Do Dogs Dream?

Many people believe that dogs do dream. Most dog owners have noticed that at various times during their sleep, some dogs may quiver, make leg twitches or may even growl or snap at some sleep-created phantom, giving the impression that they are dreaming about something. At the structural level, the brains of dogs are similar to those of humans. Also, during sleep the brain wave patterns of dogs are similar that of people, and go through the same stages of electrical activity observed in humans, all of which is consistent with the idea that dogs are dreaming.

Actually if dogs didn’t dream this would be a much greater surprise given that recent evidence suggests that animals that are simpler and less intelligent than dogs seem to dream. The brains of sleeping rats function in a way that strongly suggests dreaming. Much of the dreaming that you do at night is associated with the activities that you engaged in that day. The same seems to be the case in rats. So, if a rat ran a complex maze during the day he might be expected to dream about it at night. While a rat was awake and learning the maze, electrical recordings were taken from its hippocampus (an area of the brain associated with memory formation and storage). Researchers found that some of these electrical patterns were quite specific and identifiable depending upon what the rat was doing. Later, when the rats were asleep and their brain waves indicated that they had entered the stage where humans normally dream, these same patterns of brain waves appeared. The patterns were so clear and specific that the researchers were able to tell where in the maze the rat would be if it were awake, and whether it would be moving or standing still.

Since a dog’s brain is more complex and shows the same electrical sequences, it is reasonable to assume that dogs are dreaming, as well. There is also evidence that they dream about common dog activities. This kind of research takes advantage of the fact that there is a special structure in the brainstem (the pons) that keeps all of us from acting out our dreams. When scientists inactivated the part of the brain that suppresses acting out of dreams in dogs, they observed that they began to move around, despite the fact that electrical recordings of their brains indicated that the dogs were still fast asleep. The dogs only started to move when the brain entered that stage of sleep associated with dreaming. During the course of a dream episode these dogs actually began to execute the actions that they were performing in their dreams. Thus researchers found that a dreaming pointer may immediately start searching for game and may even go on point, a sleeping Springer Spaniel may flush an imaginary bird in his dreams, while a dreaming Doberman pincher may pick a fight with a dream burglar.

It is really quite easy to determine when your dog is dreaming without resorting to brain surgery or electrical recordings. All that you have to do is to watch him from the time he starts to doze off. As the dog’s sleep becomes deeper his breathing will become more regular. After a period of about 20 minutes for an average-sized dog his first dream should start. You will recognize the change because his breathing will become shallow and irregular. There may be odd muscle twitches, and you can even see the dog’s eyes moving behind its closed lids if you look closely enough. The eyes are moving because the dog is actually looking at the dream images as if they were real images of the world. These eye movements are most characteristic of dreaming sleep. When human beings are awakened during this rapid eye movement or REM sleep phase, they virtually always report that they were dreaming.

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