Does Your Dog Get Enough Sleep?

Did you know that puppies need on average 18-20 hours of sleep a day and adult dogs need on average 12 to 14 hours of sleep?!

Why is this important?

Because dogs are polyphasic sleepers which means that they need to sleep in more than two segments per day. Humans tend to sleep for a long period of time, in one go, in a 24 hour sleep period. 

Dogs and other polyphasic sleepers will sleep more than once whilst still getting the number of sleep hours required throughout a 24 hour period for it to not be detrimental to their health and ability to perform. 

If we lose an hour of sleep we cannot catch up on that sleep, whereas dogs have the ability to do so.

 So the question again, is why is this important? A lack of sleep affects dogs just as much as it does us humans. 

Nearly all behavioural cases can see some improvement in their behaviour when we increase the dogs sleep. This is common practice for dog trainers and behaviourists to increase sleep and sleep quality in a dogs training plan.

Sleep or a lack of sleep affects so many aspects. We know as a rule that sleep deprivation can be detrimental to our own health. When we are looking at our health, we know that there are serious medical issues that are associated with chronic lack of sleep, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure and stroke just to name a few. 

All of these health issues are things which can affect our dogs too, so the link between our own health and lack of sleep is easy to convert over to our dogs health.

Yet often, it is not something that owners are unaware of nor do they recognise that link and that must change. We, as professionals, need to be talking about sleep more.

Did you know that you can actually die from sleep deprivation just as much as you can die from lack of water or food. Sleep deprivation is also a form of torture.

White dog with brown patches laying asleep in a bed.

 Dog trainers & behaviourists will often see cases where a dog is so busy that they cannot relax or switch off.

With some dogs, when they do fall asleep, they awake easily upon minute movements from their owner or sounds that may be heard. We see dogs that watch everything and anything that passes by the window setting them off into a frenzy.

All of this causes the dog to be hyper-alert and hyper-vigilant which naturally causes and increases anxiety and stress.

And we know that stress and anxiety isn’t good for us, it’s the same for our dogs.

Brown dog with a white chest looking out of a window

 Not only is a lack of sleep going to have an effect on a dog’s health, but it will also affect their emotional state and behaviour too.

Think to yourself, how are you after two or three nights of broken sleep?

Do you think emotionally you will be happy?

Do you think you can make clear decisions easily and will be able to deal with problems that arise?

Or perhaps you are like me and you find that you become more frustrated easily. You lack tolerance and may be grumpy and quick to snap - this girl needs her sleep okay.

When asking a dog to do something or you are training with your dog, how can they be expected to think clearly, to comprehend the task and to deliver what is being asked of them if they are not getting enough sleep?

You may find that like me, your patience wears thin on days where you haven’t slept as much. So, thinking of a training scenario, if a dog hasn’t had enough sleep and is struggling to understand what is being asked of them or comprehend the task at hand, you may find that their frustration levels and their emotional state may change. 

That can affect not only the outcome of the training session, but also their experience. Do you think this would have been a positive experience for them?

Don’t underestimate the power of sleep, especially where our dogs are concerned.

Brown puppy asleep on a mat

 Sleep helps with physical, emotional and cognitive health. Sleep is necessary for every cell that is in the body, every function the body does, and is needed for each organ to rest and recover.

The immune system needs sleep to enable itself to function at its best. 

There was a study done on humans who were given a vaccination. One group was sleep deprived on purpose and the second group was not. The group who were sleep deprived were shown to have 30% less immunity compared to the second group who were not purposely sleep deprived. 

Yet both groups received the same vaccination.

As with human babies, puppies need sleep particularly for growth.

Sleep also allows us to recharge emotionally. When you sleep you sort through your emotions and events that have happened throughout the day. Sleep also helps with our decision making too which is where the saying ‘let me sleep on it’ comes from.

Sleep is super important for the learning process too and there have been so many studies done on this area. I know for me, if I haven't had a lot of sleep, yet I had a day of learning ahead of me, I would really struggle with concentrating, understanding and taking the information in.

When training dogs, teaching them new things and working with their emotions, we also need to be aware of the link between learning and sleep. How can we expect a dog to be on top of its game when we are working with them and learning, when they are lacking in sleep?

For dogs who struggle with coping in scenarios or are struggling with their emotions, such as being fearful, stressed or anxious - how can we expect them to process things or make decisions when under emotional stress whilst they are lacking in sleep?

Black and white dog being guided by a female handler over a small hurdle

 We, ourselves don’t do so well with those things whilst suffering from sleep deprivation and it’s totally unfair to expect more from our dogs at those times when we would struggle.

Hopefully you are getting my point on why sleep is so important and why we, as dog trainers, should be talking about it more. Owners need to recognise the importance of sleep and the benefits from ensuring enough sleep has been had.

We know that puppies need on average 18-20 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period.

They have lots of learning to do, processing everything about the world around them. They are also growing at a tremendous rate.

For adult dogs, it’s between 12-14 hours of sleep that is needed in a 24 hour period. 

Elderly dogs are more likely to sleep for longer. For them they may get more fatigued, they may have some health issues or their body may need to repair itself.

It is noted that smaller breeds tend to nap in short, sweet successions whereas your larger breed dogs tend to nap for longer periods of time in a sleep session.

We do have to take into consideration the breed of the dog though and if they have an instinctual job to do. For example, a Border Collie is likely to be running and active for a good 8 hours solid compared to a bulldog where they are going to be less active, without an instinctual job. Equally, we have to remember that every dog is also an individual, something else we have to account for.

When we are sleeping, it’s easy to think that nothing happens, but actually the brain is more active at night, especially during the REM phase than during the daytime.  REM stands for rapid eye movements.

There are three stages of non-rapid eye movement.

Phase 1 of Non-Rapid Eye Movement is often referred to as N1.

N1 is the stage where you start to get sleepy, get drowsy, body and muscles are relaxing, breathing slows, and this is the transition into the sleep stage

This then moves you into N2. From brain scans, we are aware that this stage has a lot of activity going on that is related to memory and learning consolidation. 

There was a study that was done on rats where the rats were taught to go around a circle to get to a piece of food.  The activity the rats displayed during the N2 phase when they were asleep, was exactly the same compared to when the rat was going around the circle to get to a piece of food. 

Now I know how that sounds, but the data was so accurate that the scientists were able to pinpoint the exact moments the rats were stopping in the circle, in their sleep. The rats were going over that learning exactly as it had played out in real life but in their sleep. They were processing and consolidating that learning and all of that information they had taken in or received. 

We are quite lucky as this topic has had many studies conducted in recent memory and that there is a lot of good research out there.

We then move through to N3 - the stage where the body does its repair and healing. You are in a deeper sleep during this phase which makes it not so easy for you to just wake up.

The next phase is deep sleep or rapid eye movement. Rapid eye movement which is also referred to as REM.

I am sure you have all seen your dog twitch in their sleep, they may move, eyes flicker, the nose may crinkle or the legs may kick out. 

You perhaps may hear some whimpering, howling, crying or even some grumbles and growling from your dog.

I'm sure many of us have jokingly commented that the dog is chasing something like a cat during that stage, especially when the legs are sideways running in their sleep.

That is when a dog is in the REM phase. 

This phase is all about the emotional side of things. This is where the brain works through the emotional side of things and is processing all the negative and positive things that may have happened during the day. 

Dogs and humans go through these 4 sleep phases multiple times. The phases cycle over and over while we are asleep. For humans, the cycle length is around 90 minutes, to get through all 4 phases before starting again. 

Now dogs cycle through these phases much quicker.

Humans spend around 25 % of their time in the 4th stage, the REM stage, whereas dogs spend around 10% of their time in this stage. However, dogs sleep more throughout a 24 hour period compared to humans, so actually, dogs hit that REM stage more than humans and when you add all their sleep sessions together, it will be more than 25%.

Brown dog with fluffly ears laying asleep

 When it comes to stress, where there are high levels of cortisol in a dog’s system can interrupt the sleep pattern. In humans as well as dogs. This is an important key point to know, especially if you are working with or are an owner of a nervous, fearful, anxious dog. We need to think about how much sleep they are getting and trying to improve on that.

Let’s look at the effects of sleep deprivation as this also affects our emotional state, not just our physical health.

How many of you have suffered from sleep deprivation? I am sure some of you have had children and have been through those stages where you can actually feel like you're drunk through lack of sleep.

How did that sleep deprivation affect your mood? Most of this is going to be transferable to our dogs.

You may notice that a lack of sleep may make you grumpy and less tolerant.  You may find that you do not make the best decisions. Remember that sleep deprivation is actually classed as a form of torture.

It makes it difficult to think, let alone problem solve. It can almost be described as having a haze or thick fog in your head.

You may find that your concentration skills go right out of the window. You may watch the TV for an hour but once it’s finished you do not know what you have watched.

You may have difficulty remembering things. 

When I went through sleep deprivation when my boys were babies, I misplaced so many things and my memory was beyond awful. I once put my phone in the fridge, in the bin and I would lose my phone for a whole day at a time sometimes. My phone went on many walks without me.

Simple tasks can become much harder to do and comprehend when you are in a sleep-deprived state of mind.

Let’s look at sleep deprivation in a child. Do you have or have had a toddler, which is at the same emotional development as a dog? 

If you have had a toddler, you know that time when the toddler misses a nap or has gone down to sleep a couple of hours later?

That toddler quickly turns into a monster, doesn’t it? I have had children so I, myself can concur with that one.

They become sooo emotional!

Simple tasks or instructions cannot be comprehended and rationalisation is non-existent.

Their frustration and anger levels are heightened and come into play much quicker when the child is in a sleep-deprived state.

Toddler screaming whilst sitting on a chair in a field

 This is transferable to dogs.

Did you know that dogs that wake up suddenly can become aggressive?

This could be due to two reasons, REM behaviour disorder or the dog’s natural startle response.

REM behaviour disorder is when a dog will wake up and almost play out their REM sleep movements. This may include jumping up and running into a wall or spinning round in a circle. The dog may attack the nearest thing which may include a person, or a leg or hand

A startle response may occur, when a dog wakes up in a fearful, anxious state. They will look as if they are unsure where they are and it takes a moment to realise their surroundings and who you are.

That startle response may be brought on by a memory trigger where something has happened and they startle in response to that. I.e. someone tripping over them when they are asleep. 

When they are startled, the dog can be in that fight/flight response unconsciously to keep themselves safe.

Let’s not underestimate the effect that sleep deprivation can have on your emotional state and how you rationalise everyday things. 

As well as your health. Again, there has been so much research into sleep deprivation and the health risks it can all cause. Growth and Alzheimer's are just two examples of where sleep deprivation may affect your health and have been clinically linked.

Here is how we can help our dogs and ensure that they are getting the sleep that they need.

  • Ensure their bed is in an area of the house that isn’t busy or the main walkthrough, i.e. the hallway where people are coming past to and from, the doorbell is going off and the post being put through the letterbox..
  • If you are about to work with a dog perhaps ask the owner to give the dog a nap/rest before your session with them. Ensure the dog is rested and ready to learn and able to process.
  • Look at the dog's last mealtime. Is it too early or potentially too late and playing a part in sleep disruption?
  • Think of where you are placing the bed in terms of temperature and drafts. If the bed is beside a patio or door, are they being woken by a change in temperature.
  • Are they placed beside a radiator where it may get too hot at certain points or the noise may startle them awake when turning on?
  • A quiet corner with less foot traffic is best. Perhaps a crate that can be covered, to help cut off some of the visual stimulation. Especially for dogs that are constantly on the lookout at any movement or noise.
  • The dog may need to be placed in a room and separated off. Especially in busy family households which have children or lots of general movement which is going to cause constant disruption.
  • During school holidays, a dog may not be getting as much rest compared to normal, so again, a separate room is a great idea.
  • If the bed is by the back patio door, are they being disturbed by wildlife throughout the night?
  • Think about the type of bed they are sleeping on and what type of bed may be right for that dog as if they are uncomfortable, that will cause a dog to be waking up and restless
  • Have a good bedtime routine and be consistent. This is really important too.

Did you know how important sleep was to your dog?