Did you know that some dogs sleep while standing up? Does your dog do that? You may have heard that larger mammals such as horses, cows, giraffes, and elephants can take a snooze or even sleep for prolonged hours while standing up. This, scientists have explained, is owing to various reasons, some anatomical, others environmental. Scientists say for instance that large mammals in the wild sleep on their feet to watch out for threats. Speaking to National Geographic, Amy Johnson, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said that some herbivores such as horses, sleep on their feet because they have “stay apparatus,” a mechanism unique to their anatomy that allows their legs to remain straight without engaging the muscles.
As a dog owner, you might wonder if these reasons explain why your dog sleeps while standing up. Your dog is not a large mammal, at least not as large as a horse, she is in no danger in your house, and most importantly, she does not have stay apparatus. So what then, would be the reason behind a dog sleeping while standing up and is this a good thing or a bad thing? Read on below to find out.
The Root of the Behavior
Just like human beings, dogs rely on muscles when standing but unlike human beings, they can sleep standing up, at least for short periods. This difference between dog and man can be attributed to selective breeding, a process through which some dogs, especially working dogs, have evolved physical characteristics that allow them to withstand the prolonged strain. Working dogs spend most of their day doing what they are trained to do. For a working dog, sleep means bad things will happen. Paul Shaw, Ph.D., agrees with this theory. He says in an article in the American Psychological Association, “Sleep is costly. When an animal sleeps, it is not taking care of its young, it is not protecting itself, and it is not eating…” As such, if your dog has been selectively bred over centuries, it is likely to display this type of behavior.
A dog’s history could also explain this strange sleeping habit. Dogs that have undergone abuse and mistreatment might be uncomfortable sleeping in a bed. One such case was reported in Tampa Bay, Florida, where dog rescuers reported that when they gave one of their rescued dogs a bed, she did not sleep on the bed. She slept standing because her previous owners always made her sleep in that position. This type of response is what Martin Seligman, a researcher on classical conditioning, named learned helplessness. Amateur dog trainer and writer, Aileen Anderson said that a dog suffering from learned helplessness can become catatonic and only adopt positions that their abusers have forced on them.Sleeping while standing can also be a reaction to changes in your dog’s environment and you can tell this if your dog suddenly starts to sleep while standing up. Since dogs learn by conditioning, changes in the house that affect her sleep arrangements might cause her to reject her new sleeping area. Change can also heighten a dog’s anxiety, forcing her to sleep standing in anticipation of danger.
Encouraging the Behavior
Encouraging or discouraging the upright sleeping position in your dog will depend on the root cause of this behavior. There are situations where the cause and effect relationship of this strange sleeping behavior is very straightforward, such as if it happens when your dog is fatigued from exercise. Since the reason for your dog’s behavior is fatigue, you can proactively solve this problem. Through training, your dog can be taught to walk to her bed for some restful sleep when she is tired. On the flip side, if your dog gets so tired that she cannot make it to her bed for a nap or sleep, you are probably overworking her and should consult a dog trainer to recommend a healthier exercise schedule.
For some dogs, sleeping while standing cannot be avoided. As mentioned above, some dogs are wired this way, thanks to centuries of breeding and training. Dog breeds are very different and these differences are amplified in the motivation behind their breeding. For this reason, sleep will mean different things to different dog breeds. From an evolutionary perspective, different breeds of dogs learned new sleep habits, as a way of adapting to their breeding. This adaptation may vary and can be seen in sleep durations and different sleep postures.
When this behavior is driven by instinct, such as in working dogs, it might not go away, even if your dog is no longer a working dog. Unless it’s causing you, the occupants of your home, or your dog any discomfort, you should not worry. Your dog just wants to catch a snooze quickly and “get back to work.” What should worry you is if your dog, who has never previously displayed this behavior, suddenly starts to sleep while standing up. If this happens, you need to take her to a dog behaviorist to figure out the reason behind this sudden change in sleeping behavior. Through positive reinforcement and reconditioning, a dog behaviorist can train your dog to change the behavior if it is rooted in negative stimuli.
Other Solutions and Considerations
There are some medical reasons that are related to a dog’s tendency to sleep while standing up. One of these reasons is old age. As your dog ages, she might develop arthritis or hip dysplasia, both of which will cause her a lot of pain and interfere with movement, including folding her legs to lie down. Hip dysplasia is quite common in large dog breeds because they grow fast during the puppy stage. This rapid growth strains their joints and predisposes them to hip dysplasia in future. Hip dysplasia and arthritis can be treated by a vet to allow your dog painless sleep.
A lesser-known condition that Aileen Anderson cautions about is dog shutdown, a condition observed in abused dogs and is characterized by unresponsiveness, including response to touch. Dogs in this state are often seen as relaxed because they have mild to no responses to stimuli, but, they could be in shut down mode. Knowing your dog’s history is important because it will help your vet or dog behaviorist make an accurate diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatment to aid your dog’s recovery.
While sleeping in a standing position may be a common thing for some dogs, you still should not take it for granted. Sleep is very complicated and so nuanced that even among dogs of the same breed or same occupation, you cannot apply blanket rules. It is always best to consult a vet or a dog behaviorist when in doubt.
By a Golden Retriever lover Maryanne Gaitho
Published: 03/07/2018, edited: 01/30/2020