Ever see your pup twitching, pawing at the air, or making little yipping noises while he’s snoozing? From these movements and sounds your pup makes mid-nap, it seems like a given that dogs dream. But do they really drift into lala land like humans do? “From a scientific, pure behavioral perspective, we don’t absolutely know if dogs dream at all because we can’t ask them,” says Scott Sheaffer, a certified canine behavior consultant and owner of USA Dog Behavior, based in Dallas. “All we really can do is observe the physical manifestations of dreams, and from those, it looks like they are dreaming.”
Those physical manifestations are things you’ve likely witnessed in your sleeping dog. “During active REM stage, dogs’ eyelids will twitch, eyes will move rapidly and sometimes open and close, and facial muscles and paws may twitch,” which all suggest dreaming, says Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in California.
Most mammals have a similar sleep cycle as humans, including the REM stage, when humans experience our more memorable dreams. And studies on the brain activity of animals such as cats and rats suggest that they dream. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, observed rats while they slept and concluded they were likely dreaming because their snoozing brain activity was similar to that when they were awake and running through a maze. It makes sense then that dogs, with the more complex electrical systems in their brains, are dreaming as well, researchers say.
So what exactly are they dreaming about? Once again, we don’t really know since our pets can’t exactly tell us after they wake. But based on dogs’ movements, behaviorists have a few guesses.
They’re Hunting a Squirrel
One of the common guesses about what your dog is dreaming about is prey drive, says Sheaffer. “When you see a lot of foot movement, twitching or kicking of the feet, it seemed to suggest they’re imagining themselves in a field, chasing something or running after another animal,” he says.
Another sign of this type of dream, says Schwartz: if your dog growls or lets out a deeper bark (which might be muffled since she’s sleeping). Because going after another animal is a primal urge, the dream could be totally imaginary or it could be related to a certain squirrel or rabbit your dog encountered on a walk the day before.
They’re Reliving a Trip to the Dog Park
Another likely dream scenario: Remembering that fun morning running around the park. It could be your dog’s way of working through events that occurred during his day. “Again, these are just guesses, but since most human dreams are reprocessing events from the day, it makes sense that dogs are dreaming similarly,” says Sheaffer. Depending on the dream, your dog may be making excited little yips and moving her legs in a way that suggests she’s picturing herself running around happily, adds Schwartz.
They’re Remembering an Attack
Although their dreams are likely less complex than ours and more primal, they can also be related to fear, says Sheaffer. “Their emotions are much more primal than ours, but dogs do have varied emotions and neurotransmitters like us; serotonin, adrenaline, endorphins—they’re all the same that we have,” he says. If you notice your pup whimpering or making another sound like she’s stressed or scared, she might very well be reliving a moment when another dog lunged at her or bit her, or something else that scared her.
They’re Being Chased
Another obvious guess about dog dreams—especially for any dog who’s played around in the park with other pups—is that they’re being chased. If you noticed a scared sound, say barks that sound distressed, along with a running motion, it’s a good guess that your pet is dreaming about another dog running after him.
“I suspect they dream of being chased or threatened by someone scary from a real memory, but it’s possible that some dreams are a composite of real memories and distorted thoughts and emotions like they are for us, too,” explains Sheaffer.
If you think your dog is having a stressful nightmare, you might be tempted to wake him up. You can, but you should do so with care. “Let sleeping dogs lie still applies, but if you feel you must wake them up, call to them gently and from a safe distance, not shaking them and leaning over them, which might trigger a more defensive return to consciousness,” says Schwartz. Some dogs can wake violently from a dream, especially a nightmare, and might end up attacking their owner as a result if you’re standing right over them.
One more thing to keep in mind when you notice your dog having what looks like a dream: It might actually be a sign of an underlying health problem. Twitching and excessive movement while sleeping could be signaling that your dog’s having a neurological-based seizure, warns Sheaffer. The occasional twitching or kicking is totally okay, but if you see it last for at least a few minutes several nights a week for a prolonged period, mention the motions to your vet to be safe and rule out any health issues.