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Let sleeping dogs lie

Good quality rest is essential for health
and wellbeing

by Kate Mallatratt A Dip CBM, ICB, PPG, Canine Behaviourist

This article was first printed in Animal Therapy Magazine Issue 11 January 2018 pp 22 – 25. Reproduced with kind permission from the editor. To visit their website, please go to: www.animaltherapymedia.co.uk

Let sleeping dogs lie… © Bounders Photography

“This morning I heard her barking in her sleep – the muffled, jowl-puffing bark of dreaming. Oh, does she dream. I love her dream-barks, falsely severe, often accompanied by twitching feet or lips curled into a teeth-baring growl. Watch long enough and I’ll see her eyes dancing, the periodic clenches of her jaw, hear her tiny whimpers. The best dreams inspire tail-wags – huge thumps of delight that wake herself and me.”
Alexandra Horowitz, The Inside of a dog

SLEEP is essential for health and wellbeing. Getting enough sleep is so vital to our bodies that when we lose just a single hour due to daylight saving there is an astonishing 24% increase in heart attacks the following day.Sleep consultant and neuroscientist Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, calls lack of sleep “one of the greatest public health challenges we face in the 21st century” and links sleep deprivation to some serious health conditions. Could it be that modern living places our dogs’ sleep under strain too?

The exact function of sleep and dreaming is uncertain, with different species thriving on considerably varying amounts. Giraffes, for instance, function on as little as two hours a day and ants catnap in one-minute ‘sleep episodes’, while dolphins are literally either half asleep, when one side of the brain rests, or fully awake. Dogs are social sleepers, not strictly nocturnal or diurnal.

There are two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM. REM sleep is when most dreaming takes place and is the most restorative type. The body is in a state of REM atonia when it is mostly paralyzed to prevent dreams being acted out. The average dog spends nearly ten hours in quiet non-REM sleep and around three and a half hours in active REM sleep over 24 hours, and puppies spend up to eighteen hours a day sleeping.

Sleep disorders
Research into sleep deprivation in dogs is limited, however it is likely they suffer similar symptoms to us such as tiredness, mood swings, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating and performing tasks. Short-nosed breeds can suffer from brachycelaphic airway syndrome, when conformation makes breathing difficult and disturbs sleep, and this can impact health negatively in the long term. Dogs can suffer from sleep apnoea, narcolepsy and REM sleep disorder, and some pets with traumatic pasts may suffer anxiety that disrupts sleep.

Changes in sleep patterns occur in aging dogs and those with cognitive dysfunction. Total blindness may cause problems as the retina is unable to detect the difference between night and day, although external “timekeepers” or zeitgebers – environmental cues that entrain the body’s internal clock – also help the body tell time. Examples of these are noises, social interaction, light, temperature, mealtimes and scent. Some dogs indicate bed time and especially meal times with such alarming clarity, that you could set your watch by them!

Perchance to dream
Despite extensive research, the exact function of dreams is hazy although it appears they are the brain’s mechanism for processing emotions, stimuli and information, are necessary for neurons to grow and for consolidation of learning and memory. During dreams it seems that the brain creates a kind of virtual reality, thought to help prepare for the challenges of daily life. Given what we know about our own dreams, perhaps we can hazard a guess what our dogs might dream about. Are they madly following a captivating scent, blissfully wading through a murky puddle or relishing a chomp on a juicy bone?

Sharing your bed 

A sheepskin can make a luxurious bed © The Fabulous Fleece Co

A survey by the American Pet Products Association found that nearly half of dogs sleep with their owners2. There are however some disadvantages to sharing your bed: it poses a small risk of contracting zoonotic diseases, receiving flea bites, exacerbating allergies and disturbing sleep.

Aside from the potential health risks, behaviour problems may result from sharing a bed. Removing a dog from your bed may cause separation issues. Sleeping areas are important locations which may elicit territorial guarding and if your dog finds that defending the bed is successful, he may learn that aggression enables him to keep possession of valuable resources. If this should happen, your dog must not be allowed on the bed or given access to the bedroom.

On the other hand, if your dog will contentedly sleep on your bed and jump off when asked, there is no reason why he can’t make himself at home. For many people the comfort of snuggling up to your best friend is worth the potential risks – even if he takes up most of the bed.

Your puppy’s first night
A puppy who has spent the first weeks of his life nestling up to his mum and siblings will feel scared and isolated when brought into his new home, especially if abandoned on the first night to cry himself to sleep. This negative experience could potentially lead to separation anxiety in future. To make your puppy’s first few nights less stressful, share the room with him so that you can comfort him and take him out to toilet when he wakes/ cries, gradually moving his bed to your chosen location over time.

Quality R&R
It is important that your dog’s environment is conducive to rest and recuperation to enable him to get healthful sleep.

Light pollution is a modern-day curse for humans and animals alike. Dog beds are often situated in the kitchen or utility where electrical appliances illuminate the room, turning night into day and leading to less efficient production of the hormone melatonin, which helps maintain circadian rhythm. To ensure your dog’s rest is unaffected, situate the bed away from appliances and hang blackout curtains at windows to eliminate street lighting. If you need to leave a light on, red disrupts sleep less than white. Taking your dog for a short evening stroll can help you both wind down away from the glare of the computer screen or TV.

Core body temperature is regulated by the circadian rhythm, and rises during the day and drops at night. Sleep quality may be affected by the ambient room temperature as it is difficult to nod off if body temperature is too high. A dog’s normal temperature is greater than ours and he generally prefers the environment cooler. Dogs often have a favourite sleeping place but will frequently move around, and being locked in a crate or lying in a bed on a floor with underfloor heating for instance may make it more difficult to control thermoregulation. Ensure your dog can move to a cooler (or warmer) spot for an optimal night’s rest e.g. leave the crate door open and allow access to another room.

Scent can play an important role in relaxation too, and pheromone or valerian based plug-ins are available to help calm your pet and improve sleep quality. Scent memories can evoke strong emotions and a puppy may find comfort from a toy or item of clothing from his breeder placed in his new bed.

The cacophony of sound in our noisy world can easily overload our dog’s nervous system and reduce the quality of therapeutic rest. Dogs process a wider frequency of sound than humans, the upper end of which is thought to be at least twice as high. Consider reducing or eliminating noises within your control: turn off ansaphones that bleep, remove jangly tags and bells on collars, lower the TV, radio and mobile ring tones, and try not to clatter dishes or slam doors.

Owners who leave the radio on for their dog for company when they go out are better providing music specifically written to calm their canine. Out of three types researched – classical, pop and heavy metal – veterinarian Dr. Susan Wagner, co-author of Through a Dog’s Ear: using sound to improve the health and behaviour of your canine companion, found psychoaccoustically composed classical melodies to be the most effective. This type of music is a therapeutic tool that may help calm an agitated dog at bedtime too.

Dogs who observe the comings and goings from a window when you are out may become too aroused by stimuli such as birds, cats and squirrels in the garden, to fully relax. Watching may also encourage territorial guarding and small dogs standing on the top a sofa with an excellent vantage point often bark at passers to send them on their way. Think carefully about managing your home to reduce visibility by shutting doors, restricting access to windows, closing blinds or hanging net curtains and create ‘yoga class’ surroundings that are calm, quiet, low-lit and lacking external stimuli.

A tired dog is a happy dog?
A tired dog is a happy dog? If your dog sleeps most of the day while you are out at work, this may impact his night time sleep quality while regular exercise and daytime mental stimulation can help improve sleep. Canine enrichment tutor Sophie Reilly explains that her dogs rest more deeply after foraging activities, noticing that they “usually snore after enrichment games rather than lightly snoozing with one eye open”. If your dog has separation anxiety then additional exercise in the hope he will sleep more may not help, and you must address the underlying problems first.

A puppy at ease in his sleep. © Hannah Butler

And so to bed…
Appropriate sleeping quarters are crucial for the health and wellbeing of puppies and whelping mothers. Puppies housed in inadequate facilities where they are unable to crawl away from their nest to eliminate are difficult to house train, and a bitch who feels vulnerable will curl around her puppies for protectiveness and her anxiety may impact their future behaviour. A dog spending too long in his crate may become over-dependent, leading owners to believe this is positive when the dog has actually developed an unhealthy addiction to confinement.

There are many types of dog beds on the market to suit all shapes, sizes, breeds and ages. For example, a terrier may enjoy burrowing in a sleeping bag style bed while a senior dog may prefer a firmer mattress, and crates can easily be covered with a blanket to reduce light pollution. Beds that are too small to allow a dog to fully stretch out can cause musculoskeletal problems.

Sleeping positions

A puppy at ease in his sleep. © Hannah Butler

Sleeping positions Your dog’s sleeping position can reflect his mood and maybe influenced by who he is with and affected by pain or illness. If he feels entirely at ease he will often lie on his side exposing his belly, sometimes with his paws in the air. Curling up nose to tail, a position often adopted by wild animals, protects vital organs, conserves heat and means the dog can get up quickly. Sick dogs often select this position. Lateral recumbency is frequently adopted for deep sleep.

Never wake a sleeping dog by touching him as you may startle him – always call him to you or waft a strongly scented treat under his nose to rouse him.

Returning to our own sleep, happily in Autumn, when the clocks go back and we gain an hour’s rest, there is a corresponding reduction in heart attacks from the Springtime increase3 (when we lose an hour’s sleep). This serves as a stark reminder that we should get the recommended eight hours a night. Getting enough good quality sleep, it seems, can literally save lives and it is highly likely that the health benefits travel down the lead too.


Through a Dog’s Ear: using sound to improve the health and behaviour of your canine companion. Leeds, J; Wagner, S DVM. (2008). Sounds True Inc, USA. ISBN 978-1591798118

Why we sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams. Walker, M PhD (2017). Penguin Random House, UK. ISBN 978-0141983769


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    3. Walker, M PhD (2017). Why we sleep: the new science of sleep and dreams. Penguin Random House, UK.

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Kate Mallatratt is a founder member of International Canine Behaviourists and is a member of Pet Professional Guild for force-free training. She is the author of Home Alone – and Happy! and worked in television as an assistant animal trainer for Plimsoll Production. Kate holds an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour Management and specialises in errorless learning, a concept she incorporates into problem prevention, behaviour modification and enriching the home environment for the family dog. Kate has owned and trained dogs for many years and runs her behaviour and training business, Contemplating Canines, in East Devon, UK.