What's in a dog's dream? Exploring canine sleep

January 5, 2024 - 6 min read
Sleeping dog

Have you ever watched as your dog twitched or moved their paws in their sleep and wondered whether they were dreaming?

They probably were.

Just like us, dogs experience Rapid Eye Movement (REM), the sleep phase where dreams are typically born. The similarity suggests that our furry friends experience dreamland adventures, just like we do.

Indeed, all available scientific data is in broad agreement: Doggies are almost certainly dreamers. In fact, we even have a pretty good idea of what they’re dreaming about.

The science behind doggy dreams

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Napping In Bed

Much like humans, dogs experience different phases of sleep. It's during REM sleep that their brain activity intensifies, mimicking the patterns observed when they're awake and active.

Studies suggest that during REM sleep, dogs process and consolidate their daily experiences, just as we do. This is crucial for learning and memory formation. What they've sniffed, seen, and done during the day might be replayed in their dreams.

But it's not just about mental playback. The brain activity during this phase indicates that dogs could be experiencing things more vividly, as if they're reliving their daily adventures in a more abstract, dream-like way. The twitching and movement often seen in sleeping dogs could be a physical manifestation of what's happening in their dream world.

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s essentially no different from human sleep patterns. When it comes to dreams, pups and their parents aren’t all that different. 

Common themes in dog dreams

So what, exactly, is going on in doggy dreamland?

It’s impossible to know for sure, of course. But if you’re after some educated hypotheses, there’s actually some sound scientific research we can point to.  

Chasing and playing

Dog running

Sleepy time is likely no impediment to playtime. Just imagine your pooch racing through an open field, fur ruffling in the wind, tail wagging with exhilaration.

According to Dr. Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University, dogs probably dream about their daily activities, from playing fetch to chasing squirrels. Again, dogs have similar sleep cycles to humans, including light, deep, and REM. And during REM sleep, which is the stage when dreams occur in humans, dogs may experience similar dream patterns.

Given these similarities—and the fact that human dreams are strongly influenced by daily activities and emotions—it's reasonable to conclude that your dog’s playful daytime antics are replayed in their dreams. And it’s probably not a coincidence that common canine sleep movements, like running motions, seem to mirror the activities they engage in while awake.

Exploring and sniffing

Your dog’s acute sense of smell is a fundamental part of their experience of the world. As a result, it's extremely plausible that their sniffer plays a prominent role in their dreamtime adventures. A 2001 study from MIT, which explored how memories are incorporated in the brain during sleep, sheds some light on this.

Dreaming animals, including dogs, replay memories at about the same speed that they experienced them while awake. This process is believed to be involved in the formation of long-term memories, suggesting that dogs might be reliving their sensory experiences, like sniffing, in their dreams​​.

Interactions with their human family

Dachshund licking a child's face

Dogs’ daily activities and emotional bonds are closely linked to the people they love. As a result, it’s extremely likely that their human families are heavily featured in their dreams.

While there’s no way to know for sure, oft-observed dog sleep behaviors like twitching or whimpering certainly point to the possibility that dogs are dreaming about familiar people and experiences​​. Barking and other vocalizations also seem to indicate an attempt to communicate in their dreams, whether with their human family or with other people or animals. 

Basic instincts

Even domesticated dogs may dream about basic ancestral instincts like hunting. (Fun fact: dogs, wolves, and coyotes are so closely related that they can interbreed.) Indeed, the 2001 MIT study found that animals re-evaluate their experiences in dreams, potentially including ancestral behaviors.

The research indicates that dreaming allows dogs to process and learn from these experiences, which might include innate behaviors passed down through generations​​.

Do dogs have nightmares?

Dog with bandage on it's head

Unfortunately, your pup’s dreams may not always be peaceful.

During the REM phase, dogs often exhibit behaviors like twitching, whimpering, or growling, which could indicate that they’re reliving traumatic experiences in their dreams. After all, humans also tend to exhibit distressed movements and vocalizations during nightmares.

However, it's important to note that not all movements or sounds during sleep necessarily indicate distress. The exact content of a dog's dreams (or nightmares) will always remain somewhat speculative.

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Dreams for puppies vs. senior dogs

newborn baby wrapped in pink blanket

Puppies, who are still processing a world of new experiences, might dream more frequently than adult and senior dogs.

Dreaming could help them consolidate new memories and experiences, making sense of what they’ve learned and encountered during the day. Their dreams may play a crucial role in turning their daily experiences into long-term memories.

Meanwhile, senior dogs might start to experience changes in their dream patterns, possibly revisiting past experiences or memories, reflecting their age-related cognitive changes​​.

What influences a dog’s dreams?

Old dog

Several factors may influence the stuff your dog’s dreams are made of. We already mentioned age, but breed, size, health, and sleep quality could play major roles as well.

Smaller breeds, for instance, probably have shorter but more frequent dreams, whereas larger breeds might experience longer but less frequent ones. This difference could be the result of differing brain structures and capacities across breeds, a topic that’s been explored in various cognitive studies of dogs.

And of course, your dog’s daily activities and experiences are likely to impact their dreams in a big way. Whether it's a game of fetch, a comforting cuddle with their pet parent, or even a traumatic experience, your dog’s daily life is likely to find its way into their dreams. Again, this aspect of dreaming is crucial for their cognitive development and memory consolidation (which is also true for humans).

Your dog’s emotional state can’t be overlooked. Stress or anxiety might lead to more turbulent dreams, while a happy and well-adjusted dog is more likely to experience serene dream sequences. In humans, for example, it’s very well documented that troubled waking lives lead to troubling dreams.

Finally, health issues or disturbances in regular sleep can likely alter both the frequency and nature of their dreams. A healthy lifestyle and a restful sleep environment are both key to improving your dog’s sleep quality and producing pleasant dreams.

How to enhance your dog’s sleep quality

It’s hard to have sweet dreams without getting a good night’s sleep. Here are some reliable ways to enhance your pup’s sleep quality:

  • Create a comfortable sleep environment. Just like humans, dogs benefit from a comfortable, quiet, and safe sleeping area. This can be a cozy bed or a dedicated space in your home that’s free from loud noises and disturbances. A consistently peaceful environment promotes deeper, more restful sleep.

  • Establish a routine. Dogs thrive on routine. Having a regular schedule for feeding, playtime, and bedtime helps regulate their internal clock, leading to better sleep patterns.

  • Get outside. Regular physical activity is crucial for dogs. Adequate exercise during the day ensures that your dog is physically tired and more ready to rest at night.

  • Provide proper nutrition. A well-balanced diet plays a critical role in promoting your dog's overall health and sleep quality. Also, don’t feed your dog right before bedtime; this can lead to discomfort and disrupt their sleep.

  • Minimize stress and anxiety. Reducing stress and anxiety in your dog's life can lead to better sleep. Provide them with safe toys, avoid loud noises, and offer a generally comforting presence.

Finally, it’s important to take your dog in for regular veterinary check-ups. Your vet can help identify and treat any underlying health issues that might be affecting your dog’s sleep.

Wellness and dog insurance: Setting the stage for sweet dreams

While we can't control what our dogs dream about, we can help them live the kinds of happy, healthy lives that pave the way for sweet dreams.

The optional, non-insurance ManyPets Wellness Plan can help reimburse you for preventative care like check-ups, dental care, parasite prevention, supplements, and more, limiting the financial strain of keeping your pup healthy.

Dog being cleaned

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Save on preventative care for your pup

The non-insurance ManyPets Wellness Plan can help reimburse you for the cost of routine and preventative care, including routine vet visits and certain over-the-counter products.

Dog being cleaned

And for those unforeseen accidents and illnesses, dog insurance is designed to reimburse you for veterinary care, so you can seek the treatment your dog needs when they need it.

Remember, you’re not just looking after their physical health; you're giving them pleasant dreams.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.