What you can learn from dog dreams

Why do dogs dream the way they do?

Every owner has seen their dog start to breathe irregularly, paddle their legs and even growl while fast asleep. But what causes this dream behaviour? Researchers believe that it's because dogs' brains are so structurally similar to ours.

Just like us, dogs also have periods of Rapid Eye Movement (REM), explains Professor Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia and author of Do Dogs Dream?. This is the particularly deep phase of sleep during which most dreams take place, and usually starts about 20 minutes after your dog has drifted off. And, as your pet's muscles start twitching and their eyes start moving behind their lids during REM, it's this part of sleep that's responsible for the typical doggy dream movements you might notice.

Researchers have also found that the similarity of dogs' brains to our own means that the content of their dreams are like ours too: dogs dream to process what's happened that day. In fact, says Dr Deirdre Barrett, a scientist at Harvard Medical School, your dog is probably using their dream time specially to process their day with you. 'Since dogs are generally extremely attached to their human owners, it's likely that your dog is dreaming of your face, your smell and of pleasing (or annoying!) you,' she says.

Dreaming and your dog's brain

Researchers believe that dreaming may have an even deeper purpose. Dreams 'add something' to the brain's process of learning, explains Matthew Wilson a scientist at MIT who's studied dreaming in animals. He and his colleagues have found that during REM sleep, neurons in the brain's hippocampus (the area that's linked to memory and learning) were most active. 'The idea is that, in sleep, the brain is trying to find shortcuts or connections between things that your dog may have experienced,' Matthew says.

It makes sense that sleep can help to improve your pet's memory formation, while disrupted sleep can prevent memories from taking root. So, one way to ensure your pet's brain stay healthy, especially as they get older, may be simply to let sleeping dogs lie. You can help by setting up a quiet, comfortable bed for your pet in a peaceful spot that he can feel secure napping in. Keep in mind that while dogs sleep more than us (on average 14 hours a day, with up to 20 for puppies, older dogs and some larger breeds) they snooze more lightly than we do, and so are more in need of their rest.

Sweet dreams: how you can help

If the science is correct and dogs – like us – process the day during their deep sleep, there is one obvious way to give your dog great dreams: make it a great day. 'The best way to give ourselves and our children better dreams is to have happy daytime experiences and to get plenty of sleep in a safe and comfortable environment,' says Dr Deirdre Barrett. 'So it's a good bet this is also the best for our pets' dreams.'

Sadly, science still has a way to go until we can 'speak dog' and fully understand the content of their dreams. But, in the meantime, rest assured that vivid dreams that make your pet's entire body twitch during sleep are nothing to worry about. Indeed, it's a sign that your dog's brain is processing the day spent with you. So, continue those fun-filled days together to ensure your dog keeps dreaming and creating happy memories.' instead of 'And the best way to ensure those dreams, and the memories they're helping to create, are happy is to spend fun-filled days together too.