There is no doubt in my mind that dogs dream. I have believed this for as long as we’ve had dogs, and I’m happy that most scientists who study these things finally tend to agree: dogs do seem to dream, and the subject appears to involve things that they do during the day. I enjoy sitting in the room, watching my dogs dream, and trying to figure out what they are dreaming about. Often the twitching and sniffing are so generalized that it’s hard to know exactly what might be happening in their dream world. But just the other day, it became very obvious that my main working dog, Coda, doesn’t only herd sheep in his waking hours. No, he also periodically herds phantom sheep in his sleep!
I was relaxing in our parlor after a long day of work on the farm and errands in town. As I sat back to finally relax and watch a bit of TV, I suddenly realized that the programmed entertainment was much less interesting than what was happening right there in the room with me. Coda had fallen asleep in front of the fireplace, maybe twenty minutes before, and by the time I noticed him, he was well into what was obviously a very active dream!
It wasn’t long before I knew — just from watching his movements — exactly what was happening in his dream world. At first his motions were like those of most sleeping dogs: a bit of leg twitching and heavy breathing that would correspond with running. Before too long, however, the running stopped, but his legs continued to move — much more slowly, as they would if he were responding to my command to “walk up” on one or more sheep in a field. After a reasonable walk up period, I noticed that the action stopped and his front legs were positioned — if he had been standing upright — in a border collie crouch like the one he uses when trying to move our flock by eye (as border collies so often do).
As I watched, the crouching leg position was accompanied by slight head movements, which I commonly see when he is staring down the flock and letting them know that they shouldn’t move — he will cut them off regardless of their direction. Then, in an instant, he was running again, head held low. Obviously at least one of the sheep in the dream flock had not cooperated with our sleep-herding plan, and Coda had to bring it back to the flock. When he caught it, he must have corrected the errant sheep-of-slumber for not following his instructions and had thereby gotten a mouthful of wool, since his front legs began to pass over the sides of his mouth, trying to remove bits of imaginary wool from between his teeth. It was hard to mistake!
Thankfully, the problem sheep must have returned to the flock, and Coda must have been successful in his work. Once the herding action stopped, he ducked his head, the motion he uses when I pat his head upon completion of our work. (This is despite the fact that Coda would much prefer being rewarded with more sheep work rather than with any type of atta-boy that I might give, awake or asleep!)
So, obviously at least some herding dogs work not only during waking hours but also sometimes when they’re asleep. It doesn’t surprise me that Coda would be one of those dogs, since he lives and breathes herding work. I have to admit that after his last dreaming session, I will be paying much more attention to my dogs as they lounge around in the evening, twitching and softly barking. It does make me wonder, though: do you think they watch me as I sleep, too, and wonder what I am up to?