Your dog is snuggling up on their bed, snoozing away, when you hear a little yelp or whimper. You look over to see their paws twitching back and forth as if they’re running. Their eyes remain closed, and it’s obvious they are fast asleep, other than the jerky, small movements, and muffled whines. This experience might make you wonder: Do dogs dream? What do dogs dream about?
Other dog owners want to know, too, and scientists have done a lot of research about dreams in animals. Dog dreams are impacted by their sleep cycles, size, and age. Here’s what you need to know about your pooch’s sleeping brain.
Do Dogs Dream?
Plenty of research has been done on the question of whether or not dogs dream. The resounding answer in the scientific community is yes, dogs have dreams!
To understand how we’ve discovered the truth about dog dreaming, we need to explain the following:
- Dog sleep cycles
- What kind of dream studies have been done on animals
- Factors that impact a dog’s dreams
All About Dog Sleep Cycles
What’s happening when your dog is sleeping? Sleep is a natural state experienced by all animals through reduced consciousness and little to no voluntary movement. It allows our bodies and brains to recharge and process the information we’ve taken in for the day.
Dogs and humans have similar sleep schedules and exhibit similar brain activity that can be divided into two phases of sleep: slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. SWS is a lighter stage of sleep when it is easy to wake your dog with even a small noise. This stage happens at the beginning and end of a complete sleep cycle. REM is a deeper stage of sleep, and at this time, you might notice your dog twitching and whining. Dogs spend about 10 percent of their sleeping time in REM sleep.
What We Know About Dream Experiments and Dogs
One of the primary experiments referenced when discussing dogs’ dream habits is actually an experiment on rats. A 2001 MIT study showed that rats actually replay images of their waking hours while sleeping, proving that they experience dreams as humans do. The general assumption is that because rats dream and their brains are less complex than a dog’s, dogs must dream, too.
Factors That Affect a Dog’s Dreaming
There is evidence that size impacts a dog’s dream frequency. Scientists think smaller dogs tend to have shorter and more frequent dreams, while larger dogs have longer dreams but fewer throughout a sleep cycle. Age will also impact a dog’s dreaming. Puppies have a lot of information to synthesize during their sleep and will likely dream more than older dogs because of this.
What Do Dogs Dream About?
There is no way to know what our dogs dream about, but scientists have made some educated guesses. Dogs probably dream about their daily activities in the same way humans do.
To understand how scientists have come to this conclusion, we need to understand a part of the brain called the pons. The pons was used in a study to prove that dogs dream about their daily lives and activities. The results of this study suggest that it’s likely that dogs can also have nightmares, at least occasionally.
Dreaming in Action: the Pons
The pons is a structure present in the brainstem of both humans and dogs. The pons keeps us from acting out our dreams while sleeping by controlling our muscle movement during the sleep state. It’s underdeveloped in puppies, which is why they tend to display more movement while sleeping than older dogs.
Dogs Dream About Daily Activities
A fascinating study used the pons to demonstrate that dogs dream about their daily lives. Researchers disabled the pons so that dogs in the study could act out their dreams. They saw that Pointers, a hunting breed, were displaying hunting behaviors during their sleep. This proved for the first time that dogs were dreaming about their daily activities.
While a Pointer might dream about hunting birds, a pug is probably less likely to do so. A retriever might dream about fetching his favorite ball, while a guard dog breed might dream about barking at an intruder. Each dog’s individual experiences inform what they will dream about – just like us.
Do Dogs Have Scary Dreams?
Dogs have stressful and frightening experiences sometimes, and because we know they dream about their experiences in real life, they can probably have what we call nightmares.
One anecdote that is popular regarding dog nightmares is found in Psychology Today. The owner of a Basenji, a hypoallergenic dog that traditionally hates water and baths, says his pet had a dream about a dreaded bath. The dog’s typical behavior after a bath is very distinctive: The animal runs and hides between his owner’s legs. When the dog woke suddenly from an active dream, he ran to his owner and hid between his legs. Since the dog only does this immediately after a bath, it indicated that the dog had a nightmare about the bathtub.
Nightmares in dogs are likely infrequent and often feature a fear of something as harmless as a bath, although your pooch might disagree with that assessment!
Dog Sleep Behavior and Dreams
While our dogs can’t tell us what they dreamed about, we might be able to deduce some of what’s going on in their minds by watching their movements and behavior as they sleep. Many pet owners report that their dog might kick, twitch, paddle their legs, bark, or whine during sleep.
While we can never know exactly what’s going on in your sleeping pet’s mind, we can make some assumptions about what those behaviors might indicate about your dog’s dreams. It’s also important to know when those movements might indicate something unhealthy, like a seizure, and how your dog’s sleeping position can impact their movement during sleep.
What It Means When Your Dog Twitches or Vocalizes While Sleeping
From kicking once or twice to a simple twitch of the leg to consistent paddling of the feet in a running motion, your dog will likely move around a little bit while he or she is in a dream state. This is completely normal, as their muscles are responding to the activity in their dreaming brain.
Likewise, you might hear your dog whining or barking during their sleep too. These sounds often pull at our heart strings and make us worry that our pet is having an unpleasant dream or feels stressed, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes your dog is just howling at the rabbit they're chasing, and it’s coming out as a whimper in their sleep state. Either way, it’s best to let your dog’s dream run its course. Even if it’s a scary one, it’ll be over soon and they’ll be okay. Don’t disrupt their rest in an effort to “save them” from a scary dream.
When Dream Activity Can Be Concerning in Dogs
A small amount of twitching and whining during sleep is not anything to be concerned about, but if the activity starts to interfere with your dog’s daily rest, it may be an issue. Your dog needs plenty of sleep and if excessive movement and active dreaming seems to be disrupting their sleep patterns, you should consult your veterinarian.
Excessive twitching can also be an indication of other health issues, such as low blood sugar, malnutrition, infection, stress, and possibly even seizures and neurological issues. Seizures usually happen when a dog is awake, but if your dog has a sleeping seizure, it will look much different from their typical dream movements. A seizure is usually accompanied by a stiff body, opened eyes, foaming at the mouth, and labored breathing.
How Your Dog’s Sleeping Position Might Impact Movement
Different dogs have different sleeping positions. Cold-weather dogs like Huskies tend to sleep in a curled-up position with their tail tucked into the rest of their body. Because their muscles are more taut and tense in this position, they are less likely to make movements associated with their dreams. Alternatively, a Basset Hound or Labrador that sleeps in a more splayed-out position is more likely to paddle their legs or twitch while sleeping because their body is more relaxed during the dream state.
Don’t Wake a Dreaming Dog
If your dog is asleep, it’s best to leave them alone and teach your family to do the same. Many cases of children being bitten by a dog were instigated because the child interrupted the animal’s sleep. But even without the risk of a bite, waking a dog during their dreaming is unsafe because dreams mean they are getting deep, restful sleep.
If you feel like your dog is a little hyperactive and struggles to settle into a dreamy state, you might support their wellness with the addition of a CBD oil for dogs with the calming support of melatonin. All dogs are different, and some might need a little more help to get into that deep, restful place where dreams can happen.
When thinking about “what do dogs dream about,” just remember that your pets need their rest to remain happy and healthy, so, as they say…Let sleeping dogs lie!