You’re about to give a speech — the most important one of your career — when you suddenly realize you’re standing on the podium naked. Or maybe you’ve got clothes on (Hallelujah!) — but when you open your mouth to begin your speech, you find you’ve got no teeth. Whatever bizarre trial you’re facing, you’re immensely relieved to wake up and discover it was just a dream. Perhaps you cuddle your dog as you try to fall back sleep.
But what about your furry pal? Have you ever noticed your sleeping dog twitch, run, or bark in their sleep — and wondered whether they’re dreaming, too? If dogs do dream, they’re probably not dreaming about public speaking or losing their teeth. Here, experts weigh in on what’s dancing through Fido’s mind when he’s in dreamland.
What are dreams?
Regardless of what your waking life looks like, your dreams can be bizarre, pleasant, or frightening. They’ll often feel real and vivid, even when they’re absurd. So, what are dreams, and why do we have them? The Sleep Doctor defines dreams as “images and experiences people have while they sleep.” They’re usually composed of the person’s thoughts in their waking life, blended with various worries, memories, and experiences. Humans typically have three to six dreams a night, but forget them upon waking; these nighttime visions occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the deepest stage of sleep.
Do dogs dream?
Research suggests that they do. In a 2001 MIT study, researchers monitored the brain activity of rats in a maze, then monitored it again when the rats were asleep. The results suggested that, in the rats’ REM sleep, their memory centers were active, and their brains were creating the same patterns they did when they were going through the maze. This led researchers to believe the rats were dreaming about the maze, just like humans dream about their waking experiences. “The correlation was so close that the researchers found that as the animal dreamed, [it] could reconstruct where it would be in the maze if it were awake and whether the animal was dreaming of running or standing still,” said a report on the study.
Because dogs’ minds are more complex than rats,’ and because their sleep movements mimic activities they perform in their waking life, experts believe that dogs also have robust dream lives. “Watching a dog sleep in recovery from anesthesia after an invasive surgery shows the same sleep pattern as a human in recovery,” says creator of Pet Parking and veterinary surgeon Dr. Chinonyerem Ukweni.
The American Kennel Club notes that you can tell a dog is dreaming when they’re in REM sleep (just like humans), about 10-20 minutes after they fall asleep. They’ve begun to dream if you can see their eyes moving behind their eyelids. “This is the point in the dream where it might feel very real to your dog,” says veterinarian Dr. Alex Crow.
As for the frequency of their dreams, it can differ from dog to dog. “It can happen that your dog might dream more often if they sleep a lot,” says Dr. Crow. But their age and breed can also play a factor; smaller dogs may dream more often, but their dreams are usually shorter, says VCA Animal Hospital. Larger dogs have longer, less frequent dreams. Middle-aged dogs dream less frequently than puppies and senior dogs, adds the American Kennel Club.
What do dogs dream about?
Just like humans, dogs seem to dream about lived experiences. “This can include chasing or playing with other animals, and being with their owners,” says Dr. Crow. Their movements also provide a hint as to the content of their dreams. “Most experts agree dogs are dreaming of running and chasing when their legs move in unison,” says veterinarian Dr. Linda Simon.
Your dog may also bark in their sleep, or perform other strange and sometimes humorous actions. (My corgi, Gwennie, for example, moves her tongue around and swallows periodically, as if she’s drinking in her sleep. Nothing like staying hydrated, even in dreamland!)
The American Kennel Club suggests that your dog’s breed may also play a factor in their dream content; for instance, hunting dogs may track down small animals in their dreams. Your dog’s dreams are dependent on their habits, routines, and personality.
Can dogs have nightmares?
Because dogs can dream, they can also have nightmares. Their nightmares seem to correspond to lived experiences and fears, too. Psychology Today shared a story from a reader, Joseph, whose dog, Goober, hated baths, and seemed to experience nightmares about them. Joseph claimed that when his wife finished bathing Goober, the pup would run out of the bathroom and hide behind Joseph’s legs. One night, Goober was fitfully sleep-running, abruptly awoke, and beelined to hide behind Joseph’s legs — indicating that he’d been having a nightmare about the bath.
Dr. Ukweni notes that she’s worked with adopted dogs from difficult or abusive situations that have violent nightmares — whimpering, and even waking up barking. If you notice your dog growling aggressively, shaking, yelping, or whimpering in their sleep, they may be having a nightmare. It’s tempting to wake them up and stop their nightmare, but it’s better to leave them be, says Dr. Simon. “It’s best to never wake your dog when sleeping, even if you think they may be having a nightmare,” Dr. Simon cautions. “This is because they might be disoriented and there is a risk they could snap out of confusion.” If, for some reason, you need your dog to wake up from a nightmare, Dr. Ukweni recommends calling their name from a distance to gently wake them instead of petting or poking them, so they cannot bite you. Because dogs are usually light sleepers, saying their name should be just as effective.
Your dog adds a lot of joy to your daily life, and chances are, you add a lot of joy to theirs — even in their dreams. Treat your dog to a walk in the park or a nice round of fetch and see if they’re dreaming about it later.