If you have spent any time watching the placid and soothing spectacle of sleeping dogs, you may have also borne witness to more active periods of sleep. A dog’s legs might twitch, a tail may involuntarily wag, or a muted yip, yelp, or bark might emerge from a sleeping dog’s mouth. Do dogs dream? Questioning whether dogs dream, and, beyond that, the nature of those dreams, is not wholly frivolous. These kinds of speculative questions lead scientists at top research universities to breakthroughs in understanding pressing issues about human health.
Indeed, the start of the 21st century has seen foundational research performed and published in the fields of neuroscience and psychology on the existence and impact of dreams on animal cognition. From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the University of British Columbia, research into the dreams of animals has proved useful in advancing our understanding of complex and difficult human disorders such as Alzheimer’s and insomnia, as well as broader concerns with memory and learning.
The evidence of these studies shows that many animals — humans, rats, dogs, cats, and even some birds — share similarities in brain structure and in patterns of electrical activity within the brain, both awake and asleep. This suggests that not only do dogs dream, but it’s almost certain that dog dreams, like our own, not only replay the events of the day, but also allow them to process what they learn.
Analogous portions of brain architecture that produce visual images and create memories seem to have similar functions across most mammal species. This includes the pons in the brainstem, which has, among its functions, the capacity to restrict physical movement while we sleep. Sleeping dogs who are seen to twitch or whimper as they dream are no different than humans rolling over or muttering incoherently in their sleep. In rats, scientists have effectively inhibited or altered the pons and seen full somnambulatory episodes play out during dream states.
Dreams begin within 20 minutes for sleeping dogs. They seem to differ in length and number depending on factors ranging from a dog’s size to his age. Small dog breeds, for example, tend to have shorter and more frequent dreams per sleep cycle. Large dog breeds, on the other hand, tend to have dreams that are greater in length, but fewer in quantity. Regardless of size, puppies, who are still learning about the world they inhabit, tend to have more dreams on average than adult and senior dogs.
Unfortunately, we may never truly know the precise content of a dreaming dog’s nocturnal reveries. Despite this lingering uncertainty, scientific research has provided some enticing suggestions. MIT’s studies on dreams in rats have shown that nearly identical brain activity occurs when these rodents are dreaming and when they are running through mazes.
Since humans also dream about their typical daily activities, it is safe to assume that when dogs dream, those dreams mine the same material. In other words, dogs dream about normal dog stuff: chasing after the family cat, barking at the person who delivers the mail, the taste of the kibble she had for dinner, the location of that bone she buried a week ago, or the sound and sensation of playing with her favorite squeak toy.
It follows, from our curiosity about dog dreams and what they may contain, to ask whether dogs also have bad dreams. Why not? If dogs have dreams that utilize the same parts of the brain and prompt the same kinds of muscle twitches and half-formed vocalizations as humans, then surely the content of those dreams must vary from the comforting to the frightening. Dog nightmares are probably less abstract and more concrete than our own, and more likely to revolve around real dangers they’ve experienced. I’ve yet to see a film like Child’s Play II or Hellraiser II written and directed by a dog, or even a small team of enterprising dogs, so I can only hope that dog nightmares are less grotesque than human ones.
To be sure, this is a prurient and lascivious question to ask, especially about something as lovely as sleeping dogs and their dreams. It has been asked, though, and should be addressed. When I came across the question, I was reminded of that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi discuss — in graphic detail — the contents of their grandmothers’ erotic dream journals.
In the same way that dogs are just as likely to have nightmares as humans are, so too is it at least conceivable that a dog’s resting mind may invent sexually satisfying scenarios. Perhaps in the future, studies will be carried out that compare the dreams of dogs who have been spayed and neutered with those who are encouraged to breed.
One question I’ve not seen commonly asked in relation to whether dogs dream concerns the phenomenon of lucid dreaming. You may have heard of it, either in the normal course of reading stuff on the Internet, or, like myself, through Queensrÿche’s seminal 1991 radio hit, “Silent Lucidity.” Coincidentally, that is my go-to song on karaoke nights at the Pinhook.
Lucid dreaming is the practice of learning to recognize a dream as it happens in an attempt to exert control over the dreamscape. Rather than simply having a dream where you’re flying, you choose to fly when you realize you’re dreaming.
Can dogs fly in their dreams? Do robot dogs dream of chasing electric cats? What do you imagine your dogs dream about at night or as they nap during the day? Let us know in the comments!
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