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What Do Dogs Dream About? (And Are They Thinking of You?)
Allison Michael Orenstein/Getty Images

Yes, dogs do dream! In fact, any mammal that experiences the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of deep sleep probably dreams. This includes humans, rats and–of course—canines. REM is the stage during which our most intense, realistic dreams occur. According to Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, canines typically enter the REM stage of sleep about 20 minutes after dozing off. They stay there for two to three minutes. Even in this tiny time frame, dogs can experience incredibly vivid dreams. So, what do dogs dream about? Here’s what we know. 

What do dogs dream about?

In 2001, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that rats, like humans, replay scenarios from their waking hours over again during REM sleep. The rats spent their days running a specific maze; at night, their brains recreated the same neural pathways while they snoozed. This means their dreams were the direct results of their daytime activity.

Now, mammals have something called a “pons” in their brain stems. The pons paralyzes our large muscles during sleep, so we don’t flail around and hurt ourselves. (You can thank the pons for preventing your body from acting out that nightmare you had about cutting your own bangs.) Coren tells LiveScience that researchers in certain studies found a way to deactivate the pons in canines for a brief period of time, allowing them to observe the dogs’ behavior during REM. The researchers found the dogs in the study acted out activities from their daily lives, like running, playing and eating, all while fast asleep.

Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Deirdre Barrett tells the Independent that studying the way humans sleep and dream has led her to believe dogs dream about things they did during the daytime, just like people do. She adds it’s pretty likely your dog dreams about you—which makes sense! You are responsible for your dog’s well-being; it only makes sense she dreams about you giving her treats and tossing a tennis ball. Basically, anything and anyone your dog engages with regularly is fair game when it comes time to dream.

Beyond people and stuff, dogs might dream about lessons and commands. Sleep—especially deep sleep—is crucial when it comes to a healthy memory and retaining and interpreting information. Puppies who are new to the world need their sleep in order to fully process and absorb fresh commands says VCA Animal Hospitals. Not that you needed another excuse to curl up for a nap with your puppy, but knowing you’re helping him remember house rules is a great excuse to use anyway.

When your dog is asleep, dreaming can look like twitching, heavy breathing and even nipping at the air. Interestingly, puppies and senior dogs tend to move more in their sleep. Since the pons is underdeveloped in young dogs and wearing down in old pups, their muscles are more likely to become active during sleep.

On top of that, puppies and senior dogs sleep more than middle-aged canines—anywhere between 18 and 20 hours per day, according to the American Kennel Club. This means they experience deeper REM more often, which could lead to more dreams in young puppies and aging dogs.

Do certain breeds dream more than others?

Again, just like humans, every dog is different when it comes to brain activity and personality. Some dogs will dream more frequently than others for no reason other than their brains are super active. It may have to do with breed, and it may simply have to do with the individual dog.

However, generally speaking, Coren says large breeds experience longer dreams and small breeds experience shorter dreams. He also mentions smaller breeds dream more often than larger ones. So, a Great Dane might have one good, long dream a week and a chihuahua might have 14 quick dreams over the same time period.

Since dreams occur during REM sleep, a dog’s sleeping patterns and circadian rhythm will affect how quickly they can even get to the point where dreams can begin. A dog who naps frequently throughout the day may dream less simply because he never reaches deep, REM sleep. Dogs who are light sleepers and spend most of their naptime in a state of slow-wave sleep probably don’t dream much at all.

A dog who doesn’t nap and is able to sleep through the night is more likely to have a vivid dream. Similarly, dogs who work all day (therapy dogs, farm dogs) may fall into a deeper sleep more quickly, providing more time to relive their day’s activities through dreams.

Do dogs have nightmares?

One study out of Stanford University found dogs can suffer from narcolepsy. It’s safe to assume if dogs can be narcoleptic and have dreams, they probably experience nightmares, too. The American Kennel Club advises against waking your dog in the middle of what looks like a nightmare. Your dog may be disoriented and could act aggressively towards you. It’s reported that 60 percent of dog bites in children occur because the child woke up a dog in an abrupt manner.

Dr. Barrett says the best way to ensure your dog doesn’t suffer from nightmares is to provide him with a loving household and healthy lifestyle. Hopefully, when your pup lays down to sleep, he’ll drift into that REM stage with a head full of memories playing fetch, eating treats and getting a good belly rub.

Finally, one study found the biggest indicator of a good night’s sleep in canines is location. Dogs sleep better at home in a familiar spot than they do elsewhere. So, if you want your dog to have good dreams (aka, reach deep, restful, REM sleep more often and more quickly), make sure they have a bedtime routine and special spot to call their own when it comes time to hit the hay. The second biggest indicator of a good night’s sleep is ample daytime activity - the more exercise your dog gets when the sun’s out, the better and longer he’ll sleep when the moon’s out. 

Until our dogs learn how to communicate exactly what they dream to us, we’ll have to settle for these interpretations.

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