When a person has an amazing dream or a terrifying nightmare, they can tell others about it the following morning. Even if they can't remember the details, they recall having a dream. But if your pup starts making noises or twitching their paws while they sleep, does it mean they're dreaming? They can't tell you about it, so you can only assume that is the case, but do dogs dream?
The overwhelming assumption is that dogs dream since dreams are a part of the normal sleep cycle. Humans and dogs share similar electrical activity in their brains during sleep, so it's very likely dogs also experience dreams. Your dog may whimper or twitch while sleeping, indicating they're dreaming, perhaps reliving moments from earlier that day.
You'll never get a first-hand account to prove that dogs dream unless science figures out a way for dogs to talk about it. Until that very unlikely (but incredible) achievement happens, you'll have to look at what science currently understands about dogs and their dreams.
Do Dogs Dream?
Yes, dogs dream. Humans and dogs share many similarities when it comes to their brains. Therefore, like humans, dogs also go through several sleep cycles when they’re snoozing, including REM sleep. The REM stage of sleep is where it’s believed people (and dogs) experience their most vivid dreams.
These more involved dreams are because REM sleep is when the brain is the most active, processing memories and making connections. A famous study featuring lab rats helped scientists conclude that rats did dream.
By monitoring the rats’ brain activity as they ran a maze and later during REM sleep, the researchers discovered the same areas of the brain lit up. This similar pattern between the two scans led to the conclusion that rats were dreaming about traveling through the maze.
This study pointed to the idea that most vertebrates likely dream. Add it to the similarities between human and dog brains, and it’s pretty much certain that your furry friend is dreaming. But what are they dreaming about?
What Do Dogs Dream About?
People will only be able to make some educated guesses regarding the content of dogs' dreams since their canine companions can't describe them. Many dog owners will explain their dog's whimpers and fluttering feet by saying, "they must be chasing rabbits through the fields." But what would actually be the most likely events taking place within a dog dream?
Many scientists believe dogs probably recount things that happened earlier in the day, perhaps processing them as they sleep. (Just like the rats running the maze.) Scientists conducted an experiment to understand better what dogs could be seeing in their dreams. To understand the experiment, you need to know a little about the pons.
Dogs Dream About Doggy Things
The pons is in your brain stem, and it plays a significant role in the sleep cycle. It also helps inhibit your large muscles while asleep, limiting your actions while dreaming. Otherwise, people and dogs would act out all their dreams, likely leading to some comical but dangerous results.
In the experiment, researchers temporarily disabled the pons to allow dogs to move while they slept and, more importantly, as they dreamt. Scientists figured that if they could see what dogs did while they dreamed, it would give insight into what their dreams were about. As expected, dogs appeared to act out typical things they would do during the day. In other words, dogs dream about dog things.
So, unless your dog went chasing rabbits through the field that afternoon (or ever in their lifetime), they probably aren't going to dream about it. It’s more likely they’re dreaming about chasing a tennis ball, guarding their favorite toy, learning a new trick, or dragging around their leash. But who knows?
Humans dream about things they've never done and could never do, like flying, performing magic, or being a superhero. But do dogs possess this same imagination and ability regarding their dreams? So far, based on research, it seems unlikely, but it might be something we never fully know.
How Can You Tell If a Dog is Dreaming?
When a dog dreams, they likely display some signs, like tiny twitches or noises. It might even look like they’re smiling as they pant or pull their lips back.
You will typically see more clues in puppies and older dogs since the pons is less developed at these ages. But, it could be possible your dog is having a dream while resting peacefully, depending on what they’re dreaming about.
Can Dogs Have Nightmares?
A logical question if dogs can dream would be if they can have nightmares too. After all, aren't nightmares merely scary dreams? The answer is yes; dogs can also have nightmares since they can dream. However, as with pleasant dreams, the same reasoning applies that a dog dreams about things they did earlier.
Therefore, they’re most likely to experience a nightmare if something happened that day that made them nervous or scared, like a trip to the vet or an unwanted bath. Your pup might start vocalizing and moving more as they dream or seem anxious (like a human would call out or twist around in their sleep).
Should You Wake a Dreaming Dog?
If your dog has a dream, it’s best to let them be or, as the saying goes, “let sleeping dogs lie.” Think about how you feel when you wake up in the middle of a dream. You’re probably a little out of it, and it takes you a moment to remember where you are and that it was all a dream.
Well, it’s the same for dogs. They can become very confused if you wake them in the middle of a dream. They may act out based on whatever they were dreaming about or be very stressed. Imagine if, in the dream, your dog was about to chow down on their favorite food. If you wake them at this moment, they might be confused and think you’re trying to take their food dish.
Or, if your dog was having a nightmare at the time, say coming face to face with a bigger, scarier pup, waking them could lead to injuries. For example, if you wake a dog at this moment, they might think they're still facing the angry dog and act aggressively, unwittingly attacking you or whoever woke them.
Dream a Little Dream, Doggy
Your dog might never be able to share their dreams with you over your morning coffee, but they dream all the same. To make an educated guess about what your canine pal dreams about, think about what they did that day. It's pretty good odds, that’s also what they saw and did in their dreams.
To learn more about your dog and how they think and feel, make sure to check out the rest of our blog. We’re constantly adding new resources and tips on all sorts of pet-related topics so you can be the best pet parent you can be.