Any dog owner who has watched their favorite furry friend paddling their legs, growling, wagging their tail, whining, whimpering, twitching their nose, or chewing their jowls while they are asleep will swear that their dog is dreaming. But, are they really dreaming?
When you watch your pet dog sleep, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the furry canine is not dreaming. Maybe the pup is remembering playing at the dog park, chewing on a favorite bone, or chasing a squirrel. Or, maybe your pet is thinking about you.
Whether or not dogs really dream is not completely proven scientifically. But, there are a few things we do know from observation about dogs and dreams. In fact, a professor of neuroscience at MIT along with a graduate student studied the relationships between memory, sleep and dreams in lab rats. Now, rats are not the same as dogs, but they give us insight into what may be happening in an animal’s mind as they sleep.
The rats were trained to run along a circular track to receive food as their reward. The rat’s brains began to create a distinctive firing patterns of neurons. The MIT pair observed the brain monitoring while the rats were sleeping as well. The memories played at approximately the same speed during sleep as when they were awake.
The observational MIT pair believes what they observed can be applied to dogs as well. Unless there is something unique about a rat or a human, then dogs are going to respond the exact same way.
The part of the brain that collects and stores memories is called the hippocampus. It is wired much the same way in all mammals. When we compare the hippocampus of a rat and a dog or a human to a cat, they are going to contain all of the same pieces. The MIT professor concluded that he believes that as dogs sleep, images of past events replay in their brains very similar to how humans recall experiences in their dreams.
Humans dream during the rapid eye movement REM stage of sleep. Dogs also experience periods of REM sleep. Some scientists have noted that during REM a dog’s breathing becomes more irregular and shallow. The animal may experience muscle twitching during REM. If you look closely, you may see rapid eye movements under the closed eyelids. The behaviors that happen during REM sleep is associated with dreaming, such as legs paddling, making sounds, or twitching.
If renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud is correct, when we dream, we release a safety valve for our unconscious. If this theory is true, maybe your dog is dreaming about the last time you gave him a nibble from the family’s meal time or when you rubbed his belly or threw the ball for him to chase. Maybe the dog is dreaming of finally catching that pesky squirrel or the neighbor’s cat. Regardless of what they are dreaming about, there is no doubt to most dog owners that their canine friend is, in fact, dreaming.