Updated - Mar 27th, 2021
Have you noticed when your dog sleeps, their muscles start twitching, you hear yipping, and paws paddling like they’re running? Have you wondered if this is your dog dreaming?
While we don’t know exactly what our dogs are dreaming about, the research is pretty compelling that yes, dogs dream. The electrical responses in their brains during sleep are very similar to humans, showing we share the same sleep patterns and types of dreams with our furry friends.
The powers of sleep
In order to understand more about dreaming, we must look at sleep first. Sleep is a natural state with reduced consciousness as well as reduced sensory and voluntary muscle activity. So you can’t smell, eat, or walk during sleep. Research has proven adequate sleep aids in the growth and repair of body systems, and during sleep, our brains process our daily experiences.
There are four stages of sleep. But, when looking at dreaming, we’re really interested in the Non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep stage and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep stages. The other two stages are for transitioning periods of the body systems transitioning to sleep or to wakefulness.
A study of six Pointer dogs sleep-wake patterns during 24-hour periods found dogs will sleep about 12-14 hours per day, and cycle through wakefulness, Non-REM, and REM sleep cycles just as humans do. They actually spend about 12% of their sleep in REM or the dream state.
Non-REM sleep is deep sleep and seems to be where we have memory formation (the brain’s hippocampus stores memory) and categorize our day’s activities. This stage is characterized by a slower, but regular breathing pattern of deep relaxation.
Scientists have determined that all vertebrates (beings that have backbones) have periods of Non-REM sleep. And interestingly, even some invertebrates, like the fruit fly, may have some sort of dream cycle.
REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep is a more active sleep and where vivid dreams happen. About 10-20 minutes after your dog falls asleep, you’ll notice them breathing more rapidly. Their muscles or feet may twitch, and their eyes move rapidly beneath their lids. This is the dream state, and scientists have been studying this stage of sleep for decades to find out how and why people and animals dream.
Scientific evidence suggests that during REM sleep, our brains make sense out of our daily experiences. Sort of like a non-consequential environment to explore solutions to problems and work out processes. This may be why you can suddenly discover a solution to a problem in your dreams. Well, dogs do this too.
Puppies dream more because they are learning and processing the activities and environment around them. It’s easy to notice since they do it much more often than an adult dog.
In 2001, researchers Matthew Wilson and Kenway Louie at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ran a study on laboratory rats and dreams. In this study, the rats ran mazes leading to food during the day, and researchers tracked their brain wave patterns.
Once asleep, the rat brain activity showed the same brain wave patterns, indicating they were going through the same activities they had experienced while awake. This process was so precise and clear, the researchers could match the electrical activity of the rat’s daytime activity and pinpoint where in the maze it was during the dream and whether it was standing still or moving.
That study proved that animals do, in fact, dream, and their brain’s electrical sequences were very similar to human dreams, in that dreams involved things they experienced when awake.
For your dog, this means they may be dreaming about their interactions with you, playing fetch, going for walks, or chasing a squirrel. We also know that the size and breed of the dog can predict the types of dreams they will experience.
Breed matters in dreams
A fascinating study focused on what dogs dream about. It showed the differences in dog dreams between breeds and the sizes of dogs. It focused on the Pons, the part of the brain deep in the brainstem that controls large muscle movement during sleep. When we sleep, the Pons shuts down our large muscle movement, allowing us to dream, but not physically act out those dreams.
For the study, scientists disabled the Pons in the dog’s brain, allowing them to act out their dreams even though the brain waves showed they were still asleep. They found Pointers may point or search for imaginary game, Spaniels may dream of flushing out imaginary birds, or a Labrador Retriever may dream about chasing and retrieving a dream ball. The research suggests that, just like our dreams, dreams of dogs are connected to actual experiences.
Age and size matter in dog dreams
Science believes that yes, size and age matter as much as a dog’s breed.
Puppies and senior dogs dream more than middle-aged dogs. This is due to puppies having underdeveloped Pons and senior dogs can have less-efficient Pons.
Dr Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of the fascinating book “Do Dogs Dream”, says that the size of the dog indicates the size of the dreams.
The smaller the dog, the faster the dreams happen and the larger the dog, the longer the dreams.
- Small dogs will have 60-second dreams every 10 minutes during the REM sleep stage.
- Medium-sized dogs will have 2-3 minute dreams every 30 minutes.
- Large dogs will have 5-10 minute dreams every 60 minutes.
In between the dreams, the dog will be in the deeper or Non-REM sleep stage.
Do dogs have bad dreams?
Yes, just as dogs can dream about happy experiences, it makes sense to believe they also dream about frightening or concerning ones. Your dog could dream about fights with another dog, being alone, or thunderstorms. You could notice them yelping, or whining during sleep. What do you do if you think your dog is having a bad dream? Should you wake them up?
Let sleeping dogs lie
If you notice your dog is having a bad dream or seems upset or frightened, we dog parents want to help them by stopping the dream. Sometimes this isn’t wise. Your dog could be startled and act out towards you, not realizing they are no longer under threat or in a frightening situation.
For that reason, it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. If you must wake up your dog, do it by calling their name, or dropping an object on the floor to awaken them without drawing their attention to you during a period of disorientation when waking up abruptly.
The bottom line on dog dreams
Yes, your dog dreams and their dreams are basically the same as ours – it’s all about activities and experiences.
If, when in deep sleep, you notice your canine companion’s muscles twitch, paws paddle, and eyes move rapidly, they are watching a dream just as if they were actually taking part in the activity. And since dogs are so attached to their pet parents, chances are they’re having sweet dreams about interacting with you. How sweet is that?