If you’ve ever lived with a dog (especially a puppy), you’ve undoubtedly seen them fast asleep, twitching their paws and sniffing at nothing in particular, as they seemingly dream the night away, just as we do (but way, way cuter). Have you ever wondered, though, what do dogs dream about? Though we obviously can’t just hop into a dog’s brain and observe what they’re dreaming about directly, scientists have been studying animal dreams for decades and we can extrapolate, based on observable evidence, a pretty decent idea of what these critters do in dreamland. What do dogs dream about? You can probably guess, but there’s some interesting science behind it, too.
While we don’t know what exactly causes specific dreams in humans or why they’re so often a distorted version of reality filled with nonsensical imagery, we do know at what point in our sleep we do the majority of our dreaming and what’s going on in our brains when we do it. The most prevalent hypothesis is that dreams are a way for the brain to organize complex information, simply a process of building new synaptic connections so we can understand difficult concepts. This happens throughout the night, but most notably during one specific phase of sleep.
During the stage of sleep known as REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), we experience our most intense night time brain activity. While dreams do occur during the other stages of sleep, the vast majority occur during REM. It has also been shown that REM sleep has a direct correlation with memory consolidation—while you sleep, your brain does behind-the-scenes work to turn short-term memories into long-term memories (from your motor cortex to your temporal lobe).
This is also true for dogs! Lots of animals, in fact. Dogs have similar brain structures to humans’ and we can objectively observe through the naked eye and EEGs (brain scans) that those puppies are, in fact, dreaming. But the question still remains; what do dogs dream about?
What Do Dogs Dream About?
Do dogs dream about crunching a fresh bowl of kibble? Do dogs dream about my neighbor Ross? Do dogs dream about chomping down on the bumper of a mail truck like a Far Side cartoon? There are two specific studies that, when looked at together, can shed light onto this age-old question.
Do Doggies Dream of Electric Rabbits?
In 2018, Nóra Bunford and her team conducted a study of dogs in order to ascertain what they dream about. Using a brain scan, they watched what part of each individual dog’s brain is most active during normal daytime activities as a control (such as eating, fetching, playing, performing commands, etc.). They then monitored the dogs’ brains while they slept, watching for the transitions between phases of sleep and physical showing of dream activity. What they found is that while dreaming, the very same parts of a dog’s brain that lit up during daytime activities lit up on the EEG scans during their dreams, indicating a likelihood that, just as ours are, dog dreams are based upon the realities of their everyday lives. Of course, we can’t know for certain how those dreams distort and change in the mind’s eye, but the evidence is clear.
A year before Bunford et al’s study, Ivaylo Borislavov Iotchev and his team of researchers conducted a study that also required hooking up dogs to a EEG (Scientific Reports, 2017). They did not ask, “what do dogs dream about,” but rather, “do dogs learn commands better with adequate rest?” Do they process information like we humans do, recalling more information upon adequate sleep after learning? The answer, unsurprisingly, was a resounding yes—dogs that learned commands during the day that were given ample opportunity for sound sleep were able to recall the new commands much more the following day than their control study counterparts.
In reference to this particular study, Dr. Ann Hohenhaus of NYC’s Medical Center noted, “In the dog’s brain, sleep functions similarly to the human brain. So if it functions similarly, why would we think they don’t dream?”
Matthew Wilson’s Rats
Before these two studies, the definitive groundwork had already been laid, though initially with science’s favorite mammal—rats. In 2001, Matthew Wilson, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted a study with colleagues to determine what rats dream about. They were the first to discover that rat brains do essentially the same thing that human brains do, which is to echo daily life in the form of dreams. This experiment is similar to the one conducted by Iotchev 6 years later, in that EEGs were used to monitor rats’ brain activity during the day and again at night. In their experiment, they had rats do repetitive maze-related tasks and discovered that in 44% of REM sleep episodes, the brain patterns matched those that the rats had produced while doing their maze runs during the day.
The patterns lasted for the same lengths as they did when awake, showing with certainty that animals (not just rats) relive their waking activities during REM sleep. Neurons were firing in the hippocampus and visual cortex, together. "They were 'seeing' what the hippocampus was dreaming about," Wilson said.
When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Thanks to the tireless efforts of teams of scientists who study the sleeping brain and how it relates to the wakeful brain, as well as the teams of puppies and dogs (and rats) from whom we’ve culled the data, we can finally understand how dogs dream. What do dogs dream about? Pretty much whatever it is they spend their days doing. And since dogs have a lot less of the complexities of modern human life to worry about, they’ve got a lot less to dream about, too. Oh, to live in a dog’s world. Next time your pup curls up at the foot of your bed, go ahead, say it: “sweet dreams, lil doggy.” It’ll be true.