Have you ever watched your pup sleep? You might notice some squinting in the face, a flutter of the eyelids, even a slight jerk or shudder in the body as their legs twitch and shake. It sure looks as if the dog is having a dream or even a nightmare.
But do dogs dream? Those seemingly involuntary reactions are indeed a response to the same type of brain activity that humans experience when we are fast asleep. But how do we know they are dreaming and what could a pooch possibly be dreaming about?
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What Do Dogs Dream About?
If someone asked you to identify a “pons” would you be able to do so? Chances are you've probably never even heard of it before. But when it comes to understanding how dogs dream and what they dream about, the pons can tell us quite a lot. The pons is located in the brain stem and it performs a number of very important functions. It helps to regulate sleep cycles and prevents the muscles from reacting to stimuli while we sleep. As a result, your arms and legs don't thrash around when you're dreaming, even though the sensations feel very real.
If the pons were to be disabled, it would make us free to act out on the situations that are happening in our dream-state.
Dogs have a pons just like we do, and when the pons is not working as intended they might start twitching or running in their sleep. That's why we can tell not only that dogs dream, but we can get a sense of what it is they dream about. In fact, that's exactly how researchers figured out the answers to these questions.
It's well known that puppies and elderly dogs will often shudder and shake while they sleep. This is because the pons is not yet fully developed in the former and it's not working at peak performance in the latter. So temporarily disabling the pons in canine test subjects can help scientists better understand the dreaming behaviors of pups. With the pons disabled, dogs are able to act out the actions taking place in their dreams.
When these studies were performed, the findings were not so surprising. Dogs dream about, well, the things they would normally do as dogs. Just like our dreams are often based upon real-life situations and people we know (or at the very least familiar with), dogs are like-minded beings. They will typically bark or shake their limbs as a response to something taking place in their dream.
There are some studies that suggest the dreams of a dog are often inherent to the breed. So if a herding dog is dreaming, that dog is often dreaming about herding. Hunting dogs will hunt. Working breeds are working. Of course, sometimes a dream is all about chasing after a pesky squirrel, regardless of the dog's breed and pedigree.
How Often Do Dogs Dream?
The breed of the dog having a dream can affect the content of that dream. This can also have an impact on how often a dog dreams. Specifically the size of the animal seems to play a role in how often a pup will dream. Studies have shown that smaller dogs will dream more often throughout the night than their larger counterparts. According to research, a small dog like a Dachshund or Pug can have a new dream every ten minutes, while larger dog breeds such as a Husky or German Shepherd will dream less frequently.
Age plays a role as well and this most likely brings us back to the efficacy of the pons in a pooch. We mentioned earlier how this component of the brain stem might not be as effective in puppies and elderly dogs. Because of this, puppies and elderly dogs will have dreams more frequently than middle-aged pups.
Do Dogs Have Nightmares?
If dogs can dream like we can, does that mean they get nightmares like we do? The answer is a resounding yes, but it does work a little differently for dogs. Our imaginations are often the driving force behind nightmares, allowing us to conjure up all kinds of horrible situations and scary boogeymen to make us wake in fright.
Dogs do not have this ability – their nightmares are very real, unfortunately. They are often reliving some kind of intense personal trauma they experienced at some point in their life. You can often tell that your pup is having a nightmare when they start to growl or cry in their sleep. But don't try to wake up your pup like you might another person. The dog could lash out or even attack, not yet realizing the nightmare is over and they've awoken.
Wondering what else is going through your pups head? Head over to the Two Tails Blog to read more about dog habits, breeds, and more!