When dogs move their legs when they are sleeping, they often appear as if running, swimming and who knows what else.
Some people who have never owned dogs at times confuse these movements with seizures. Indeed, it's not uncommon for veterinary hospital receptionists to occasionally get a phone call from concerned owners wondering if they should bring their dogs in.
A seizure is often quickly ruled out once the dog gets quickly back up on his toes upon hearing his owner calling his name or the owner opening a bag of food.
Truth is, those leg movement can really be scary for somebody who isn't aware of dogs moving their legs while sleeping!
Drifting into Dreamland
Turns out, dogs who move their legs, smack their lips, breath heavily, quiver their whiskers and even send out an occasional whine, bark or howl, are simply dreaming.
What they may be dreaming about may remain a mystery, but it's highly suspected that just like us, they may be re-enacting things that have happened during the day.
Professor of Psychology and author of several dog-related books, Stanley Coren explains how studies on rats have determined that they may be truly re-enacting events of the day.
Researchers who were teaching rats to learn a maze, recorded the activity of their brain during the activity and found that the same brain wave patterns were observed when the rats were sleeping.
This suggests that the rats must have dreamed the events that happened when they were awake.
Something similar is likely to occur in dogs. Depending on what happened during the day, dogs are likely re-living the events. Perhaps Rover is dreaming about catching the squirrels he never gets to catch in the yard or he's dreaming about chasing a ball!
The Rem Stage of Sleep
Dogs don't always dream though when they are sleeping. As in humans, dogs cycle through stages of wakefulness, rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep.
Most dreams occur during the REM stage of sleep. Dogs typically enter the REM stage about 20 minutes after snoozing, and it may last for about 2-3 minutes.
Whether your dog is dreaming of chasing a rabbit or stealing that unattended burger you have left on the counter, one thing is for sure: just as humans, dogs need their daily dosage of ZZZ's.
The saying "let sleeping dogs lie" offers words of wisdom as lack of sleep can make dogs cranky as we are when we have bags under our eyes.
Did you know? The way your dog sleeps also plays a role on whether he's more likely to dream. Dogs who sleep curled up have tense muscles which makes them less relaxed, and therefore, less likely to twitch, explains Arden Moore in an article for Vet Street.
More Twitching in Puppies and Old Dogs
Very young puppies and senior dogs tend to love their legs or twitch more compared to older puppies and middle-aged dogs.
The reason for this is that, the part of the brain stem known as the "pons," which is responsible for paralyzing the large muscles during sleep preventing humans and animals from acting out their dreams, is underdeveloped in young puppies and no longer working efficiently in older dogs.
Do Dogs Have Nightmares?
There is leg movement and leg movement. Perhaps in some cases, your dog may be dreaming about escaping a large angry dog or running away from a vet with a syringe in his hand ready to inject something.
Many dog owners report that sometimes, their dogs may appear distressed when they dream. They may move their legs, breath fast and maybe vocalize as if they are scared of something.
These descriptions may anecdotally fit what happens when us humans are having a nightmare, so it seems reasonable for dogs to have nightmares too.
Did you know? It is a known fact that sleep before and after learning a new task helps boosts our ability to retain memories, while disrupted sleep interferes with memory retention as over-worked neurons struggle to coordinate information properly, potentially leading to a loss access previously learned information.
This is after all, the theory behind "get a good night's sleep the day prior to your exam." This is just old wisdom dictating to give memory consolidation a good chance to work its magic.
Specifically, newer findings have found that sleep helps in optimizing memory consolidation through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories, while the awake state aims in acquiring new information and accessing it once stored.
It therefore appears that REM sleep plays an essential role in the acquisition of learned material.
In dogs, according to a study, behavioral performance has shown to improve if, after learning, dogs underwent a 3-hour-long phase of rest/sleep.
Besides sleep, also a post learning walk and play were associated with increasing performances approximately one week later.
Although more studies are needed, overall, the evidence seems to suggest that adequate daily sleep is very important for learning and memory.