Perchance to Dream by Jennifer Arnold
Dogs are precious to me. Almost everything they do makes me smile. But it’s when they’re sleeping that they particularly capture my heart. That a dog feels safe enough in my presence to truly relax seems an affirmation of the trust between us. The trust of a dog is a prized gift and one I’m honored to receive.
I love watching as they dream, making small expressive sounds and movements - the whines and whips and twitches that allow us a glimpse into their experience of the world. Never do dogs seems more human like than when they sleep, and yet never is their individuality more obvious than in their dreams.
My young Doodle sleeps so deeply I’ve actually trimmed her toenails as she snores in clear oblivion. Her delerium appears to be mostly good ones with lots of running, tail wagging and playful wips. Jules can sleep anywhere and chooses to do so often in positions that look immensely uncomfortable to me. Butch Juliette’s sire, on the other hand, has always been something of a hedoniste sleeper, preferring a spot next to me on the bed with his big shaggy head position just so on the pillow next to mine. My husband has long ago surrendered that position to the big dog we both adore. Yet, even though he’s nestled between us as he sleeps, Butch seems occasionally to have nightmares. Every few months, he cries out in his dreams as if his very heart is breaking. It’s a sound that makes me ache for him. Butch is a worrier and, no matter how positive we try to make his experiences during the day, the worry clearly creeps into his dreams.
Twenty years ago if I’d described my dogs’ nocturnal movements and vocalizations as actual dreams many scientists would have dismissed my belief as being over anamorphic Thanks to recent research, that’s no longer the case. In 2001, a study done at MIT by a team of scientist lead by Dr. Mathew Wilson used recordings of the brain activity in four black and white lab rats to show compelling evidence of dreaming in rats. Though Dr. Wilson and his colleagues stopped short of saying their research offered definitive proof in the purest sense, of dreaming, given that rats cannot be asked to recount their experiences, they were able to see that the patterns in the firing of cells in the hippocampus that occurred during the sleep phases looked a lot like dreaming in people. The hippocampus is the part of the brain though to be associated with memory consolidation and storage and thus to dreaming.
They were also stunned to see that the patterns of brain activity in the rats during sleep duplicated the patterns of brain activity identified when the rats ran their maze and received a reward. The duplications were so precise that the researchers said they could tell exactly what part of the maze they were remembering and what actions they would be taking if awake.
Researchers have now moved from examining the sleep of rats to that of dogs. Dogs are considered strong models of human social cognition and consequently, excellent research candidates for the study of learning and memory - things though to be closely tied to the quality of sleep.
Dr. Anna Kis and her colleagues in Hungary trained fifteen pet dogs to sit and lie down upon hearing specific unfamiliar words. The scientists then attached small electrodes to the dog’ heads and recorded their brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) while they slept. The EEGs showed that during three-hour naps, the dogs’ brain experienced sleep spindles - bursts of activity lasting 0.5 5o 5 seconds. These rhythmic waves of activity are thought to be important to learning, memory and other cognitive processes. The scientists found that the number of spindle sessions per minute correlated with how well the dogs learned their new words. Those dogs allowed to sleep after learning their new words retained them better over time than those dogs who were subjected to additional training or even allowed to play - providing solid evidence that deep sleep solidifies memory in dogs just as it does in people.
And it appears that stress during the day affects dogs’ sleep and cognitive prowess, in much the same way it affects ours. Results from another study by Dr. Kis and her colleagues from The Family Dog Project in Budapest, published by Scientific Reports in February 2017, show that dogs do not sleep well when their days have been stressful. Working with sixteen pet dogs of various breeds, researchers organized positive experiences, such as loving interactions with pet parents and fun play times for half of the dogs, while the other half had the less-than-positive experiences of being left alone, ignored by their pet parent and intimidating interactions with strangers. The dogs were then taken to another room fitted with EEG monitors, and left alone to rest for three hours. Five days after the first encounter, the dogs came back and repeated the process, but this time the type of interaction they experienced was reversed so that the dogs who had the positive experience the first time had the not-so-fun experience this time and vice-versa. When the EEG data was analyzed, the researchers found that when the dogs had good experiences they took longer to fall asleep but spent more time in the deeper levels of sleep associated with emotional processing and memory. When the dogs had less-than-good experiences, they fell asleep faster, perhaps as a protective measure - but spent less time deeply asleep.
Good, restful sleep is as important for dogs as it is for us and dreaming appears to be an important part of good sleep. We’ve known for a long time that tired dogs are cranky and more reactive - much like tired people. Now we know that they aren’t as capable of learning as are well-rested dogs. This is important information for those who interact with working dogs as well as for pet dogs. If you want a brilliant and even-tempered dog, lower their stress levels and allow for good, healthy sleep.
It’s interesting to see the studies on dreaming and sleep in dogs but, because we can’t ask them I still wonder what exactly our dogs are dreaming about. When Harvard psychologist Dr. Deindre Barnett was asked that question, she told People, “ Since dogs are generally extremely attached to their human owners, it’s likely your dog is dreaming of you ,in fact, your smell and of pleasing or annoying you.”
Oh my goodness...they dream about us! Be still my heart. I used to think that Butch’s nightmares might be related to that squirrel that torments him almost daily by zooming back and forth across our yard. Now I’m worried that Butch is stressing out about my food. Maybe I should start yoga or stress management classes or meditation practice. I’ll do anything to make my dogs’ dreams good ones. They certainly sweeten mine.