Your dog seems to be forever napping, stretched out on the cool tile floor of the kitchen in the summer and curled up next to the fireplace in the winter. While deep in sleep his legs start twitching, and he makes small yelping sounds, almost as if he's chasing a ball or a rabbit in his sleep. And the evidence points to the fact that perhaps he is — in his dreams.
Do dogs dream?
Dogs and humans have remarkably similar sleep patterns, even though dogs sleep far longer than us, about 14-to-16 hours a day. We both go through several stages of sleep, starting with light sleep in which brain waves slow down. We then descend into a deeper state of sleep in which the body repairs tissue and stimulates growth.
The final stage in sleep is called rapid eye movement sleep or REM. During this state, the most vivid dreams occur. Eyes jerk quickly, the heart rate increases, and breathing becomes shallower and more rapid.
But since canines can't tell us about their dreams, how do we know they are dreaming? Research in dogs, rats, and cats, points to the fact that animals do dream. A researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology measured brain waves of sleeping rats and found neurons lit up during REM sleep similarly to the way they did when running through a maze during the day, much as if they are reliving their day. The researcher theorized that if rats appear to be dreaming, dogs likely are as well.
In both humans and animals, a brain structure called the pons varolii paralyzes major muscles, so we don't act out our dreams. You may notice a puppy twitching more in his sleep than an adult dog. That is likely because the pons varolii isn't fully developed yet, so their dream movements are partially visible to their owners. Similarly, in senior dogs, the pons less reliably renders them motionless in sleep.
In an experiment, researchers disabled the pons on dogs and observed them getting up while still asleep in the REM stage and running and pouncing on invisible objects. According to Stanley Coren, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies canine communication, a pointer might search for animals and point at them, while a Doberman might chase away dreamed-up intruders.
What do dogs dream about?
Like people, dog dreams incorporate events from their day. They may be playing fetch with sticks in the park, watching out the window for the mail carrier, or taking a walk with you. Dogs may even dream about canine friends they like to play with.
How can you tell if your dog is dreaming?
About 20 minutes after your dog falls asleep, his breathing becomes more shallow and irregular, while muscles may twitch. As the name REM suggests, their eyes start to move rapidly back and forth behind closed lids as if watching images flash by.
Do dogs have nightmares?
Does your dog hate baths or going to the vet? Is he afraid of thunderstorms? Just as dogs dream about the fun aspects of their everyday lives, they likely relive their fears as well, Dogs who are having bad dreams may yelp, cry out, or growl.
Is it OK to wake a dog while dreaming?
The consensus is to let sleeping dogs lie. Like people, to get the most restful, healthy sleep, dogs need to go through all the cycles of sleep uninterrupted. If you must wake your dog, do so gently. Startling him may cause him to snap at you as he transitions from sleep to wakefulness.