You’ve no doubt seen your four-legged friend twitching in their sleep, their paws flipping about almost as if they were running. So what’s going on in that furry little head of theirs? Do dogs dream like we do? And, if so, what do dogs dream about? While we can’t exactly ask them, we can ask the experts, and consult the research.
What happens when your dog sleeps?
Dogs seem to go through two main sleep cycles just like humans do, according to VCA Hospitals. The first phase is called slow wave sleep (SWS) and the second is called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
In the SWS stage, your dog’s brain waves are slow, their body is relaxed, but they’re relatively easy to wake up. In REM cycle, your dog will be harder to wake up and you can sometimes see their feet, ears, and tail twitch. They may even vocalize a few yips or muffled barks. And, as the name suggests, you’ll see their eyes moving rapidly behind their eyelids.
Dogs sleep an average of 12 to 14 hours a day (up to 20 hours a day for puppies!), but most of that will be the light SWS type of sleep. REM sleep accounts for around three hours of their total snooze time according to research. (For the record, humans get even less REM sleep than that—around two hours during a good night’s rest.) So if you’ve ever sworn your dog was dreaming about chasing a squirrel because of their sleep movements, you were probably witnessing the REM stage of sleep.
Heads up: You can actually track your dog’s sleep right from the Whistle app, which tells you how many hours of sleep they’re getting, how many disruptions they’re getting per night, and how this all compares to their nightly average of sleep hours (baseline), and what changes might point to potential health issues.
Do dogs dream?
It certainly seems like it! While we can’t ask dogs if they dream, researchers have been able to verify that dogs experience REM sleep, which is when humans have their most vivid dreams. On top of that, research from MIT suggests that animals might actually dream about what goes on in their daily lives. (Their research was done on rats, but it’s fair to say your dog’s brain is more advanced than that, so experts are pretty confident that dogs can dream, too.)
If you want to watch your dog dream, watch the clock for about 20 minutes after they first fall asleep. This is around the time they’ll enter REM sleep. If their eyes are twitching behind their eyelids, you can bet they’ve started dreaming.
What do dogs dream about?
While we don’t know exactly what our pups are dreaming about, it’s probably not that different from the content of your own dreams.
“They’re probably dreaming about everyday things like being at a park or chasing a squirrel,” says Dr. Elizabeth Shines, DVM, Digital Health Associate Veterinarian at Kinship. They might even dream about eating. (Consider how many times you’ve dreamed about something delicious when you went to bed hungry!)
Basically, you’re free to interpret their yips, wagging tails, and moving legs however you’d like. Are they dreaming about yesterday’s outing to the park? Imagining what it would be like to give the local raccoon the chase of a lifetime? Barking hello to a human friend they haven’t seen in a while? Your guess is as good as ours.
Should you wake your dog from an intense dream?
“In general, no,” Dr. Shines says. There’s nothing wrong with your pet peddling their paws as they imagine a run or whining like their best buddy is just out of reach.
If you do decide to wake your pet, it’s important to do it safely, since waking from REM sleep can be disorienting. Gently call their name. If you touch them, stay toward the back end of their body. And then give them time and physical space to wake up.
Otherwise, just marvel at the cuteness overload that is a sleeping dog, and feel free to keep taking guesses at what they might be dreaming up this time.
Colleen Stinchcombe is a freelance writer with two dogs. She writes about pets for Whistle Labs, Rover, and Woman’s Day.