To grossly misquote Shakespeare, “To sleep, perchance to dream; Aye, there's the rub, For in that sleep of dogs, what startlingly loud howls may come.” Although we might never know exactly what our pups dream about, for some it’s clearly worth shouting over.
Among dog owners, it’s not uncommon to spot a dozing pet who clearly seems to be dreaming, with outward twitches or vocal howls to accompany some inner storyline. According to Dr. Stanley Coren, psychology researcher and dog expert, canines experience the same brain-wave patterns and stages of sleep as humans, including the deep phase of rapid eye movement sleep during which dreams occur. Given the similarities in brain structure and function, Coren and other researchers believe that dogs -- and even animals as simple as rats -- do dream. In his book “Do Dogs Dream?: Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know,” Coren notes that smaller dog breeds tend to dream more frequently that do bigger breeds.
Dogs are more like us that we realize. According to research published in 2011 in the “Journal of Small Animal Practice,” canines can experience sleep disorders in a way similar to the way their human companions might. Humans with rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder often make physical movements and vocalize during dreams that accompany the deep stage of -- usually motionless -- rapid eye movement sleep. In dogs, rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, abbreviated as RBD, is characterized by howling, barking, growling, limb thrashing, chewing and biting during sleep.
Tale as Old as Time
It’s such common behavior that Disney animators pegged it years ago. In a 2007 report for the journal “Sleep Medicine,” researchers combed through Disney’s animated films and found four instances of cartoon dogs depicted as acting out physically and vocally while asleep, including howling, panting, paddling and kicking. Remarkably, all of the films mentioned in the study were released before scientists had formally described such sleep-disordered behaviors in humans or canines.
Treating Severe RBD
Keep in mind that somnambulant howling is not a walk in the park -- nor is it a reason to film your dog and post the video to YouTube. In dogs with severe RBD, the sleep behavior is so disruptive that it may require treatment with oral sedatives to reduce the frequency and intensity of episodes. In the 2011 “Small Animal Practice” study, researchers noted that canine sleep disorders appear more often in young puppies, with 64 percent of the participating dog owners reporting onset at 1 year of age or less. If you suspect an underlying cause of dream-state howling in your dog, consult a licensed veterinarian who can assist in the diagnosis and treatment of RBD.
It’s a good idea to confirm that your dog is actually asleep during howling episodes. Howling is a common way that dogs communicate and, as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals notes, it can indicate loneliness, pain or illness. Dogs may also howl at sudden noises or passing sirens, so check for external causes of nighttime or nap-time yowling.
- Psychology Today: Do Dogs Dream?
- "Do Dogs Dream?: Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know"; Stanley Coren, Ph.D.
- Journal of Small Animal Practice: Clinical Characteristics, Management and Long-Term Outcome of Suspected Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behaviour Disorder in 14 Dogs
- Mayo Clinic: REM Sleep Behavior Disorder
- Sleep Medicine: REM Sleep Behavior Disorder and Other Sleep Disturbances in Disney Animated Films
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Howling
Based in Los Angeles, Monica Stevens has been a professional writer since 2005. She covers topics such as health, education, arts and culture, for a variety of local magazines and newspapers. Stevens holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism, with a concentration in film studies, from Pepperdine University.