You might be surprised about what your pupper is up to when his peaceful slumber suddenly turns into a twitching, noisy sleep cycle.

There may be nothing cuter than an adorable puppy who's sawing logs and then growls and barks as he fidgets his little fluffy legs in his sleep. We assume these curious and cute behaviors are the result of our dogs in a deep sleep, imagining they successfully killed yet another roll of toilet paper. But do our canines actually experience dreaming? And if they do, what do dogs dream about? We explore whether or not your pup has those sweet dreams you wish them when you tuck them in each night (in your matching jammies, of course).

illustration of a dog dreaming about a bone
Credit: Yeji Kim

Do Dogs Have Dreams?

Researchers seem to agree that dogs do indeed dream while they take yet another nap in your office—while you endure your fourth Zoom meeting for the day. Similar to humans, dogs go through several sleep cycles, including REM sleep. Although a REM cycle is short, scientists believe that is in this type of sleep we humans, and our dogs, have dreams. Researchers at MIT discovered that animals have very complex dreams and within those dreams, they can remember events or activities that happened while they were awake.

But because our dogs can't join us at the breakfast table and say, "I had such a weird dream last night" and then tell us all about their super-long dream that really isn't that interesting (hint hint, every person ever), we might not know exactly what our dogs dream about. But we have a good idea.

What Do Dogs Dream About?

If I had to guess what my dog dreams about most nights I would say hamburgers, playing Frisbee, and pee-mail journeys (or in layman terms, walks). Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and the author of the book Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know, would say that is a great guess. Based on studies done originally with rats, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concluded that dogs dream similarly to us humans. Coren says that means dogs very likely dream about the sort of things they do during the day, like playing with the neighbor pup or pilfering those under-the-bed socks that got "accidentally" shoved into hiding days ago (looking at you, Husband!). 

Researchers at MIT also discovered that animals have very complex dreams in which they can remember events or activities they experienced while they were awake. So, your dog can dream about the trip they took to the park with you yesterday and they can even recall the route you took to get there. I guess that means our dogs are probably, literally, "living the dream."

Can Dogs Have Nightmares?

If dogs can have pleasant dreams it seems likely they can have scary nightmares, too. Live with a dog and you discover two sounds that test just how fast you can jump out of bed. The first, of course, is the sound of deep retching near your new rug, and the second is a shock-to-the-system bark that causes your heart to jump into your throat. My own dog has awakened me from a peaceful sleep with a disturbed howl and deep growl, making me believe I was about to be murdered in my bedroom—only to discover him in a deep slumber at the edge of the mattress. (Who doesn't love a tiny heart attack at 2 a.m.?)

Just like you should never wake a human (like me!) abruptly from a deep sleep or else you might get an accidental fist in the face, you should never forcefully awaken your dog. The saying "let sleeping dogs lie" is more than good advice—it's a warning. Dogs that are startled awake, especially when having a nightmare, might unconsciously redirect their confusion and fear towards you, resulting in an unintended nip or bite. 

One thing is for sure: Whether or not your dog is dreaming about you each night, when he rises and shines to greet you, his adorable attempts to get you to share your breakfast with him work like a dream.