Why do sleeping dogs look like they’re running?

“When she sleeps, her paws sometimes get aggressive — like, frantically — like she’s running on an invisible treadmill,” said owner Wudan Yan, who lives in Seattle.

“She is dreaming, isn’t she? Yan said. “She dreams of hunting squirrels and rabbits.”

The types of behaviors observed by Yan are common, said neuroscientist Marcos Frank, a Washington State University professor who studies sleep function in animals. “I’ve seen it in my own dogs. They run, they whine, they bark and they wake up like they don’t know where they are,” he said.

What is June really dreaming about? The sleeping lives of animals have sparked human curiosity for thousands of years, but the clear answers have been elusive. “If a dog could give us a report, then maybe we could answer the question,” Frank said.

Until then, we will have to settle for science. Here’s what we know.

What are tremors?

Involuntary muscle twitches called myoclonus are common in dogs and humans. This is what you see when a dog’s limbs and paws shake or move repeatedly while sleeping. It is more common during REM sleep. Twinkling eyes are also associated with REM.

And in humans, REM sleep has always been associated with intense dreams. This is the stage where you have the kind of weird and colorful experiences you can’t wait to tell your family about over breakfast.

According to a 1977 study published by the journal Physiology & Behavior, dogs have a lot of REM sleep, which accounts for about 12% of their overall life. And since other aspects of sleep in dogs closely resemble ours, the scientists said they think the parallels could extend to dreaming.

“From dogs to humans, most mammals exhibit the same basic sleep states,” Frank said. “We can’t say for sure that dogs have experiences like we dream of, but it’s hard not to imagine that they are.”

When movements during sleep become more elaborate, something other than myoclonus may occur.

“Running around while they sleep isn’t as common,” Frank said. “There’s a mechanism in the brain that actively paralyzes you from neck to toe. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, and it’s what normally stops you from achieving your dreams.”

This structure, called pons, is located on the brainstem. Damage to the pons can short out its ability to paralyze the sleeping body.

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Scientists discovered in the 1970s that adding lesions to the brainstem domestic cats led the animals to become much more active in their sleep. The cats in the study were seen lifting their heads, moving their limbs and jumping.

Damage to bridges caused by neurological disorders can also affect the brain’s ability to paralyze the body during sleep. For humans, a sharp increase in shaking during sleep can be a warning sign of Parkinson’s disease, Frank said. If you see the same thing in your dog, he noted, it’s worth going to the vet.

What’s really going on — and why?

For humans, REM sleep is generally thought to play a role in memory consolidation. There is evidence that it works the same way for animals.

In a 2001 study published in the journal Neuron, researchers observing brain wave activity in sleeping rats concluded that the animals were re-enacting the events of the day. When the rats ran through a circular maze before falling asleep, they appeared to repeat snippets of their running maze while they slept. And in 2017, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that dogs could use their naps to reinforce established memories while awake.
Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, says dogs & # 39;  wild cousins ​​exhibit the same behaviors owners see in their napping dogs.

The dogs in the study began by learning to follow new voice commands. A week after the initial training, animals that slept – rather than played – after the lesson were able to perform the associated task better than their counterparts in the control group. They too may have been re-enacting the events of the day in their sleep.

When dogs sleep “there’s no reason not to believe they’re not reliving some kind of prior experience,” said Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. in Boulder and author of “Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do.”

This also applies to wild cousins ​​of dogs. Bekoff has spent countless hours researching in the field, including watching sleeping wolves and coyotes, and he said they exhibit the same behaviors pet owners see in their napping dogs. .

But even though dogs, wolves, and coyotes rehash the day’s events while they sleep, the results can look (or smell) very different from human dreams. “We have exceptional vision, but dogs — that’s not their thing,” said Washington state professor Frank.

Although dogs don’t have the best eyesight, they are phenomenal at smelling.

“I think there’s a sensory context that has to be consistent with what the mental contents are,” he said. “I’ve always wondered, when dogs dream, is it a world of smells they experience?”

Why We’re So Obsessed With Our Sleeping Dogs

David M. Peña-Guzmán is Associate Professor of Humanities and Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University.

Today’s pet owners may be especially fascinated by the sleeping lives of their companions, but interest in animal dreams dates back to ancient times, noted philosopher David M. Peña-Guzmán , associate professor of humanities and liberal studies at San Francisco State University.

“There are references to animal dreams in the work of people like Aristotle and a few other Greek philosophers,” said Peña-Guzmán, who is also the author of the forthcoming book “When Animals Dream: The Hidden World of animal consciousness”. “

Even then, humans liked to speculate on the dreams of animals they were close to, such as dogs and horses, he said. Spending a lot of time with a pet, Peña-Guzmán noted, makes it easier to imagine them as creatures with a rich inner life. Less cuddly species, such as frogs and insects, tend to be ignored in ancient tales.

Peña-Guzmán published a book titled

Why is a philosopher interested in animal dreams? In his book, Peña-Guzmán argued that the ability to dream suggests that an animal experiences consciousness. And when we recognize an animal’s conscience, he writes, we’re more likely to value their experiences, to believe they deserve respectful treatment.

And Peña-Guzmán finds dreams throughout the animal kingdom. He described a sleeping octopus whose color becomes kaleidoscopic, which some scientists consider evidence of REM sleep. He wrote about zebra finches whose brain activity during sleep is the same as when they sing a song. Peña-Guzmán thinks fish probably dream too.

Peña-Guzmán acknowledges that not all animal scientists agree with his conclusions about dreams, but one thing is clear: we have a lot to learn about sleeping animals.

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“In dreaming, you really see the power of the mind at work,” Peña-Guzmán said. “It’s a really powerful reminder of how much we’ve underestimated and understudied animals and how the animal spirit remains this uncharted territory that we know relatively little about.”

Jen Rose Smith is a writer from Vermont. Learn more about her work at www.jenrosesmith.com.

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