Dogs and humans share many of the same fundamental parts. This is particularly true when it comes to the brain.
Sure, we humans don’t have tails, but we do have frontal lobes, occipital lobes, brain stems, central and peripheral nervous systems, and most of the other components that make up a dog’s body and mind.
We’re just arranged differently with different proportions! That’s part of the reason that dogs are so relatable to us; despite their obvious differences, dogs go through life with the same nuts and bolts as we do.
But what about mental states like dreaming? Do we share those with dogs, too?
Do Dogs Even Dream in The First Place?
Dogs dream. Most dog owners have seen their pooch moving their legs while they’re sleeping, chirping or howling through a nap, or doing something else that suggests they’re in the middle of a dream.
Still, how do we know those are dreaming behaviors and not just some canine-specific sleep behavior?
Evidence for Small Mammals Dreaming
One of the most groundbreaking pieces of evidence for animal dreaming comes from an MIT study done in 2002.
The study scanned brain activity in rats as they navigated mazes, then monitored the brains of the same rats as they slept.
All day, these rats worked to decipher the codes of the maze to find their rewards at the center. Rats used different areas of the brain at each stage, and every position in the maze correlated to specific clusters of neurons in the rats’ minds.
It was a long day’s work, so they were tuckered out and laid down to get some rest afterward. While they snoozed, advanced imaging technology was snapping pictures of their brains at different stages of sleep.
When the rats entered the REM (rapid eye movement) stage, their brain activity mirrored the activity displayed while running the maze.
It was so correlated that researchers could reliably identify the specific part of the maze the rat was dreaming about because of how closely the brain activity resembled that from the previous day.
This suggests that the rats were replaying the day’s events in their dreams.
It’s believed that rats, dogs, humans, and all other mammals dream as a way to reinforce the memories of learned behaviors. Other classes of life, including invertebrates like fruit flies, could dream as well.
It’s easy to forget that we have the same parts as dogs because we have the same ancestors. That’s true for all of the mammals on earth.
All mammals evolved from mammal-esque reptiles some 250 million years ago at the end of the Triassic period. We were scurrying around as tiny mouse-like creatures, rarely growing past the size of dogs for another 200 million years.
Our common ancestors scattered under the feet of dinosaurs through the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, never growing because reptilian giants dominated all spots up the food chain.
When (probably) an asteroid smashed earth 65 million years ago and disheveled the diversity of dinosaur life, our furry little great-great-great-great (you get the picture) grandparents started to grow and evolve.
The point is, we are cut from the very same cloth with the same parts. Humans and dogs parted ways as little shrews some 100 million years ago.
As a result, we share many of the same states of consciousness, including dreams.
The Same Stages of Sleep
Dogs spend roughly half of their time sleeping, and that percentage changes depending on the age of the individual. Younger and older dogs will spend significantly more time sleeping than normal adults.
As they sleep, they go through the same sleep cycles that humans do, although canine stages are shorter than ours.
Just like us, dogs have a substantial REM stage (deep sleep). This is the stage when humans have their deepest and most vivid dreams. It’s during REM that we reinforce learned behavior and experience our wildest most vivid dreams.
During this stage, dogs’ muscles start to twitch, their eyes might move, and you might even notice that their whole body moves according to what they’re dreaming about.
Movement during sleep is more common in older dogs and puppies. This is because an area of the brain called the ‘pons’ isn’t as developed during that stage.
The pons is the part of the brain that subdues body movement during sleep. Young dogs and humans will often move around a lot as they dream because the pons is undeveloped.
As a dog (or human) gets older, that restraint starts to fade and we move around more during our dreams.
If They Dream, What Do Dogs Dream About?
Until we create a device that can record and transcribe dreams, we’ll never know exactly what dogs dream about.
Short of that kind of device, though, we can make a few pretty good guesses. For one, we can take note from the study on rats and say that dogs probably dream about whatever they did the day before.
This might be especially true if they were doing some kind of training or spent time in an unusual environment during the previous day. If they were learning something or doing something worth remembering, odds are their brains are running through those experiences during dreams in order to solidify those memories.
Their Favorite Things
Alternatively, dogs probably aren’t dreaming about their day every time they snooze. They might be simply dreaming about things they enjoy or moments that really excited them.
The “chasing dream,” for example, is particularly popular among puppies. At least, it seems that way.
We see their little paws scurrying and their little mouths yipping away as though they were chasing something. Maybe it’s a dream about their ideal squirrel, the mailman, or just a normal game of fetch.
What About Abstract Dreams?
Human dreams are a lot different than the ones we think rats have. Rats are dreaming through their daily routine, whereas you might be eating ice cream in a 1980s music video chatting with a troupe of monkeys dressed like David Bowie!
To us, dreams are often fantastical things that don’t seem to operate with any logic. It begs the question, “do dogs have wild dreams?”
The reality is that we can’t truly know at this point. At some point in the future, there might be a way to analyze the particulars of canine dreams, but we just don’t have that technology right now.
Dogs do have complex minds, however, so it’s not out of the question. It might depend on the dog in question and that individual’s set of experiences. It might also depend on what a canine is able to understand and contextualize.
Maybe dogs have dreams of giant tennis balls coming home from work and handing them treats. Maybe they can climb trees in search of squirrels in the dream world.
It’s unlikely that dogs are having dreams that are too wild, though, because researchers believe that they aren’t capable of visualizing unknown or abstract things. So, canine dreams probably fixate on things that dogs experience every day.
The Scary Things: Do Dogs Have Nightmares?
So, can dogs have nightmares? And if so, what do dogs have nightmares about?
Unfortunately, dogs have nightmares just like we do. Numerous studies on dog sleep disorders have looked into the issue of nightmares. Still, they haven’t gotten much insight into them.
It’s disheartening to hear your dog whimper or cry during sleep, all the while knowing that they’re dreaming about something scary and anxiety-inducing.
Odds are that a nightmare involves things that you know your dog is scared of. Fireworks, trucks, discipline (from you or someone else), and other dogs might find their way into your dog’s nightmares. It’s very probable that your dog is dreaming about something they’ve experienced.
You can rest a little easier knowing they aren’t dreaming about terrifying monsters, but it’s sad to think they might be dreaming about the time you raised your voice when they peed on the carpet.
We all slip up sometimes.
Is It Your Fault?
Know that it’s not your fault your dog is having nightmares. So long as your dog lives in a loving home, odds are that their nightmares are just a natural byproduct of normal life.
More nightmares than usual could reflect a change in your dog’s environment, though. Maybe there’s a scary dog that just moved in next door or maybe they’ve been getting a new training regimen. Many things could spur a series of nightmares.
You can’t blame yourself, though. Think about nightmares that you’ve had in your own life. Can you attribute them to, or “blame” them on anything? Probably not.
Sometimes the brain just works up a scary narrative, and we just have to wade through it until we wake up! It’s natural.
Fearful Behavior in Sleep
There are reports of dogs repeating fearful behavior while they’re in dreams.
For example, one dog owner claimed that her dog would only tuck his tail under his legs after it was time to have a bath. Her dog was having a particularly turbulent dream, then suddenly woke up.
When he woke up, he retreated to his owner, tucked his tail under his legs, and behaved just like he would if he’d taken a bath. The owner was absolutely certain that her dog had dreamt that he was in the bathtub.
How to Handle Your Dog’s Nightmares
When your dog is clearly having a bad dream, it’s best to “let sleeping dogs lie.” That saying exists for a reason.
If your dog is having a terrible dream, it might take them a moment to actually wake up from it. They could confuse you for the antagonist of their dream and actually bite or scare you. This isn’t their fault, of course, because they were just confused and in the midst of a frightening nightmare.
If you do have to wake your dog up for some reason, it’s best to do so with your voice. Avoid touching or rubbing them to wake them from nightmares. Just use a calm voice and give them the space to fully wake up.