Have you ever watched your dog sleeping and asked yourself what do dogs dream about?
Are dogs dreaming when they twitch or bark in their sleep, or are dreams the preserve of us humans alone?
If they dream, what do they gain from it?
Here’s what we know about the dream life of dogs.
Can Dogs Dream?
They certainly can!
A lot of what we know today about the dreams of animals comes from a 2001 study of rats carried out by Kenway Louie and Matthew Wilson at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.
Louie and Wilson were investigating the role of sleep and dreaming in memory formation, but their findings also gave us our greatest insight into the dream life of animals.
Rats’ brains are structurally similar to ours, but less sophisticated.
Dogs’ brains fall somewhere in between, so it’s reasonable to assume that if rats dream like us, dogs do too.
What Do Dogs Dream About?
In Louie and Wilson’s experiment, they found that rats dream about their experiences of the preceding day.
First they measured the rats’ brain activity while they were awake and learning to navigate a new maze.
Then they monitored their brain activity as they slept.
Just like humans and dogs, rats go through cycles of quiet sleep and active, or REM, sleep.
REM sleep is characterized by increased brain activity, and when humans are woken during REM sleep they almost always report that they were dreaming.
Louie and Wilson observed that the rats’ brain activity during REM sleep perfectly matched their brain activity as they learned to navigate the new maze, suggesting they were reliving the experience in their sleep.
In fact, the sleeping rats’ brainwaves matched their waking brainwaves so accurately that Louie and Wilson could even tell where in the maze the dreaming rat had reached, and whether they were moving or standing still!
So dogs probably dream of the day’s events as well, and carrying out dog activities.
Do Dogs Dream About Their Owners?
Yes, and they probably see your face as well!
Since dogs dream about everyday doggy things, their dreams almost certainly include their interactions with you.
Describing the brainwave activity of their dreaming rats, Louie and Wilson said that the visual cortex was active at the same time as the parts of the brain reliving the day’s activities – so they were almost certainly “seeing” what they were dreaming.
A Dog’s Dream
We know a few more things about dogs’ dreams as well.
Firstly, we know that Pointers (medium to large sized gun dogs) dream for roughly six minutes at a time, and they dream on average twice in an 80 minute sleep cycle.
Secondly, we know that small breeds of dog have shorter, more frequent dreams than large breeds.
We don’t know exactly why that is yet. But in other animals it appears that REM sleep interferes with the signals in their body that enable them to regulate their temperature.
Since small animals will lose body heat quicker than large animals without proper control, they may come out of REM sleep more frequently to check they are still the right temperature.
Why Do Dogs Twitch In Their Sleep?
Have you ever noticed your dog twitch, or run, or appear to have muscle spasms in their sleep?
When we’re asleep a small area of our brain called the pons stops our muscles carrying out the movements we act out in our dreams.
Sometimes though the odd movement still gets through to our muscles.
In dogs this is especially common when they are young and the pons is still underdeveloped, and as they get old when it starts to deteriorate.
So those movements are reduced forms of the movements your dog is dreaming themselves making.
If you spot your dog twitching while asleep and watch their movements carefully, you might even be able to tell what they are dreaming of!
Why Do Dogs Bark In Their Sleep?
A small study at Murdoch University in Australia in 1993 found that about two thirds of dogs bark in their sleep, and half of those barked more than five times in eight hours overnight.
Like moving about, our dogs’ brains usually know to suppress vocalizations while they are asleep, but occasionally the odd sound will slip out.
If your dog is barking while sleeping, it’s as harmless as sleep talking in humans, and nothing to worry about.
Why Do Dogs Dream?
This is such a tantalizing question, because actually, we don’t know the purpose of dreaming in dogs or even humans!
Not for sure, not yet.
They are such vivid experiences which unite us all, but neuroscience is still trying to crack the secret of why we do it.
As you can tell by Louise and Wilson’s research, the leading theory at the moment is that dreaming somehow reinforces our memories and makes connections between them, and is therefore an important part of learning.
Only time will bring more insight into the function of dreams.
Do Dogs Have Nightmares?
All the signs are that dogs dream to process their memories and experiences in the same way we do.
So it stands to reason that they probably fall victim to the occasional nightmare as well.
Perhaps they are most vulnerable to them when they have had a bad experience during the day, such as being separated from you.
But just like nightmares are natural, inevitable, and can’t hurt us, rest assured they can’t hurt your dog either.
Should I Wake My Dog Having Nightmares?
We all know how disorientating it is to be woken from a vivid dream. Our eyes fly open and our heart races while we try to work out where we are, and what’s real and what isn’t.
It’s likely our dogs feel the same way, and a dog who is startled out of sleep and disorientated is more likely snap at someone in their space.
Never disturb your sleeping dog if you can avoid it.
First, remember that the dream will end soon, and it can’t hurt them.
If watching them is upsetting you, then the wisest action might be to take yourself out of the room for five minutes.
When you return they will probably have woken themselves, or returned to quiet sleep.
If you really can’t do nothing, stand at a distance from your pet, and softly call their name and talk to them until they come around.
Do Dogs Dream When They Sleep?
As we’ve seen, everything we know about their sleep so far suggests that they do.
Just like us they go through cycles of dreamless sleep and REM sleep, and they probably use dreams of their daily activities to process and consolidate new memories.
And what’s more, its highly likely they dream of your face too. Oh quick, go on and give them a hug!
What Does Your Dog Dream Of?
Does your dog have an active dream life? Do they act out any parts of their dreams?
If they do, it would be really interesting to know how old they are!
Please share your experiences in the comments section below.
- Adams, G. J. & Johnson, K. G., (1993), “Sleep-wake cycles and other night-time behaviours of the domestic dog Canis familiaris”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 36(2-3): 233-248.
- Coren, S., (2010), “Do Dogs Dream?” Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com”.
- Louie, K., & Wilson, M. A., (2001), “Temporally Structured Replay of Awake Hippocampal Ensemble Activity During Rapid Eye Movement Sleep”, Neuron, 29: 145-156.
- Lucas, E. A., Powell, E. W. & Murphree, O. D., (1977), “Baseline sleep-wake patterns in the pointer dog”, Physiology & Behaviour, 19(2): 285-291.
- Pappas, S., 2016, “What Do Dogs Dream About?”, www.livescience.com.