Every animal that engages in REM sleep is capable of dreaming. This includes all mammals, some birds, and even a few reptiles. So yes, your dog dreams, but you don’t need to be told that. Any pet owner who has grinned as their furry friend twitched, barked or pantomimed running while in the depths of sleep, can attest to dogs being prolific dreamers. But why your dog dreams and what they dream about are different questions that require longer answers.
What happens during REM sleep?
Rapid eye movement (REM) is a type of sleep. REM sleep is characterised by excessive bodily movement, irregular breathing and heart rate, and increased brain activity. This is also the sleep stage that produces the most vivid dreams. REM sleep is a staple of doggy dozes, and is responsible for prompting the groaning, kicking and barking that we so often see.
Why dogs – and humans and other animals – go through REM sleep and enter a brain-concocted distorted reality is something that scientists have been studying for many millennia. The best explanation is that dreaming helps organise one’s thoughts and memories. Like a secretary, it files the brain’s daily reports and decides what to keep. In addition, it decides what to throw away, and what to merge. This plays out, in an animal’s mind, like a strange, beautiful and sometimes terrifying story.
Running, eating, protecting, exploring
Since humans dream about things that happen in their lives, it’s inferred that dogs dream the same way. A few studies support this inference. After temporarily shutting off dogs’ pons, which is a part of the brain stem that prevents mammals from acting out their dreams, researchers found that the dogs behaved just like dogs when they were dreaming. This means that dogs dream about running, eating, protecting, exploring, playing, and everything else that fills their lives. The next question is, do dogs experience lucid dreams?
Lucid dreaming occurs when a dreamer becomes aware that they are dreaming. They are then able to control their dreams instead of letting dreams control them. While few can do it, most people are capable of lucid dreaming. There is some speculation that dogs, due to their humanesque sleep patterns, are capable as well. One such link between canine dreams and lucid dreams is that dogs can be narcoleptic. Many human lucid dreamers jointly suffer from narcolepsy. However, it seems that an animal needs to be self-aware to lucidly dream, and dogs have failed self-awareness tests in study after study.
Most scientists and pet owners agree that dogs dream and dream a lot. They dream for the same reason we do: so that the brain can situate itself after a long day of stimulation. Although lucid dreaming may not be possible for dogs, they are able to chase cats, protect their owners, and let their imaginations run wild while in doggy dreamland.