What Do Dogs Dream About and Should You Wake Your Dog?

Key Points

  • Body language typically tells you what dogs dream about.

  • While the question of what do dogs dream about doesn't quite have an answer yet, just like humans dream of human things, dogs probably dream of dog things.

  • A good rule of thumb is to let sleeping dogs lie — if there isn't a good reason, don't wake your dog from a dream or a nightmare.

There are few things cuter than watching a dog dream. Their legs twitch and eyes flutter, and they make cute little yipping sounds in their sleep. The best is when their tail starts wagging even with their eyes closed. If you've witnessed your pet dreaming before, it's probably led you to wonder what do dogs dream about?

Research has long since proven that dogs are capable of dreaming in the same way humans do. And just like us, not all of those dreams are good. While we can't know for sure what do dogs dream about, it makes sense that dogs occasionally have bad dreams. The thought of our precious pups feeling distressed in their sleep makes us want to step in and help. But is that really what's best?

What Do Dogs Dream About?

Since dogs spend about half their day sleeping, it's no wonder that many pet owners wonder what their dog is busy dreaming about.

While not a tremendous amount of studies have been done on whether or not dogs dream, there is one notable study that involved dreams and lab rats. University of Columbia researcher and professor, Dr. Stanley Coren conducted a study using lab rats in 2010. Essentially, some lab rats were allowed to run around in a maze all day and scientists monitored their brain activity. When those same lab rats went to sleep that night, and entered the dreaming part of the sleep cycle, the same portions of their brain lit up — suggesting that they were dreaming about what they did that day. "Thus," the study reads, "if a rat ran a complex maze during the day, he might be expected to dream about it at night."

So, it's safe to say that dogs dream about things that are either related to their current life or something that happened in the past. If your dog has a fairly cushy life with a family that loves him, most of his dreams are bound to be pleasant.

Dreams

As much as you might wish your pup would wake up and tell you what they are dreaming about, that's probably not going to happen.

What you can do instead is make inferences about their dreams, based on some clues — pay attention to their body language. Paddling their legs could mean they're running in their dream, and little yips could be happy barks. A wagging tail obviously means something fun is going on.

Much like humans dream about human things, dogs dream about dog things. Maybe a giant steak? Maybe an endless game of tug-of-war? An extremely bouncy tennis ball?

Nightmares

Just like human nightmares all show up in different ways, they can also look different for dogs. If your dog looks tense, afraid, or cries out in distress, they might be having a bad dream. If you're convinced that your dog is having a terrible nightmare, you might be tempted to wake them up

A dog's nightmare is probably related to either something they have experienced in the past or currently. Your pup could be having a nightmare about anything that they find particularly stressful — from thunderstorms, to vet visits, or even related to you leaving for work if they have separation anxiety.

If you notice your dog is really struggling with nightmares and other types of anxiety, Amazon's best-selling author and veterinarian, Dr. Gary Richter has done studies on the benefits of CBD oil in dogs. Consider checking out that route.

Should You Wake Your Dog When They're Having a Nightmare?

The consensus, though, is that it's not a good idea to wake up a dreaming dog — even if watching them experience that nightmare is heartbreaking.

However, if these events are increasingly violent or disturbing, it's best to consult a vet immediately. Consider also investing in a Calming Bed to help alleviate some of the anxiety.

As tempting as it is, though, you should do your best not to wake your dog during a nightmare — or a dream — for several reasons.

REM Sleep

Dogs have similar sleep patterns as humans. That means they get the most rest during their REM sleep cycle. This kind of sleep happens in intervals, and it's characterized as being a deep sleep involving rapid eye movement and brain activity. It also happens to be when most of your dog's dreaming happens.

Waking up your dog during a dream rips them out of that important REM sleep. It disrupts their overall sleep cycle, and that could have consequences regarding the dog's health and well-being.

Think about it: aren't you cranky when you are woken up during deep sleep? And isn't it sometimes hard to fall back asleep? Continually waking up your dog every time they have a dream isn't a good idea, especially if the dream is harmless for the most part.

wake up your dog

Safety Risk

Besides disrupting your dog's REM sleep, waking them up also poses a safety risk. Abruptly being pulled from a dream state back into reality can cause serious disorientation. It could take several seconds for your dog to realize they're suddenly awake, and it's impossible to predict how they'll react.

Even the friendliest, most well-behaved dog can have a violent reaction after being woken up from a particularly vivid dream. I learned this lesson from an experience with my dog Copper. He sleeps in bed with me, and one night, he started kicking and whimpering in his sleep. He woke me up, and in my sleepiness, I nudged him trying to get him to stop kicking me.

I woke him up, and he shot up onto his feet and let out the nastiest snarl I've ever heard from him. He recovered himself quickly and laid back down like nothing happened, but it was still a startling experience for both of us. He could have thought I was a menacing figure from his dream and bitten me.

wake up your dog

What If You Have to Wake Your Dog?

Since that night with Copper, I've made it a rule to let sleeping dogs lie.  Most of the time, he seems to dream about happy things. I imagine he's chasing squirrels, digging holes, and probably eating really good food.

If, for whatever reason, you do absolutely have to wake up your sleeping dog, follow these tips and guidelines to keep you and your dog safe.

Keep Your Distance

You don't know how your dog will react when they wake up, so it's best to keep your distance. Touching them when they're already on edge due to a bad dream could make the situation worse.

Instead of poking, prodding, or petting, use only your voice. Say their name in a gentle, loving tone. Sometimes, your voice will be enough to break through the nightmare and calm your dog's mind without waking them up. And if it doesn't, it's better if your dog wakes up slowly rather than abruptly.

Are Dog Dreams Related to Their Breed?

Interestingly enough, some dog dreams are related to their breed — or at least their size.

In addition to the lab rat and maze experiment, Dr. Coren also discovered that a dog's size had an impact on their dream world. He discovered that smaller dogs tend to have more dreams, but they don't last as long. Larger breeds tend to have fewer dreams, but they last longer.

A Dream-Worthy Life

While the dog brain is an interesting thing and every dog owner would love to know what exactly their companion is dreaming about, researchers and scientists have yet to give us a good answer.

If you find that your pooch is needing a little more training and TLC in order to give them the best life possible, consider checking out expert dog trainer Matthew Wilson. He trains dogs in basic obedience, all the way to working Police dogs.

In the meantime, your dog is only here for a short part of your life, so do your best to ensure your pup's world is the type other doggies dream about.

Do you know why dogs suck on blankets? Find out here!

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