Do Dogs Dream?

do-dogs-dreamUnlike traditional cartoon images, real dogs don’t recline on a therapist’s couch and describe their dreams, so we can only assume that they have dreams. Though we won’t ever get a first-hand account of their nighttime reveries, scientific evidence indicates that our canine friends do, indeed, dream.

 

What are dreams?

Dreams occur during sleep, so understanding the sleep process helps define what dreams are. Sleep is a natural state of being in which consciousness and voluntary muscular activity are reduced in both people and animals. Sleep is very important for growth and allows downtime to recharge body systems. While sleeping, the brain also processes information and experiences that occurred during waking hours. Dreaming is part of this sleep cycle. When we dream, we aren’t fully conscious, so while our dreams can be quite vivid and seem very real, we don’t actually smell, taste, or feel anything.

During sleep, the brains of humans and dogs function in a similar manner and exhibit brain wave patterns that show a difference between the two basic stages of the sleep cycle. When you or your dog first fall asleep, you experience SWS, slow wave sleep, when brain waves are slow and undulating. During this stage of the sleep cycle, mental processes are quiet, but muscle tone is still active so the body is not totally relaxed.  Your dog will appear to be resting calmly but can easily be awakened during SWS.

Later, a deeper stage of sleep occurs, marked by rapid eye movements – so this stage is called REM sleep – during which brain waves are faster and irregular. Unlike SWS, muscles are more relaxed during REM, but the mind is more active and the eyes dart rapidly beneath the eyelids. During this stage of heightened mental activity, your dog may whine, breathe rapidly, and move his legs.

"Both humans and dogs experience
both stages of the sleep cycle."

Both humans and dogs experience both stages of the sleep cycle. We know that humans dream, and since the sleeping brains of dogs and people go through similar stages of electrical activity, it is safe to assume that dogs dream, too. Scientific research conducted in 2001 at MIT demonstrated comparable brain wave patterns in humans and dogs which validated this assumption. The conclusion is that dreams are part of the normal sleep cycle, and dogs do indeed have them!

 

What do we know about dog dreams?

Even though dogs don’t awaken and describe their dreams, human scientists have managed to gather a lot of information about doggie dreams and sleep patterns through clinical observations. Here’s what sleep-watching scientists found out.

As a dog falls asleep, his breathing becomes deeper and more regular. After about 20 minutes of slumber while in REM sleep, dreams usually begin for the average dog. While dreaming, the dog’s breathing may become shallow and irregular, and muscles may twitch. His eyes move behind the closed lids and dart about as if the dog is looking at something. It is believed that during this REM sleep, dogs are visualizing dream images much like their owners do in this phase of sleep. In fact, if you wake a person during the REM sleep phase, they frequently report that they were dreaming.

"Like his owner, a dog may relive daytime
experiences and “sleep run” as he
chases a cat or fetches a ball."

During REM, the sleeping brain functions much like it does when awake, so dogs and people dream about things that occurred during their waking hours. Information gathered during the day is processed at night and may be relived in dreams. Luckily, dreams include a safety feature: the pons.  The pons is part of the brain that stops us from physically acting out our dreams. Even though you may feel like you ran a marathon or jumped out of an airplane, you are safely tucked in bed. Like his owner, a dog may relive daytime experiences and “sleep run” as he chases a cat or fetches a ball.

 

How often do dogs dream?

Some dogs dream more than others, and the frequency and length of dreams vary according to age and size of the dog. For example, the young, innocent minds of puppies experience more dreams than adult dogs. Pups acquire huge amounts of new information daily and have much to process at night.

Likewise, smaller dogs seem to have more dreams that their bigger friends. Research by psychologist Stanley Coren illustrated that the length and frequency of dreams may be related to the animal’s size.  A toy poodle may dream every 10 minutes, while a Labrador Retriever may only dream once every 60-90 minutes. However, the poodle’s dreams may last only a minute while the Labrador’s dreams may be 5-10 minutes long. Dream length and frequency are also related to the amount of sleep required. A large dog that has an active day outside may sleep more soundly and experience longer phases of REM sleep, giving him more time dream.

 

Do dogs have nightmares?

Some owners are awakened from their own dreams when their dogs whine or thrash about. It may be alarming to see your dog running in place while sleeping or hear him whimper, but don’t be frightened. Although it’s annoying to have your sleep interrupted, there is no need to worry about your dog’s nighttime antics – most dreams are not nightmares. Dreaming is a normal, healthy occurrence and is part of a regular 24 hour cycle of wakefulness and sleep.

"Dreaming is a normal, healthy occurrence
and is part of a regular 24 hour cycle
of wakefulness and sleep."

With that said, it’s important to note that dogs and humans need uninterrupted sleep for health of mind and body. Provide your dog a quiet, comfortable area to rest. And don’t disturb his slumber! Approximately 60% of dog bites in children occur when the child wakes a sleeping dog, so teach youngsters to let their doggies nap. Let’s keep the old adage in mind…”It’s best to let sleeping dogs lie”….and dream….

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

© Copyright 2015 LifeLearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.