If you’ve ever watched your dog sleep, you might see small movements or hear little noises that make you suspect your dog is dreaming. Many dogs look similar to dreaming toddlers.
Pet owners may be surprised to learn that what happens in a sleeping dog’s brain is very similar to what happens in a sleeping human’s brain.
Although your dog’s dreams are vastly different from yours, your dog is still dreaming. Here’s what you should know about your dog’s sleeping patterns, what healthy dreaming looks like, and how to deal with doggie nightmares.
An Overview of Sleep Cycles
Sleep comes in cycles. Throughout the night, the human brain shifts through different levels of sleep.
There are four levels of sleep. Three levels of non-REM sleep that graduate in intensity and duration until the brain finally enters the REM (rapid eye movement) level of sleep. Humans will complete anywhere between four to six cycles of sleep levels every night.
Lighter levels of sleep don’t produce dreams, but the deeper levels, known as REM cycles, will produce dreams. Although dogs’ sleep patterns and cycles naturally arise in a different format, dogs still reach REM sleep.
The brain uses REM sleep to form long-term memories and commit new information. During this time, the brain enters a dream state. Heart rate and breathing rise a little more, making dreams feel more animated than other stages of sleep.
Do Dogs Dream?
Sleep works the same for humans as it does for most animals. Dogs, like many other animals, are capable of having complex dreams.
While we don’t know for sure what dogs are dreaming about (and they can’t tell us), it’s likely that their dreams recall the events of their day or their memories in an abstract way. They’re likely to be similar to human dreams, but with less imaginative twists or fantasy elements.
When people and animals sleep, a mechanism in the brain works to limit movement. This mechanism keeps us from acting out our dreams. People who sleepwalk or experience lucid dreams may experience difficulty with this mechanism in their brain. Researchers deliberately inhibited this mechanism in dogs to observe their behavior while asleep.
The dogs appeared to be miming routine activities like walking, running, eating, or playing fetch. This seems to suggest that their dreams simply reiterate familiar activities.
During this time, your dog is building memories of the things they learned or experienced throughout the day. Sleep is a very productive time for puppies. Not only are they growing and maturing — they’re also cementing their understanding of the day’s training lessons.
Can Dogs Have Nightmares?
If your dog is whining, crying, or growling in their sleep, it might seem as though they’re having a bad dream. It’s very possible that your dog could be having a nightmare. Dog nightmares are a lot more practical than human nightmares. They don’t have the same imaginative capabilities that people have, and therefore their nightmares are more likely to be tethered to experiences committed to their long-term memory.
Some dogs may infrequently have normal nightmares, just like people. Also like people, dogs are likely to forget their dreams. Dogs that were adopted from traumatic situations may frequently experience nightmares. Their long-term memories aren’t pleasant, and when their brain constructs a dream, it’s likely pulling from remembered events that left a lasting negative impact on your dog.
If your dog seems to be having nightmares often, it’s time to make a trip to the vet. Your vet may recommend treatments or therapies to help your dog if nightmares are the culprit. It’s also necessary to rule out potential neurological causes for your dog's strange bedtime behavior.
Dogs can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) just like humans. In fact, some dogs who have worked with the military, the fire department, or the police will be affected by tragic situations the same way that people are. This leads to retirement upon their diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder which may manifest in conditions like anxiety or nightmares.
Therapeutic intervention can help to resolve some of the distress of the traumatized dog’s experience. The symptoms may not completely resolve, but with time, a traumatized dog’s quality of life can vastly improve.
In the meantime, don’t wake your dog up during a nightmare. Dogs having active nightmares are in a heightened state of fear or aggression.
If you were to wake your dog from an active nightmare, your dog may get startled and redirect that sleepy aggression toward you. They won’t have enough time to recognize that you’re a friend trying to help. Stay nearby where you can watch your dog, and be available to provide comfort when your dog naturally wakes.
Do Dogs Dream a Lot?
Young dogs and senior dogs can sleep for as long as 20 hours a day. Throughout that time, they’ll frequently enter REM cycles where dreaming is possible. Your dog may have several dreams a day. Bigger dogs are often heavier sleepers. They might have longer and more complex dreams.
Current knowledge seems to suggest that dogs dream just as frequently as humans do — every time they reach the REM level of sleep. Most of the time, dogs won’t behave in a way that suggests that they’re dreaming. An observer wouldn’t be able to notice.
Do All Dog Breeds Dream?
Biology makes every single dog capable of dreaming. Small dogs and large dogs may dream with varying frequencies due to the way their bodies naturally sleep, but every breed of dog can and will dream.
The frequency and intensity of dreams will vary from dog to dog depending on the animal’s unique habits.
Dogs that obtain the majority of their sleep from bursts of naps scattered throughout the day may dream less simply because they don’t remain asleep long enough to reach their REM phase. Dogs that are very tired from working or playing all day may have longer and more intense dreams because they fall asleep a bit harder.
Promoting Better Sleep for Your Dog
Adult dogs need between 12 and 14 hours of sleep a day. Puppies and senior dogs require between 18 and 20 hours of sleep. If you believe your dog isn’t reaching dreamland often enough, a trip to the vet is in order.
Senior dogs may have trouble sleeping due to joint discomfort. A comfortable and supportive pet bed and a little bit of VETCBD Hemp CBD tincture can help to keep senior dogs comfortable enough to have an easier time with sleep.
Some dogs have trouble sleeping through fireworks or thunderstorms. If your pup whines and paces on stormy nights, Independence Day, or New Years’ Eve, CBD can help to ease the symptoms of this temporary environmental distress. When your dog is calm, it’s easier for them to get a decent night’s rest.
Ask your vet about incorporating pet CBD into your dog’s wellness routine. CBD, in conjunction with positive changes to your dog’s diet and lifestyle, may help to promote better rest.