Have you ever observed your dog sleeping peacefully when all of a sudden its legs start twitching or it lets out little yelps? In those moments, you’ve probably wondered if your dog is having a nightmare. That twitching—along with rapid eye movement and vocalization—are all signs that they could be dreaming.
In the 1970s, Dr. William Dement discovered during research at Stanford University that animals have REM sleep cycles. Humans also have a REM sleep cycle, which is the most common cycle to experience dreams, so Dement concluded that dogs must dream during REM, too.
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Do Dogs Dream?
Yes, dogs can dream—and you can tell when it’s happening.
“Typically their eyelids may flicker, their legs may move and their lips may move—they may even vocalize,” explains Dr. Liz Stelow, D.V.M., D.A.C.V.B., veterinary behaviorist and service chief at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Do Dogs Dream Like Humans?
As dogs and humans fall asleep, we first enter the slow wave sleep cycle. During this early stage of sleep, it’s easy to be awakened from slumber as the body is not completely relaxed. Once we enter a deeper stage of sleep, the REM cycle, the body eases but the mind is more active—which opens up the capacity for all of those vivid and kooky dreams.
Humans tend to dream more than dogs due to our longer sleep cycles. These cycles usually last about 90 to 110 minutes, with the REM stage starting at 10 minutes and getting longer as the sleep cycle repeats throughout the night. In total, we spend about two hours dreaming each night.
By comparison, dogs have sleep cycles that last 45 minutes. They have two REM stages in one cycle, totaling six minutes together. Their dreams can last 1 minute or 10, depending on the dog’s size. It’s estimated that they experience a new dream every 10 to 90 minutes, also depending on the dog’s size.
What Do Dogs Dream About?
Behavioral experts claim that dogs likely dream about their lived experiences just as humans do. There have been studies conducted where scientists temporarily disable a part of the brain called the pons (which is responsible for paralyzing both dog and human muscles during sleep so we don’t act out our dreams.) While disabled, scientists observed dogs acting out their dreams during REM.
“Paw movements and lip movements suggest that dogs may be reliving things they have experienced. So, running, playing, fighting [and] eating,” explains Stelow.
Researchers have observed that pointer dogs may point at “dream birds” while dreaming and Dobermans may chase “dream burglars,” according to Live Science. These behaviors are typical of these breeds during the day.
What Do Dogs Dream About When They Twitch?
There’s no concrete answer for what dogs may be dreaming about when they twitch, but there are some theories. If a dog’s mouth is twitching, it could be dreaming about retrieving a ball, eating food or licking its owner. If a pup’s legs and arms are twitching, it could be dreaming about playing or chasing something like a cat or frisbee.
How Often Do Dogs Dream?
According to VCA Animal Hospitals, the frequency of a dog’s dream depends on the size and age of the dog. Bigger dogs are thought to have longer dreams that occur every 60 to 90 minutes, whereas smaller dogs have shorter dreams more frequently, around every 10 minutes. Puppies also tend to dream more often than their adult counterparts.
Why Do Some Dogs Dream More Than Others?
Some animal behaviorists suggest that smaller dogs dream more often than larger dogs because they tend to have more bursts of brain activity while they sleep. Other than that, it’s unknown why there’s such a disparity between small and large dog breeds.
Do Dogs Have Nightmares?
While dogs can certainly happily dream of unlimited chicken-flavored treats and endless hills to run on, they can also have nightmares.
“If I hear my dog whimpering as if he’s being attacked or it sounds like he’s trying to bark or growl, my assumption has been, ‘Well, that doesn’t look like a happy dream,’” says Stelow.
Indeed, if your dog is experiencing a nightmare, you’ll likely witness signs of aggression or fear. Your dog may growl, bark, whine or whimper. It may even awaken into a defensive or frightened stance.
“[There are] dogs that wake up suddenly aggressive. They launch into an aggressive posture or behavior,” explains Stelow. While this may mean your dog just had a bad dream, if it happens often, it could be an indicator of something else.
“[It could be] a sleep disturbance, a sleep disease, if you will,” adds Stelow, who works closely with dogs experiencing behavioral issues. If you suspect your dog may have a sleep disorder, be sure to take them to the vet to get to the root of the issue. The best pet insurance should cover routine check-ins with your dog’s veterinarian.
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Dog Dream Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Do Dogs Dream of Their Owners?
Yes, it’s thought that dogs dream of their owners. Since pooches dream about things they’ve experienced throughout the day, it’s likely that they also envision their owners’ faces.
Do I Wake Up My Dog From a Dream?
No, you shouldn’t wake your dog up from a dream. Sleep, especially the REM cycle, is an important aspect of your dog’s health. Constantly interrupting its sleep can have negative health effects over time.
Suddenly waking a dog may also cause them to unintentionally bite or snap at you due to being startled. It’s never a good idea to wake a dog by touching or shaking it awake.
Should I Wake Up My Dog If It’s Barking In Its Sleep?
If your dog is having a nightmare and barking or whining in its sleep, it may be tempting to “save” it by waking it up.
“[If] somebody wakes their dog up in the middle of [a dream] and the dog isn’t cognizant yet of where its body is in space, it might injure [them],” warns Stelow.
If you insist on waking your dog from the nightmare, the best way to do so is from a distance. “If I were to wake my dog, I would do it by clapping my hands or calling its name,” adds Stelow.
Does the Dog’s Breed Affect Dreams?
A dog’s breed does affect its dreams. For instance, small dogs tend to have shorter and more frequent dreams than their larger counterparts. Also, pointer breeds will sometimes exhibit the “pointing” behavior that they’re known for, while Dobermans may display guarding behavior.