Dog Sleep: Where Love and Science Meet
There are pros and cons of sleeping with your dog — for both of you.
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Watching dogs sleep —limbs akimbo, eyebrows twitching, paws paddling in a dreamland chase—is one of the joys of living with them. Another is the coziness of sharing your bed with them. Many people share a bed with their dogs, whether for emotional comfort, warmth (you’ve heard the expression “three-dog night,” right?), or because the bed is their go-to spot. Yet, while it makes people happy, you might wonder if it’s something you should actually be doing.
One concern relates to old-school ideas about dominance. For many years, people were told that allowing your dogs on the bed with you would interfere with your attempts to dominate them, which was supposedly essential to having a well-trained dog. While shame about sleeping with dogs is far less common than it was a decade or two ago, a lot of people still fear being judged on the nighttime canine company they keep. Here are a few things to know about the effects dogs and sleep.
Should you let your dog sleep with you?
Dogs love to be near people, and sharing a bed makes most dogs and people feel safe, cozy, loved and warm (until the dog steals the covers!). The extra security of being close to their people also reduces the stress some dogs experience in response to noise, whether it’s simple car sounds or intense thunderstorms. Proximity can also alert us to other problems our dogs may have.
So, sleeping with your dogs is good for the relationship, unless it’s not. By that, I mean if sleeping with your dog works for you and you like it, it’s probably a good thing to do. Having a dog as a bed buddy can be marvelous if everyone is happy with the arrangement and everyone is sleeping well, but that’s not always the case. Sadly, a dog on the bed can sometimes lead to two types of relationship problems.
Problems when dogs share the bed:
1. Fighting within couples.
People may have very different views on the subject; couples have been known to fight like, well, cats and dogs about it. If you and your partner don’t agree on welcoming a dog to your shared bed, the conflict could harm your relationship. That tension may also affect the relationship between the person who wants a dog-free bed and the dog who senses that they are not welcome.
2. Changes in sleep quality
A dog on the bed may have an impact on the quality of your sleep. A few studies have looked at how having a dog on the bed affects human sleep, with mixed results. A recent study investigated sleep efficiency (the percentage of time spent in bed actually sleeping) with a dog on the bed and with a dog in the room but not on the bed; the test group was made up of healthy, middle-aged women. The results? “On the bed” had a sleep-efficiency score of 80 percent, while “in the room” clocked in at 83 percent. That’s a small difference, and both figures are considered satisfactory by sleep experts.
In another study, more than 40 percent of people who sleep with their dogs reported that their dog did not disrupt their sleep; some said they even improved it. Warmth, contentment and relaxation were cited as sources of these positive co-sleeping evaluations. In the absence of a partner—either because they were single or their partner was away from home— many people said that having their dog on the bed with them gave them a wonderful sense of companionship. Only 20 percent of participants reported that their dogs disrupted their sleep.
Understanding Dog Sleep
According to most veterinarians, dogs need about 12 to 14 hours of sleep a day. Puppies sleep even more, often upwards of 15 to 18 hours a day. All of that sleep doesn’t come in one long session in dogs of any age; there’s a lot of alternating between high-energy bouts and snoozing. Puppies are especially prone to fast transitions, going from hurricanes of activity to nap time in the blink of an eye.
Though many dogs drift off with ease, some struggle to pass into dreamland. In such cases, a predictable bedtime routine may help. It can be really simple— perhaps a brief trip outside, coming back in and having their collar removed, and finishing up with a brief petting session near the dog’s sleep location.
Sleep can affect dogs’ learning and memory.
It’s well known that going to sleep after studying helps people consolidate new information and leads to its storage in long-term memory. In another example of the many parallels between canine and human brains, the same is true for dogs: sleeping is an important part of their learning process.
In a Hungarian study, researchers taught dogs to respond to the cues “sit” and “lie down” in English, which—because they were trained in a different language—were new to them. After their training session, the dogs napped, and researchers found that during these naps, the dogs exhibited the same sleep-wave patterns associated with sleep-dependent memory consolidation in other species.
Specific bursts of brain activity, called sleep spindles, occur during non-REM sleep and are related to learning and memory. Sleep spindle density predicts overnight memory consolidation in people and in rats. According to data from this study, the same is true for dogs. Dogs who had a greater density of sleep spindles following a training session had better recall when tested on their response to the new cues later. Additionally, like female humans, female dogs had more sleep spindles as well as better retention of the new skills when compared to their male counterparts.
In another Hungarian study, dogs were taught English cues and then engaged in one of four different activities: sleep, walk, Kong play or training in another skill using the lure-and-reward method. After an hour of the assigned activity, the dogs were retested on their English cues. The activity dogs engaged in after training had an effect on their performance. Dogs who slept or went for a walk improved in their performance, but dogs who played with a Kong or had additional training did not. In a follow-up session a week later, post-training activity still influenced performance, but not exactly in the same way as on the day of training. Dogs who slept, played or walked all performed well when given cues in English. Only the dogs who had additional unrelated training failed to improve their response.
Dogs don’t sleep as well at night if they have a bad experience during the day.
It’s easy to relate to recent research showing that dogs’ sleep suffers if they have negative experiences during the day—the same thing is true for people. This study compared the sleep of dogs who had a positive experience (being petted or playing an enjoyable game) and those who had a negative experience (being tied to a door and left alone or having a stranger come in and stare at them without saying anything). Dogs who had the negative experiences fell asleep faster, but the quality of their sleep was not as good. They spent less time in deep sleep and more time in REM sleep. If a dog has a bad day, a night of poor sleep is a real possibility, as is the dog’s tiredness and irritability the following day.
Age and feeding frequency influence a dog’s sleep schedule.
If you have a puppy and are hoping for a magic way to get him or her to sleep longer (and thus get more sleep yourself), I have bad news for you: time is your only friend in that quest. As puppies get older, they start to sleep through the night, but until then, you just have to hope that daytime puppy joy and sweetness gets you through the rough times at night. For adult dogs, the news is better, because their natural nighttime sleep patterns are a closer match to our own.
Middle-aged and older dogs sleep more during the day than young adult dogs, and that’s because they take more naps, not because the naps are longer. They also sleep more at night compared with younger dogs. Younger dogs don’t sleep as late in the morning, and they wake up more frequently during the night.
When researchers compared dogs fed once a day with dogs who received two meals daily, they found that adult dogs of all ages are affected by their feeding schedule. Dogs who were fed twice took fewer daily naps than those fed once, but those naps were longer. Dogs who ate twice a day fell asleep earlier at night, but woke up earlier in the morning, too. The earlier wake-ups more than compensated for the earlier bedtime, meaning that dogs who ate two meals slept less at night overall than dogs who were fed just once.
Make thoughtful choices about where your dog sleeps.
Like people, dogs need to feel safe and comfortable in order to sleep well. They generally prefer a soft, cushy surface. If it’s not your bed, they’ll appreciate a rug, dog bed or even a fleece blanket.
Most dogs prefer to be in the same room as their humans, and that is generally my recommendation to clients. In that room, they can be on the bed, on the floor or on a dog bed of their own, depending on what works for you and anyone else sharing your bed.
There are situations in which dogs must sleep in another room because of allergies or because their snoring disrupts sleep, but if there is any way to have them in the same room, that is best for the dog and for your relationship with the dog. On the practical side, sharing a room makes it easier for you to know if your dog needs attention because they’re ill, scared or simply require an additional trip outside.
It’s great that there’s been a surge of interest in canine sleep in recent years. Paying attention to your dog’s sleep can influence your relationship with them, their quality of life and their happiness. Yes, sleep is that important.
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Karen B. London, PhD
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.