A whimper. A growl. A twitch. Often, when she is sprawled out on the floor during one of her many daily snoozes, my dog Idgie appears to be lost in dreams — so much so, that I sometimes crawl on the floor and stroke her gray-flecked muzzle to comfort her when the dreams seem to be especially nightmarish. I’ve always been told that those twitches are the result of a doggy dream. But do dogs really dream? And if so, what are they dreaming about?
Sometimes, when Idgie seems particularly restless in sleep and can’t stop whining or whimpering, I wonder what tragedy she might be imaging mid-REM cycle. After all, she leads a pretty charmed life and has since she was a puppy.
While I may never know exactly what occupies Idgie’s dreams, scientists do think they have at least one thing figured out about dogs and dreaming: It’s the real deal. And on top of that, it’s probably not too different from the way humans dream.
Here’s how they came to that conclusion.
In 2001, researchers at MIT tracked the brain activity of rats as they tried to run a maze. They then measured the same rats’ brain activity while they were in their REM cycle of sleep. The results? The brain activity was identical. The researchers therefore drew the conclusion that, when the rats were sleeping, they were actually dreaming of the maze they’d run earlier in the day.
As for how it pertains to dogs, researchers deduced that dogs and cats would experience dreams just as rats do, considering rats are intellectually less complex than these popular domestic pets. But what do dogs dream about, exactly?
According to Psychology Today, there is evidence to suggest they dream about, you know, doggy things: fetching, pointing, chasing cats. The dreams likely differ among breeds based on their genetic predispositions, in fact.
For example, a bird dog might dream he or she is flushing a covey of quail. A guard dog might dream of protecting his or her turf.
So if you see your dog dozing and realize their breathing has become slightly shallow and irregular, don’t freak out. Your pup is probably just entering into his or her first dream, which happens about 20 minutes into any particular snooze sesh. This is when you’d notice those hallmark dream quirks my dog is so famous for in our household — the muscle twitches, the whimpering, the sniffing, etc.
And, just like humans, dogs probably also have nightmares. What exactly does a doggy nightmare look like, and how do you know if your pup is having one? Scientists would presume that dogs’ nightmares are related to memories. If your dog had a scary moment IRL, there’s a good chance that moment could haunt his/her dreams as well. Without a canine mind reader, it’s hard to nail down whether your dog is having a regular ‘ol dream or a nightmare, but there are a few signs that might indicate your dog is not having a dream of the happy variety. If you notice extreme twitching, whining or fearful behavior when they wake up, they may have experienced a nightmare.
Experts advise dog owners to fight the urge to calm their pet during a nightmare, despite how uncomfortable it can be for you to watch. We all want to be able to comfort our dogs when they are scared, but waking up a dog that is scared could potentially be dangerous. So as they say, let sleeping dogs lie and remember it’s just a dream.