6 min read

What Do Dogs Dream About?

It turns out they dream about a lot of the same things we do.

Do dogs dream of electric frisbees? Do they chase squirrels through endless forests of sleep?

Do they dream at all?

"The answer is emphatically, yes," Janis Bradley, director of communications and publications at the National Canine Research Council, tells The Dodo.

If you've ever spent any time snuggled up against a sleeping dog, that answer may seem obvious. After all, a dog will twitch his legs like he's running or even issue a gentle bark into a pillow.

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In fact, the ability to dream appears to be shared by all animals, from dogs to cats to rats.

Bradley cites a 2001 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that examined sleep patterns in rats. The research suggests rats actually dream in much the same way humans do. Since that groundbreaking study, researchers have only seen more evidence that just about every sentient being dreams. So it must follow that dogs, who tend to sleep a lot, also tend to dream a lot.

"What we know is that dogs have a sleep pattern that is very similar to humans," Jill Sackman, senior medical director at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, tells The Dodo. "Dogs have rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that may be accompanied by vocalizing, leg paddling and twitching."

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While knowing that animals dream is one thing, trying to understand what they actually dream about is quite another.

Humans have a hard enough time remembering their dreams the next day. Asking a dog to tell us about his dreams is, understandably, even more challenging.

Even so, scientists have some ideas. In the above MIT study, for example, rats spent their days running in a maze while the electrical activity in their brain was recorded.

Later, when the rats were asleep, scientists noted the same brain wave patterns emerge - suggesting the rats were still running through that maze. In their dreams.

If rats can relive their days in their dreams, why not dogs?

"We know that most dreams are related to the activities that you have engaged in during the previous day," Sackman explains. "We have evidence that dogs dream about doggie things."

So yes, frisbees and forests and maybe even that annoying cat who's always taunting him from the neighbor's window. But, thankfully, just like humans, dogs don't fully act out their dreams - thanks to a part of the brainstem calls the pons. That structure essentially cuts off the power to the muscles, effectively paralyzing the body.

But Sackman cites another experiment in which scientists blocked the pons in dreaming dogs. "They found that, lo and behold, dogs began to move about," she says, "despite the fact that electrical recordings of their brains said that they were fast asleep."

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"During the course of a dream episode dogs might begin to carry out actions that they were performing in their dreams," she says. "A dreaming pointer searching for game and could go on point, a sleeping Labrador [could] chase a ball and a Doberman pincher [could] growl at a burglar."

If dogs dream, then it must also stand to reason that they have nightmares, too. Which is why it's so important for them to wake up to a loving pat from their owner and maybe a few words like, "It's okay. It was just a bad dream."