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Do dogs really dream?

White and brown dog sleeping having a dream advice
© Shutterstock

What are dog dreams like? Do dogs dream like humans? We understand so much about our lives through observing dogs. But what goes on in their lovely heads?

By G. John Cole

We don’t even know that much about human dreams. These are fragmentary sequences of images and sounds, some familiar, some unexpected. Some are little more than feelings. Dreams may exist to help humans learn, to solve problems, to process our experiences, or to consolidate memories. Are dogs dreaming in the same way and for the same reasons?

Are dog's dreams real?

If the question is ‘do dogs have dreams,’ the answer seems to be maybe.

Scientists found some similarities in the brain activities of sleeping dogs and humans. They’ve measured the electrical activity in dogs' minds as they slept. It is comparable to what happens in humans as we dream.

Dog asleep and dreaming
Dog fast asleep and probably dreaming about kibbles©Shutterstock

What do dogs dream about?

The actions that dogs physically perform while dreaming give us a good idea of what they might be dreaming about. When you watch your dog’s paws running in her sleep, you might comment that “she’s chasing bunnies.” Actually, you could be right.

Researchers managed to switch off the part of the brain that stops animals from ‘acting out’ their dreams. For some of us, this suggests a great idea for a new theatre company of dreaming dogs. But for the researchers who were able to watch the dogs apparently perform their dreams, the important thing was to note that the dogs played roles appropriate to their breed.

“[R]esearchers found that a dreaming pointer may immediately start searching for game and may even go on point,” writes Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC, for Psychology Today
“[A] sleeping Springer Spaniel may flush an imaginary bird in his dreams, while a dreaming Doberman pincher may pick a fight with a dream burglar.”

Is my dog dreaming right now?

If your dog is asleep but ‘chasing bunnies’ or eating a burglar, you can assume she is dreaming. But even if she is not acting out her dreams, she may have been visited by the Sandman.

It takes just 10 or 20 minutes for a dog to start dreaming, so look carefully at her eyes. If her eyelids are moving, she is probably having a dream.

Dogs have an NREM (non-rapid eye movement), REM (rapid eye movement), and SWS (short-wave sleep) sleep cycle like the rest of us. Experts recommend you don’t disturb your dogs sleep cycle by waking her when she’s having a dream.

That said, if she seems to be having a nightmare then you need to decide for yourself. Maybe the kindest thing is to bring her back to the physical realm. But be careful that she doesn’t mistake you for the burglar or rabbit that she was tearing to pieces in the doggy dream dimension.

Dog fast asleep
This dog is not ready to wake up! ©Shutterstock

How often do dog dreams happen?

Of course, it’s possible that this is all one big dog dream that we’re living in. But it seems unlikely. No dog, as we understand them, would dream up payment protection insurance, asbestos, or the dark web.

But if we are real and all the dogs are having dreams within our reality, then it seems that younger, older, and smaller dogs dream more than larger dogs or those that are in middle-age. Small dogs may have a new dream every ten minutes or so. Where do they get all their ideas?

Are dog dreams better than cat dreams?

Dog dreams are better for dogs and cat dreams more appropriate to cats. From an objective standpoint, however, dog dreams may be lovelier overall.

Harvard Medical School clinical and evolutionary psychologist Dr Deirdre Barrett points out that the same type of experiment that showed dogs dream of bunnies revealed that a cat will pounce, arch its back, and stalk the room, hissing, if allowed to ‘act out’ its dreams.