As I write this, my dog is lying next to me, twitching. He’s asleep, which is typical for him, and his little doggy eyes are closed. His doggy paws are stretched out in front of him, and his sweet little doggy head is between them. His breath is a bit spasmodic, and his eyes are moving in a way that seems to indicate he’s entered the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep — the phase in which humans experience dreams.
But is he dreaming? Do dogs even do that? And what is he dreaming about? Me? And how he’s happy I take care of him? Or does he hate me? And wish he had a different caretaker? And every day wakes up unsatisfied but resigned to the life into which I’ve trapped him? Oh no, but I love him so much? What more can I do?
We reached out to Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at NYC’s Animal Medical Center, to find out (if dogs dream).
Do dogs dream?
“When you look at the research into dogs and sleep, it’s hard to ask the question do they dream, because a dream is a story that we verbalize,” Hohenhaus said. “But that doesn’t mean that dogs don’t dream.”
In fact, the most likely scenario is that dogs do dream. Dogs enter the REM phase about 20 minutes after falling asleep, during which time their brain activity increases — the same way brain activity increases during human REM sleep. Without any concrete way to determine that dogs do have dreams, researchers focus on the wealth of similarities between canine sleep and human sleep.
“What’s really interesting is that researchers use dogs as a model to study sleep and sleep disorders that happen in people,” Hohenhaus said. She mentioned one study that tested whether dogs sleep better after a day of exercise and a night spent in their own bed, compared to a day of lounging and a night in a bed other than their own. “Big surprise, guess what — they sleep better after a day of exercise and they sleep better in their own bed.”
The quality of sleep was determined by the amount of time spent in the REM phase; they had more time in this phase after exercise and sleeping in their own bed. The same response is seen in humans.
“Another thing is,” Hohenhaus said, “one of the things you need sleep for is so your brain can do maintenance.” She used the example of cramming during finals week — if you’re learning something and you don’t get enough sleep, the brain never really has a chance to process and organize that information. “So researchers asked the question: if a dog has the opportunity to sleep, will it learn commands better?” And the answer was, they did — they found a dog’s brain processes learning similarly to people, in that it needs sleep for that to happen.
“So in the dog’s brain, sleep functions similarly to the human brain. So if it functions similarly, why would we think they don’t dream?”
How does a dog behave when he’s dreaming?
Because there isn’t research to definitively say that dogs do dream, most dog owners rely on behavioral clues. “What you mostly get when you look at that question on the internet is pet owners who report their dog running, barking, whining,” Hohenhaus said. “They go to sleep and then 20 or 30 minutes later they’re reacting as if they’re chasing something.” Because it happens when the dog is in REM sleep, they interpret that to be a dream.
“Some people have described dogs who vocalize and then wake up and run and hide and act scared,” she said, “and that’s been interpreted as the dog having a nightmare.” But again, because they can’t verbalize, we’re really using behavioral clues to guess.
What do dogs dream about?
Hohenhaus cited a study that used a brain scan to see what part of a dog’s brain was active during certain daytime activities — running, playing, etc. During a brain scan while the dog was in his REM phase, they found the same part of the dog’s brain showed activity. “So they interpreted that as, maybe the dog was dreaming about what it was doing before when the dog was awake,” Hohenhaus said. A similar study was done on rats, reaching the same conclusion.
“I’m not sure there’s a real way to know that the dog is dreaming about, say, chasing a rabbit vs. chasing a cat.” But the movements and the vocalizations that the dogs make seem to suggest they’re doing typical dog things. “I mean, and what do dogs do? Run, eat, and play.”
Should you wake your dog up if he’s having a nightmare?
“I couldn’t find anything to support that. I mean, are you supposed to wake up people who are having a bad dream?”