What do little puppies dream of when they take a little puppy snooze? Well, if the often-restless way dogs sleep is any indicator, they might actually have a lot on their little puppy minds. Almost every dog owner has thought up these questions at some point — Do dogs dream? Do dogs have nightmares?
When bearing witness to a sleeping pup whose paws twitch or simulate running, whose tail wags, or who might even let out a feeble bark or yelp while napping, the answer seems pretty clear: Dogs must dream. So, if dogs dream, do dogs have nightmares, too?
“I don’t think anyone can say for sure what dogs dream about but we can be fairly certain that they do dream,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM.
Before answering the question, “Do dogs have nightmares?” let’s figure out the science behind dog dreams. Scientific research suggests, that like humans, dogs are able to dream while sleeping.
But they aren’t the only animals with this imaginative ability: cats, rats and even some species of birds are also privy to dreaming while they slumber. This is because of a similarity in brain structure. Each of these animals possess analogous sections of the brain that are responsible for creating visuals and memories.
So, what’s up with your dog twitching during his sleep and could that movement answer the question, “Do dogs have nightmares?”
Let’s look to science once again. The pons in the brainstem is responsible for restricting physical movement during sleep. Humans are known to toss and turn while asleep, just as pups sometimes whimper or bark or twitch or wag their tails. But that’s not the only way in which human dreams are similar to doggie dreams. Dog dreams have the ability to summarize the day’s events but also allow dogs the opportunity to process what they learn.
There’s another way in which a dog’s sleep is comparative to a human’s and it has to do with the cycles of sleep. Sleeping puppers cycle through various stages of wakefulness, rapid-eye-movement (known as REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep. In fact, studies have found that dogs spend 44% of their time asleep mostly alert, 21% drowsy and 12% in a true-blue, REM sleep.
“Like people, dogs experience REM sleep, which is when the dreams that we remember occur,” adds Dr. Coates.“If I had to guess, I’d say dogs’ dreams resemble what occurs during their days (running, playing, etc.), but I do wonder if their dreams get as bizarre as our dreams can.”
When Buster’s little paws move during his midday catnap, we like to imagine that he’s dreaming of chasing rabbits around the backyard or on the prowl for an ornery squirrel. But is that really what’s going on during our dog’s slumber?
For dogs, dreams begin 20 minutes into sleep and last about 2-3 minutes — during which time a dog’s breathing can become irregular. Small dogs usually have shorter, more frequent dreams whereas dogs of a generally larger breed usually have fewer dreams that last longer. But there’s one category of dogs that dreams more frequently than any other and it has nothing to do with the size of the breed. It has to do with age.
Puppies dream more frequently than dogs of any other age and researchers believe this is because puppies have more to learn and experience. Young pups also have underdeveloped pons, which means this part of their brainstem isn’t as efficient at stifling physical movement during sleep. For this reason, puppies are more susceptible to moving and whining while they sleep.
So, what do dogs dream about? Do dogs have nightmares? Do they have good dreams? In order to study what dogs dream about when they sleep, the pons has to, for all intents and purposes, be turned offline. With the pons unable to do its job, researchers have been able to take a deeper look into what dogs dream of and the answer is not too unlike what you may think.
“What we’ve basically found is that dogs dream doggy things,” Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at University of British Columbia, tells Live Science. “So, Pointers will point at dream birds, and Doberman Pinschers will chase dream burglars. The dream pattern in dogs seems to be very similar to the dream pattern in humans.”
So, do dogs have nightmares? All signs seem to point to yes. If a dog’s brain structure and muscles are so intensely close to that of a human’s, it only makes sense that dog dreams work in a similar way to human dreams. Sometimes dreams are good and sometimes dreams are inexplicably bad.
“Again, it’s hard to definitively say whether dogs have nightmares, but I suspect they do since their sleep patterns are so similar to ours, and we have nightmares,” says Dr. Coates. “I’ve watched my dogs act out their dreams and at times, they certainly don’t seem to be that pleasant.”
Since dog’s dreams often take events from their day and present them in a way that allows the dog to learn and process from these situations, it only makes sense that sometimes dreams can be categorized as nightmares. Think: the loud sounds emanating from the vacuum, thunderstorms, cars or cyclists in the street — basically any danger the dog has experienced in real life is fair game for a nightmare version of that situation.
The next question after, “Do dogs have nightmares?” is — how can you tell if your dog is having a nightmare? As mentioned above, doggy dreams begin about 20 minutes into shut-eye. If you see your dog having an active sleep, he is likely reacting to the contents of his dream. Is your dog barking or yelping in his sleep? Does he appear irritated or frustrated while still asleep? Is he shaking or twitching? These are all indicators that your dog might be having a nightmare.
“Determining whether dogs are having nightmares is a bit subjective, but you can sometimes get an idea by watching the way their bodies are moving and the tone of their vocalizations,” says Dr. Coates. “If what you are observing is similar to what you see and hear when they are awake and upset, they could be experiencing a nightmare.”
It’s virtually impossible to distinguish whether a dog is having a good dream or a bad dream but as a general rule, if your dog seems disturbed while sleeping, a nightmare might be at fault.
Another good question that goes along with, “Do dogs have nightmares?” — at what point do you intervene with your dog’s nightmares? If your dog is twitching, yelping, barking or acting out in any disturbing manner during sleep, you may wonder if you should leave him alone or wake him up. What’s the better option?
“For the most part, I think owners should simply let their dog’s dreams run their course even if you suspect that they might be having a nightmare,” suggests Dr. Coates. “There should be no long-term adverse effect from a nightmare, and I worry that a dog might strike out if an owner tries to wake them and the dog is startled or fearful.”
However, if you are worried about your dog’s health, intervening might be necessary. “On the other hand, dogs can develop narcolepsy and other types of sleep disorders. If you think what you are observing is truly out of the ordinary,” says Dr. Coates. “Take a video and share it with your veterinarian.”
Tell us: Do you think your dog has nightmares? What do you think your dog has nightmares about?
Thumbnail: Photography © Alexandr Zhenzhirov | iStock / Getty Images Plus.