Have you ever wondered what your dog dreams about? Is she really hunting rabbits, or is she just twitching in her sleep? Do dogs dream like we do? While we don’t have all of the answers, scientists are making strides into figuring out dog dreams, bringing us one step closer to understanding our canine counterparts.
Do Dogs Dream?
Humans don't have a monopoly on dreams. In fact, scientists believe that most vertebrates, and maybe even the humble fruit fly, can and do dream on a regular basis.
Like us, dogs and other animals go through several sleep cycles. There are periods of wakefulness, followed by Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep. REM sleep is the period responsible for the most memorable and vivid dreams and is believed to be a part of how the body processes memory, among other things. Scientists can track these cycles and associated brain activity using specialized equipment.
One of the most famous of these dream experiments involved lab rats. These rats spent all day running in a maze. Scientists monitored the brain activity of the rats in the maze and compared it to the brain activity of the rats during REM sleep. What they found was that the same areas lit up in the rats’ brains, which meant that the rats were likely to be dreaming of the maze, and by comparing the data the researchers could figure out where exactly in the maze the rats had dreamed themselves.
This suggested to the researchers that animals tend to dream like we do. The rats dreamed about their day, just like you might find yourself back in the office in your dreams, even if you would rather have dreamed yourself someplace more exciting.
What Do Dogs Dream About?
Most dogs lead more interesting lives than rats. To figure out what dogs might dream of, researchers performed a test that temporarily disabled the pons.
If, like me, you'd never heard of the pons before this, let me explain. The pons is the part of the brain stem that is responsible for keeping your large muscles paralyzed in sleep. In other words, you can thank the pons for preventing your partner from flailing around during dreams and waking you up. Without the pons, we would act out everything we were dreaming about — probably with disastrous results.
You may have noticed that puppies and older dogs twitch and move a lot more in their sleep. This is because the pons is underdeveloped in puppies and less efficient in older dogs. It also happens to human infants and the elderly.
Researchers figured out that one of the ways to discover what dogs might dream about is to temporarily disable the pons during REM sleep. This allowed them, under carefully controlled conditions, to let the dogs act out their dreams.
The results were pretty much what we’ve all suspected for years.
“What we’ve basically found is that dogs dream doggy things . . . Pointers will point at dream birds, and Doberman Pinschers will chase dream burglars. The dream pattern in dogs seems to be very similar to the dream pattern in humans,” according to the researchers.
Does the Dog's Breed Affect Dreams?
Like people, not all dogs dream about the same things, or for the same amount of time. Small dogs have more frequent dreams than large dogs, but those small dog dreams are shorter in duration. Large dogs, on the other hand, have fewer, but longer dreams.
We can also hazard a guess that what your dog does all day determines his dreams. While we can’t yet be sure, the fact that Pointers point and Dobermans display guard behavior implies that breed specific activities take place during dreams, too. Your Labrador Retriever, for instance, is more likely to dream about chasing tennis balls than is a Pug.
Do Dogs Have Nightmares?
Not all dreams are good. Dogs can have nightmares, too. These nightmares are hard to watch. It can be tempting to wake your dog to comfort her, as you would a child, but there are some risks associated with doggy nightmares that you should share with your family.
If you’ve ever been woken from a scary dream, you know that it can take a minute to remember where you are and whom you are with. Like some people, dogs can lash out or snap at the person waking them. This can be dangerous, especially for children. The best thing that you can do for a dog having a bad dream is wait for your dog to wake up and be there to comfort him, following the old saying "let sleeping dogs lie."
What Is My Dog Dreaming About?
There is no way for us to know exactly what makes up the stuff of our dogs’ dreams, but we might be able to guess.
Observe your dog during sleep to see what he does. REM sleep typically begins 20 minutes into a nap and lasts for two-to-three minutes. This is when you might notice your dog twitching or making sounds. Are there any similarities between your dog’s actions during REM sleep and his daily activities?
My dog, for instance, does a lot of running in her sleep. Her paws are always twitching, and her lips move. Is she chasing something? Playing with a doggy friend? Chasing off an intruder? Or simply running down her tennis ball in a big, open field? I don’t know the details, but since these are her favorite things to do while awake, I am pretty sure she dreams about them.
Sometimes, our dogs give us even more clues. In an interview with a Harvard psychologist, one owner reported that he suspected his dog had recently had a nightmare about bath time. This dog did not like baths, and when the bath was over, he always ran to the owner and hid between his legs. He did not perform this behavior any other time. One day, the owner observed his dog having a dream. When the dog woke up, it bolted and hid between his legs, leading the owner to conclude that the dog had just had a scary dream about his bath.
No matter what our dogs dream about, there is some comfort in knowing that they, like us, have dreams and fears that play out in their sleep, making us more alike than different.