It’s not uncommon for pet owners to witness unusual behaviors in their canine pals when they’re asleep in their dog bed. They may run, scratch, quiver, growl and sometimes even whimper so it’s apparent something is going on even if we’re not sure exactly what it is. Scientists have been studying the question for years and agree that our dogs are not really all that much different than we are when it comes to sleep patterns.
Do Dogs Dream?
Yes, they do. After extensive study, scientists have come to the conclusion that dogs not only dream but they dream a lot like humans. It is believed that they reenact moments of significance that happened during their day just like we do. Prior to 2001, scientists had yet to thoroughly research the question. Since that time, however, extensive study has reinforced the belief many humans have had for years about their pets sleeping habits.
Stanley Coren, the AKC Family Dog columnist, suggested that pet owners curious about the topic should watch their dog about 10 to 20 minutes after they fall asleep. Just like in humans, the movement of the eyes indicates REM sleep which is when dreaming occurs. Continued observation will reveal the direction dreams take by noting muscular movements and/or vocalizations that occur shortly thereafter.
If the dog’s activities were observed throughout the day, owners might be able to determine what the dream was about. For instance, if the dog chased a rabbit during the day then during sleep ran and then recreated the same noises made during the activity while awake, it would be possible to hypothesize that the dream was about chasing rabbits. Additionally, just like with humans it’s best not to wake a sleeping dog especially during the dream cycle as the startled response could result in a defensive move such as a bite.
Scientists have also discovered that the age of the dog as well as the size matters when it comes to how much they dream. Puppies dream the most often. It is believed that they are processing so much input that dreams are a way to make sense of their new world as well as learn from daily experiences. Smaller dogs also dream more often than larger dogs. It is estimated that they dream about every 10 minutes throughout the night.
The Capabilities of Dogs
Animal Planet believe that the average dog can comprehend and process around 165 words. That means they experience some form of cognitive thought process such as recognizing and even retrieving a favorite toy or leash when asked. It has been proven they are smart enough to need time to process some things and that the more times they experience it the easier it is for them to understand. In other words, they can and do learn. Just like in humans, it is believed that the dreams dogs experience are a way for them to work out better ways of completing a task and provides practice so the task is easier the next time.
Why We Think Dogs Dream
Due to recent research on the question, scientists have finally accumulated the evidence required to prove that canines experience dreaming. Structurally, dog brains and human brains are very much alike. During sleep, brain wave patterns and electrical activity are the same in humans and dogs during the stages of sleep. One reason for the conclusion was that scientists found that other mammals with simpler brains also dreamed so it was logical to presume that dogs would as well.
Evidence That Dogs Dream
Researchers Kenway Louie and Matthew Wilson from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began their research using rats that ran through mazes. What they observed was that the brain activities of the rodents when they slept suggested they also went through periods of REM sleep or dreaming. The electrical impulses both awake and asleep were almost identical suggesting that during sleep they reran the maze. The hippocampus is used for memory storage and formation and it was stimulated while in REM sleep.
Another study utilized electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of brain activity in dogs while in REM sleep. When the brain activity became erratic muscular movements and vocalizations occurred. When compared to the EEG recordings of humans in REM sleep, the results were very similar. During the heightened period of EEG activity, subjects reported they were dreaming. The results confirmed the hypothesis that dogs also dream.
In a later study researchers discovered that a part of the brainstem called the pons paralyzed muscles during sleep for short periods of time. When the pons was deactivated during sleep studies, the canine subjects actually acted out their dreams. In other words, pointers would seek out quarry and point while a doberman would go on alert and even attack. It would be similar to sleep-walking in humans also called REM sleep disorder.
Other Sleep Comparisons With Humans
Just as humans and dogs relive parts of their day during the REM cycle of sleep, both groups can also suffer from nightmares. Narcolepsy is another problem found in both species which is a disorder where the brain falls asleep without warning. One of the great things to come out of this type of research is that narcoleptic dogs helped to untangle the biochemistry causing the condition in humans.
The one disorder dogs don’t share with their human counterparts is sleep paralysis. It’s a rare condition where the brain wakes up before the body does. The result is that once awake humans experience a period of paralysis before the part of the brain sending messages to muscle groups engages. It is believed that a causal factor could be sleep deprivation. Fortunately for dogs the condition is more rare than it is in humans.
Do dogs dream? It is unlikely that, as humans, we will ever be able to truly understand what’s going on in the minds of dogs. By watching them when they sleep, however, we can be sure that a certain level of thought processing is going on. Research has proven that dogs do dream about something. They can have dreams that allow them to relive daily activities as well as have nightmares just like their human owners do. One of the best things to come out of canine research, however, is a better understanding not only of the function of REM sleep, but how sleep disorders in humans can be better understood and even treated.