Do dogs dream like we do? What do dogs dream about? We’ve got the answers in today’s dog health guide.
When dogs twitch or growl in their sleep, many people assume that they’re dreaming. But do dogs even dream at all, and if so, what could they be dreaming about?
In this article, you’ll find a detailed overview of everything there is to know about doggy dreams, complete with some clues as to what your four-legged friend could be doing in dreamland!
Can Dogs Dream?
The short answer is a resounding yes: studies show that dogs experience dreams in much the same way as we do. But how do we know for sure?
Canine sleep cycles are similar to ours
Let’s start with some context. Human sleep cycles follow a specific pattern, including wakefulness, non-REM, and REM sleep. The REM (or Rapid Eye Movement) stage is when dreams appear – at least ones that we’ll be able to recall later.
As long ago as 1977, researchers showed that when dogs sleep, they go through the same pattern of cycles.
This didn’t come as much of a surprise: in the context of the entire animal kingdom, the brains of dogs are relatively similar to ours in structure. All in all, it makes sense that their sleeping brains would behave in the same way as ours.
Scientists have proven animals experience dreams
The fact that animals dream was first proven in 2001 by scientists at MIT, who ran a study on rats.
In this clever experiment, the rats spent all day repeatedly navigating their way through a maze.
Scientists measured their brain activity during both wakefulness and sleep. The results revealed something remarkable: when the rats entered REM sleep, their brains showed the same activity as when they were in the maze.
Based on this finding, scientists concluded that the rats were dreaming about the maze. Even more incredible is the fact that looking at the results, researchers were even able to locate exactly which part of the maze the rat dreamt about!
This study was a major breakthrough, showing that animals not only dream like we do, but also dream about similar things.
After all, we too tend to dream about the previous day and the challenges we faced, either directly or indirectly.
The brains of dogs, rats, and humans are all very similar. If scientists ran the same study on dogs instead of rats, they would likely get the same results. In fact, if rats can dream, it’s almost certain that all mammals do.
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Why Do Dogs Dream?
We know that dogs can dream, but why does it happen? What purpose does dreaming serve for dogs?
Science still hasn’t fully explored the processes that happen in the body during sleep. This is true for both humans and other living things, including dogs, so current theories are mostly speculative.
While there are no direct clues about canines specifically, it’s usually assumed that dogs dream for the same reasons that we probably do.
According to the most popular theory on dreams in humans, dreaming is our brains’ way of processing information we gained during the day. As we dream, our brains sort through new memories and store new things we’ve learned.
It’s part of the reason why sleep is so important to our functioning: it plays a major role in improving our memory.
The best explanation of why dogs dream is that their dreams have the same purpose as ours.
Essentially, they relive the things that happened during the day – learning, sorting, and remembering new information.
There could be a very good evolutional reason for this purpose of dreams. As the brain analyses past experiences, dreams could work as ‘practice’ for dealing with difficult or dangerous situations.
What Do Dogs Dream About?
We can’t exactly ask dogs what they dream about, so how can we find out? As it happens, researchers have found a way to gain a glimpse into doggy dreams – and how they did it is incredibly interesting.
To grasp the point of the experiment, we first need to learn a bit about something called the ‘pons’.
The pons is a structure in the brain, located in the brainstem. Among other things, it’s responsible for immobilising (‘paralysing’) our bodies while we sleep.
Without the pons, we would be likely to physically act out all of our dreams. As it is, the pons – thankfully! – keeps us still, no matter what we dream about. Dogs have the same structure in their brains, and it fulfills the same tasks.
Back to the experiment. To find out what dogs dream about, researchers disabled the pons of several pooches during REM sleep. Don’t worry – the dogs weren’t harmed in any way, and the effect was temporary.
Without the pons to keep their bodies still, the dogs acted out their dreams.
“What we’ve basically found is that dogs dream doggy things,” said professor Stanley Coren, who used this method in his studies of canine sleep.
The sleepwalking dogs acted as they normally do during the day, sniffing around and chasing imaginary objects.
So, it would seem that there’s nothing particularly surprising about what goes on in a dog’s dreams. After all, a dog dreaming about something they’ve never encountered wouldn’t make any sense.
Just like us, their dreams are an abstract representation of their everyday lives.
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Do Dogs Dream About Their Owners?
Probably! Dogs dreaming about their owners and other people in their environment wouldn’t be surprising at all.
As we’ve seen, doggy dreams are based on their typical experiences. If your dog spends a lot of time with you during the day, it’s likely that you appear in his dreams, too!
Can Dogs Have Nightmares?
Again, it’s very likely. Since dogs can dream, it’s natural to assume that not all of their dreams are pleasant.
At times, you might notice your pooch whimpering or showing other signs of distress while asleep – which could suggest that he’s having a bad dream.
Keep in mind that it’s best not to wake a dreaming dog, especially when the dream appears intense. If startled, he could react in unpredictable ways.
It’s the same with us: when we’re suddenly woken up from a dream, we don’t always control our behaviour in the few seconds it takes us to realise that we were just dreaming.
If a dog is having a bad dream about being in danger, for instance, he could lash out at you without meaning to.
If you really need to rouse your dog while he seems to be having a nightmare, do so gently and from a distance. For instance, try calling him over, saying his name, or rustling a pack of his favourite snacks.
Can I Tell What My Dog is Dreaming About?
Since most of us don’t have the scientific methods available to professional researchers, finding out what your dog is dreaming about is going to involve some guesswork.
When Do Dogs Dream?
Studies show that dogs enter REM sleep around 20 minutes after falling asleep. They stay in the dream phase for 2 to 3 minutes.
During this time, you may observe some physical signs of your dog dreaming.
His paws or nose may be twitching slightly, for instance, and they may make small noises – like quiet growling or whimpering.
Interestingly, twitching during dreams happens more often to very young and very old dogs. The reason for this comes back to, once again, the pons (the part of the brain responsible for immobilising the body during sleep, described above).
In puppies the pons isn’t fully developed, while in older dogs it doesn’t work as well as it used to. As a result, their brains don’t keep them completely still during dreaming.
If your pup’s paws are twitching during sleep, you can safely assume he’s dreaming about running.
Consider what your dog does every day that involves running – perhaps he enjoys playing fetch, or chasing other dogs around the park? This should give you some clues as to what might be going on in your dreaming dog’s mind!
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Do Different Dog Breeds Dream About Different Things?
In some cases, yes. Certain breeds are especially prone to specific behaviours. For instance, Border Collies have very strong herding instincts, and many hunting dogs (like terriers) display a significant prey drive.
If their daily lives reflect those behaviours, they likely dream about them, too.
To use a simple example, a born watchdog like a Doberman is much more likely to dream about chasing an intruder than a gentle companion breed, like a Pomeranian.
A terrier with a strong prey drive, meanwhile, is probably chasing squirrels in his sleep – not imaginary intruders!
At the end of the day, though, these common-sense assumptions are more to do with what a dog does, rather than what breed he is.
After all, if a Border Collie is kept as a pet with no experience as a herding dog, he can’t be dreaming about herding sheep – since he’s never even seen one.
As you can see, it’s impossible to know for certain what happens in your dog’s dreams – we can only guess based on how well we know our four-legged friends.
What you can tell for sure is that your dog is dreaming about his usual daily activities – like running in the park or playing fetch with you.