simply petting him while he’s lying down, you want to up the ante and start using treats.  While your grey is lying down, sit down and actually start nudging him with your foot and/or hand and offering him a treat at the same time.  Do this for two weeks.  Don’t forget the treats at this stage.  What you are doing is trying to convince your dog that good things happen when lying down and nudged.

The next stage is to wait for your dog to actually be just about to nod off to sleep.  At this point in time you want to touch him with a broom handle or something with a long handle on it and toss him a really good treat.  You are using a broom handle to prevent yourself from being bitten.  At any point in time if your grey startles and lunges at you or tries to bite you, I would stop and get professional help right away.  I’m available for free phone advise to anyone who has adopted a GHG greyhound. 

After using a broom handle for at least a week, if your grey has not shown any aggression to you at this point, you can start using your own hand/foot to nudge him/her when he/she is just about ready to fall off to sleep.  Don’t forget to throw a really good treat as you are simultaneously nudging your dog.  Again, the idea is to make your grey think that when nudged right as he/she is falling off to sleep, good things happen and treats magically appear.

During any stage of this training, you can also try throwing really stinky smelly treats at your grey right as he/she is about ready to dose off to sleep.  You might want to think about keeping a can of freeze dried liver out of reach to dogs, but close to your television.  As you are watching tv and your grey is about ready to nod off to sleep you can try throwing a piece of the treat at him/her.  The idea is not to hurt him/her, but you do want your grey to feel it, startle and then realize “oh, wow, a treat rained from the sky.  That ain’t bad.”

Again, because greys do not have control over this behavior, it is not fair to punish a grey who snarks when woken up.  All you can do is try to convince the grey’s brain that good things happen when nudged while asleep.  The good news is that with a little bit of hard work, this issue can be resolved.

Lilian Akin, CPDT

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