I don’t know about you, but I often wonder what my dog, Jess, is dreaming of when her legs start moving while she sleeps: whether she is chasing rabbits or running on the beach, there is no doubt that she appears to be enjoying her own world. Sleep is not only a way for us to escape the stressors of day-to-day life, but also a hugely important part of homeostasis – lack of adequate sleep can have a significant impact on the physical and behavioural health of an individual.
The importance of sleep
When considering a holistic approach to behavioural concerns, sleep is often under-investigated. The “hierarchy of dog’s needs” identifies biological needs as the first level of behavioural well-being (Michaels, 2022). Changes in the pattern and duration of sleep often reflect a dog’s experience while awake, including how comfortable they are in their own environment (Kinsman et al., 2020). Sleep will naturally vary between individuals and is impacted by age, health, lifestyle and other external factors.
The sleep cycle in most mammals, including dogs, consists of slow-wave sleep followed by rapid eye movement sleep, then wakefulness (Adams and Johnson, 1993). However, unlike humans, dogs are “polyphasic sleepers” meaning that they sleep on and off during the day, rather than in one large period of sleep overnight. The amount of sleep dogs should get is a debated concept, with the most commonly suggested amount being between 12 and 14 hours in any 24-hour period. According to the literature, on average 26 to 31 percent of the daytime (Owczarczak-Garstecka and Burman, 2016; Adams and Johnson, 1993; Zanghi et al., 2012) and 60 to 70 percent of the night-time is spent sleeping (Owczarczak-Garstecka and Burman, 2016; Zanghi et al., 2012).
The amount of sleep dogs should get is a debated concept, with the most commonly suggested amount being between 12 and 14 hours in any 24-hour period
Although there is no conclusive amount of sleep suggested for dogs, one thing that is widely agreed upon is that lack of sleep has a negative impact on welfare. Reported effects include worsening responses to negative stimuli, anxiety, aggression (Banks and Dinges, 2007), reduced sensitivity to rewards (Willner et al., 1992), lower frustration tolerance (Kamphuis et al., 2012) and reduced ability to cope with stressful situations (Vandekerckhove and Cluydts, 2010). This ultimately can be translated to difficulties in managing behaviour, worsening of behaviours of concern and a lack of progress with behaviour modification.
While a holistic approach should be taken with all behavioural queries, there are two main areas where particular attention should be paid: the amount of sleep the dog is getting, and where active sleep strategies may improve the prognosis of resolving undesirable behaviour.
Puppies and sleep
One of the most highly impacted areas in the development of behaviours of concern, and a logical place to start, is with puppies. Similarly to adult dogs, the population norms of sleep for dogs under 12 months do not exist. Kinsman et al. (2020) set out to try to fill some of the gaps in knowledge, with data collected from information on 2,332 16-week-old and 1,091 12-month-old puppies which was obtained via online surveys.
Owners were asked for approximate minimum and maximum hours of sleep during an average 24-hour period, as well as the presence of a range of sleep-related behaviours. The study identified that 16-week-old puppies slept longer than the 12-month-old cohort, which was represented mainly by a decrease in daytime sleep. The mean total hours slept by dogs in a 24-hour period as reported by their owners was 11.2 hours for 16-week-old puppies and 10.8 hours for 12-month-old puppies.
Most of the common behavioural concerns seen in puppies such as barking, mouthing, inability to settle, chewing and other destructive behaviours are intensified by lack of sleep, often leading to frustration of owners, inappropriate handling or potentially rehoming of the puppy. When owners are home, a puppy’s daytime sleep is often interrupted simply by their owner’s movement around the house. This may be a particular concern when considering lockdown puppies, where many owners were at home during the day where they previously would have been at work. In addition, puppies often do not have the ability to self-regulate behaviour and sleep, so owners need to set the puppy up for success to encourage sleep, particularly during the day.
Puppies often do not have the ability to self-regulate behaviour and sleep, so owners need to set the puppy up for success to encourage sleep, particularly during the day
The puppy can be provided with comfortable bedding in a quiet area of the home with minimal distractions and stimulation – this may be in the form of a crate or puppy pen initially, which if utilised correctly has the added benefit of a clear expectation of relaxation and sleep. Owners can be encouraged to have a set routine where possible, where the puppy is provided with some low arousal and calming activities such as snuffle mats, chews and other arousal-reducing enrichment activities which can act as cues for sleep. It would be sensible to start to introduce these activities and an expectation of sleep after energetic activities such as walks or playtime. At these times the puppy is most likely to need to rest but will also need to learn to manage arousal and not perform undesirable behaviours as they are unable to calm down.
Night-times can also be a struggle for new puppies and owners. Again, the owner should be encouraged to have a consistent routine where the puppy is calmly taken out to toilet and then encouraged into their sleep area. Initially, it is beneficial to have this near to the owner’s own bed to help settle the puppy. The sleep area can then gradually be moved further away as the puppy grows in confidence over a period of days or weeks.
It is perfectly normal for the puppy to be restless or whine briefly for the first few nights and leaving them to self-settle may be appropriate, unless they are showing clear distress or are unable to settle after a few minutes. In this instance, the puppy should not be left to cry – the puppy may need to be taken back out to toilet with little interaction and the owners may want to consider where the sleep area is located and look at adding comforting elements, such as a hot-water bottle wrapped in a blanket. Feed time may also need to be considered with the puppy eating a couple of hours before bedtime, so that toileting is less likely post-bedtime.
While increasing sleep generally helps with undesirable behaviours, it is also essential that owners are carrying out suitable training for their puppy and should contact an appropriate professional if issues persist.
The link between sleep and undesirable behaviours
The second area where sleep is particularly important is in dogs who have anxiety issues, such as reactivity. Regular exposure to triggers that induce an “overreaction” increases stress which can in turn affect the amount and quality of sleep. This then affects the dog’s ability to cope with exposure to triggers and thus we enter a circle of negative emotions and lack of sleep.
In cases where exposure to triggers is affecting the dog’s sleep schedule we may want to consider “serotonin breaks” – this is where the dog may miss a day of walking to reduce exposure to triggers
The first stage of advice is always to avoid triggers to prevent rehearsal of the undesirable behaviours and to reduce stress levels. This is not always possible and in cases where exposure to triggers is affecting the dog’s sleep schedule we may want to consider “serotonin breaks” – this is where the dog may miss a day of walking to reduce exposure to triggers and allow the dog time to recover. While these breaks can be helpful, we need to remind owners to ensure they compensate with alternative activities in the home.
Owners also need to ensure they set up areas to encourage good rest, thinking about things such as having various bed options that allow the dog to choose how to sleep (eg curling up tight or laying completely flat) and different heights of beds, as well as where to sleep (eg beds in quiet areas and in close proximity to the owner(s)). In some cases, where external stressors are greatly impeding sleep, other ways of reducing stress and anxiety may need to be considered, including psychoactive medication.
It is clear from both the literature and real-world evidence that sleep is an extremely important part of a dog’s life and should be included in all holistic approaches to undesirable behaviours and welfare. Increasing sleep improves quality of life for both dogs and their owners. Further, setting the dog up for success by providing appropriate sleeping environments can be the key to ensuring excellent quality and quantity of sleep.