What Do Your Dogs Dream About? Research Says It May Be Familiar

Science suggests that dogs, like humans, dream about real things that they’ve experienced.

If you’ve ever spent time around dogs, you’ll know that they sleep a lot — generally 12-14 hours per day for adult dogs, according to data from the American Kennel Club. Although they only spend about 10 percent of that time in rapid eye movement sleep, the kind associated with dreaming, those doggo dreams can be a source of endless entertainment for human watchers.

Dreaming dogs bark, growl, and even seem to run around in their sleep — all things they do while they’re awake. Although nobody knows for sure what dogs dream about, science backs up the idea that they dream about their lives, just like we do.

Back in 2001, researchers at MIT’s Center for Learning and Memory performed an experiment on rats intended to find out what they were dreaming of. They trained rats to navigate a system of work-and-rewards, studying their brain activity while they ran a circular track and got a treat as a reward. They also tracked the rats’ brain activity while they were sleeping, finding that, about half the time, the same neurons were firing when they entered REM sleep.

Although any pet owner can tell you that animals sure look like they’re dreaming at times, this was the first study that showed other mammals dream complex dreams about real-life experiences. The researchers hypothesized that the dreams could be part of forming long-term memories about how to navigate the maze and get the treats, so the rats could do it again. Human dreams sometimes have a similar purpose.

The study provided proof that more animals than we thought have complex dreams that are likely part of memory formation — it’s possible that even insects are able to dream in some form.

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In mammals, the reason for this behavior is the pons, the part of the brain stem that keeps both humans and canines from acting out their dreams. In young and old, both dogs and humans, the pons — the part of the brainstem that connects the medulla oblongata and to the cerebellum — doesn’t work so well. As far back as the 1970s, researchers gained insight into pet dreams by destroying the pons in cats and then watching what they did while asleep. Since then, researchers have been able to see dogs perform their sleep activities by suppressing the pons’s function.

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“During dreams, at least, it is likely that animals form mental representations and have conscious experiences very similar to those of humans,” writes psychologist Christopher D. Frith.

Just like in humans, sleeping deeply enough to experience REM sleep is also associated with dog health. A 2016 study of sleep in shelter dogs found that dogs who are able to sleep more during the day are healthier and happier. So if you see Sawyer, Elsa or Bella in mid-snooze, don’t wake them up.