My Dog Dreams Of…

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I was watching Madge, the basset hound pit bull, take her usual mid-morning siesta. And listening, too, of course, because she snores at a decibel level that possibly exceeds that of one of those Who concerts in the 1960s that gave Pete Townsend such bad tinnitus. In between the rumbling drone, her stubby legs and oversized paws twitched, and she sporadically made strange little yipping sounds. Dogs have REM sleep and dream, just like humans. In fact, they have a lot more of it—they typically sleep for as much as 13 hours a day. Whatever Madge dreams about, she spends as much or more time living in her subconscious as she does actually barking at the mailman, analyzing the aroma messages left on neighborhood shrubbery by other members of her species, and tussling with Joey and Kirby.

What does Madge dream about? Some hypothesize that the patterns of dream content in animals may be similar to those in humans. Okay, so they’re not dreaming about discovering that they forgot to attend class all semester or that they’re not wearing any pants on the street, but they may well have something resembling the anxiety / threat-avoidance dreams that scientists believe are an evolutionary remnant of our hunter-gatherer ancestry.  In the book Sleep and Dreaming: scientific advances and reconsiderations, Edward F. Pace-Schott observed  that his own sleeping dogs growled, barked and exhibited rapid-paw movement (RPM) during their snoozing. Those might be signs of flight-or-fight urges (though, the dogs might also have dreaming of jumping around as puppies in a field somewhere). Pace-Schott’s pet canines also wagged their tails and mimicked drinking and sexual behavior while asleep.

Since it’s hard to imagine dogs sleeping any more than they do normally, it was a surprise for me to discover that some dogs actually suffer from narcolepsy, a condition in which sufferers experience periodic periods of extreme drowsiness during the day, in addition to sleep paralysis, dream-like hallucinations and occasional attacks of cataplexy, a transient loss of muscle tone. In 2009, Stanford University medical school researcher Dr. Emmanuel Minot, MD and colleagues discovered two defective versions of a gene called  hypocretin receptor 2, that causes excessive pathological sleepiness in Labrador retrievers and Dobermans.