Do Dogs Engage in Lucid Dreaming?

The experts weigh in on whether we could possibly study lucid dreaming in dogs.

Posted Dec 20, 2018

Glenn Geher
Nico!
Source: Glenn Geher

"... actually, it would be most surprising if dogs didn't dream." Stanley Coren (p. 89, 2012).

In the Spring of 2014, I was fortunate to bump into legendary expert on canine behavior, Stanley Coren, at a meeting of the Western Psychological Association. At about that time, my wife and I were in discussions as to whether we should get a second dog. She argued that a second dog would help keep our first dog, Cujo, company. I was afraid of having twice as much in the way of pet-related responsibilities! I brought up this discussion to Dr. Coren when I met him. He thought about it, gave me several anecdotes related to the situation, and about 15 minutes later, I was texting my wife saying that we would be getting a second dog. That dog ended up being Nico, a large, goofy, lab mix who, well, has kind of emerged as my spirit animal (although he can be a pain at times!). Anyway, we have a house full of two large dogs and lots of dog fur, barking, howling, and mayhem, accordingly. So, like a lot of us, I find myself thinking about dogs a lot.

The other day at our weekly meeting of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, my student Jacqueline Di Santo, co-supervisor of the lab, gave a great presentation on dreaming from an evolutionary perspective. Jacqueline's particular focus was on lucid dreaming, a dream state in which one is aware that he or she is dreaming and, in fact, is often able to control the dream itself. Cool, right?

It turns out that some really interesting research on the psychophysiology of lucid dreaming has been published, including work by Voss et al. (2009) showing that, using electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, researchers were able to show that participants who described being engaged in lucid dreaming had demonstrated brain waves that had components of both REM (Rapid Eye Movement, or classic dream sleep) and all-out conscious wakefulness. Further, the proclivity to engage in lucid dreaming seems to correspond to relatively high rates of sleep problems and even dissociative symptoms. In fact, the current literature in this field generally seems to be not fully clear on whether having a high frequency of lucid dreaming is good or bad for you (see Aviram & Soffer-Dudek, 2018).

Dogs and Lucid Dreaming

An intensive discussion of lucid dreaming with a group of bright young people, it turns out, is very thought-provoking. I left my team that night thinking about various possible research projects related to lucid dreaming. And then I got home—and walked the dogs. Immediately, I started to think about whether dogs are capable of lucid dreaming! Further, as a behavioral scientist, I found myself most interested in the question of whether it would be possible to design studies that would be able to empirically test this question.

Think about it. We have all seen our dogs dream, right? Their little paws flutter. They make little moans. Their ears perk up. It's cute, right? And generally, experts on dog behavior would agree that dogs do, in fact, dream in ways that are very similar to how we dream (see Coren, 2012).

But to demonstrate lucid dreaming in dogs would be a whole other animal altogether, so to speak! For one, a defining feature of lucid dreaming is the tendency to be aware that one is currently dreaming. In humans, we can assess this via verbal self report. In other words, we can ask someone "Hey, last night, when you were dreaming, were you aware that you were dreaming? And were you able to control the content of your dream at all?" While dogs are plenty smart, there is a lot of linguistic nuance involved here as far as how we would preliminarily assess if a human is engaging in lucid dreaming. From a behavioral science standpoint, then, this question is something of a pickle!

So, of course, I decided to crowdsource this question via Facebook! Many of my Facebook friends are experts in the behavioral sciences and my friends tend to be fun. So I figured they'd play along!

Here is the exact Facebook post that I put out there to my friends:

Behavioral Science Challenge: Would it be possible to design a study to empirically test whether dogs are capable of lucid dreaming? Jacqueline Di Santo raised a question related to this at our recent lab meeting. And now I'm curious. Warning: Your answers just might be used in an upcoming Psychology Today blog. I'm curious to see what folks think. Here, I tag renowned evolutionist and "fox-to-dog" expert, (tag) Lee Dugatkin and up-and-coming dream researcher, (tag) Daniel Glass — ANYONE else is free to chime in! Together, we just might figure this out!

And here is a summary of the different answers:

See What Stanley Coren Has to Say (Dr. Lee Dugatkin, expert on animal behavior from an evolutionary perspective):

A good academic knows when to punt. Renowned expert on animal behavior, Lee Dugatkin, chimed in early, essentially saying that he is not an expert on this topic himself, but he suggested looking at the book Do Dogs Dream?, by Stanley Coren (2012). If anyone in the world has the answer to this question, it would be Dr. Coren. Remember, he's the one who convinced me to get my best friend Nico! I checked out his book, and no dice. The topic of lucid dreaming in dogs did not appear.

Look for Physiological Correlates of Lucid Dreaming in Humans and See if We Can Observe these Phenomena in Dogs (Dr. Barbara Chatr-aryamontri, high-profile pulmonologist and expert on sleep disorders):

It turns out that Dr. Chatr-aryamontri is a wealth of information on this topic! Dr. Chatr-aryamontri studies narcolepsy and indicated that dogs are often used as a model organism in research on this topic. Apparently, the state that narcoleptics find themselves in is similar to a state of lucid dreaming, with both having dissociative elements. Further, there are pharmaceuticals that have the effects of bringing one into a dissociative state. Perhaps such drugs, given to sleepy dogs, might lead to dogs engaging in lucid dreaming. Yes, this one's kind of a bug-out!

Fabio Danisi (used with permission)
Pete the Pub
Source: Fabio Danisi (used with permission)

A Kind Research Subject Offer: Pete the Pug (Dr. Fabio Danisi, Chief of Neurology, Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital):

Scientific inquiry often requires various forms of sacrifice in the name of advancing our understanding of the world. I was impressed when my good friend Dr. Danisi offered up his family's dog, Pete the Pug, as a possible test subject in research on the question at hand. Dr. Danisi's deep and unwavering commitment to science is, of course, admirable. Unfortunately, however, Dr. Danisi reports that Pete may not be the best test subject on the topic of lucid dreaming as, in Dr. Danisi's words, "(Pete) stopped being lucid years ago." We'll have to give this some more thought...

Brain Regions Might Provide a Clue (Dr. Joel Alexander, Director of the Neurocognitive Laboratory at Western Oregon University):

My friend Dr. Joel Alexander, who has been studying brain processes intensively for decades, provided a real mouthful of an answer. I'm just going to paste it right here!

During lucid dreaming, the bilateral precuneus, cuneus, parietal lobules, and prefrontal and occipito-temporal cortices are activated strongly as compared with non-lucid REM sleep.

It sounds to me that if we can study the brain activity of dogs during sleep and find evidence of activation of these parts of the brain, that might indicate lucid dreaming. Perhaps this measurement could be done in conjunction with a study that experimentally manipulated dissociative-based drugs before sleep episodes for randomly assigned dogs.

Glenn Geher
Nico (foreground), Cujo (background)
Source: Glenn Geher

Probably Not (Dr. Daniel Glass, clinical psychologist and President of the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society; dream researcher):

As one of my most successful alum, let me start by saying that I love Dr. Glass ... But that said, come on, Dr. Glass! You sound a little like a spoilsport* on this one! Here is Dr. Glass' response:

I can be convinced otherwise, but my first reaction is on the less-sanguine side that we can test whether dogs have lucid dreams. I agree that they might have them, but to test whether they do is tricky. If you define a lucid dream as one in which the sleeper is aware they are dreaming and therefore have full control while dreaming, you would get into questions of dog meta-cognition, which is hard enough for conscious dogs, let alone for unconscious dogs. How could we know if a dog knows it’s dreaming? We would also have to know what behaviors and physiological markers are possible in lucid dreaming but not in non-lucid dreaming, and that would be the way in.

The Key May Be Found in the Frequency of REM Episodes (Dr. Gordon Gallup, Professor of Psychology at the University at Albany; past editor of Comparative Psychology; one of the most highly published behavioral scientists in the history of the field):

In Dr. Gallup's words: Interesting question. I’d predict that the magnitude and duration of rapid eye movement (REM) episodes during sleep in dogs would be positively correlated with lucid dreaming. There’s evidence in humans that novel experiences during the day promote more intense REM episodes at night. So you could experimentally manipulate the presence or absence of novel experiences for dogs to see if the same results hold.

This answer is straightforward and, like so many of Dr. Gallup's ideas, eminently testable.

Is Self-Awareness a Requisite Element of Lucid Dreaming? If so, then the answer is no! (Dr. Kristina Spaulding, Ph.D. in neuroscience, owner of Smart Dog Training and Behavior):

Of all the responses that I received, I have to say that Dr. Spaulding's struck me as, perhaps, the winner. Interestingly, Dr. Spaulding was a graduate student of Dr. Gallup several years ago. And her answer actually rests in work published by Dr. Gallup in 1970.

In 1970, Dr. Gallup published a groundbreaking paper on the topic of self-awareness. The ability for an animal to be aware of oneself as an autonomous, independent entity is actually pretty rare in the animal kingdom. The basic way that Dr. Gallup measured self-awareness was with the "mirror test"—-putting an animal in front of a mirror with some mark (e.g,. by using a small bit of lipstick on one's forehead). The task is simple: Does the animal work to wipe the mark off? Such an act shows a sense that the animal realizes that he or she is the one in the mirror. Humans start doing this relatively early in development, normally by about 12 months of age. Chimpanzees can do it. But various other non-human primates cannot. Further, based on extensive research on this topic, dogs, perhaps surprisingly, cannot. As my Psychology Today colleague, Nigel Barber (2017) suggests, based on all the research that is out there, we are not in a position to make the case that dogs are self-aware. 

Well, then the question is whether self-awareness is necessary for an animal to experience lucid dreaming. I have to say, Dr. Spaulding, good point here! If you don't realize that you are an autonomous entity in the social world, then maybe you are not able to realize that you are an autonomous entity in a dream either. This may be the winner!

Glenn Geher
Cujo (l), Nico (r)
Source: Glenn Geher

Bottom Line

Do dogs engage in lucid dreaming? As you can see, we may never know the answer to this question. On one hand, if we can find a constellation of psycho-physiological responses that reliably characterize lucid dreaming in humans and we can empirically document them in dogs, we may have a case to make. This said, my overall assessment of the responses here suggests that the answer to the question of whether we will ever be able to empirically test if dogs engage in lucid dreaming is probably not. I say this primarily because dogs have never been able to reliably demonstrate true self-awareness. And based on what lucid dreaming is, it simply seems that self-awareness may well be required for lucid dreaming to take place.

As to whether Nico engages in lucid dreaming, the answer may simply be that it would be impossible for him to actually realize that he's in a dream and then to start controlling things. Good thing, because he's a handful as it is!

Acknowledgments: Thanks to the members of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab for providing the intellectual fuel for these ideas. And to all of my Facebook friends, who are good sports. And to Pete the Pug, thanks for the offer to be in this study. I'll think about it and will possibly get back to you!

*Note that I had initially used the term "spoiled sport" in this sentence. In a side conversation, Dr. Glass politely corrected my usage, writing "... I think you meant to call me a 'spoilsport,' as in, one who spoils sport, as opposed to a 'spoiled sport,' which would mean a sport that has spoiled." If you don't see the irony, please re-read! ;-)

References

Aviram Liat, Soffer-Dudek Nirit (2018). Lucid Dreaming: Intensity, But Not Frequency, Is Inversely Related to Psychopathology. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, DOI=10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00384       

Barber, N. (2017). Are dogs self-aware? Psychology Today blog.

Coren, S. (2012). Do dogs dream? New York: Norton.

Gallup, G. G. (1970). Self-awareness in the chimpanzee. Science, 167, 86-87.

Skoglund, P.; Ersmark, E.; Palkopoulou, E.; Dalén, L. (2015). "Ancient Wolf Genome Reveals an Early Divergence of Domestic Dog Ancestors and Admixture into High-Latitude Breeds". Current Biology.

Voss U; Holzmann R; Tuin I; Hobson A. Lucid dreaming: a state of consciousness with features of both waking and non-lucid dreaming. SLEEP 2009;32(9):1191-1200.