“Let sleeping dogs lie” is an old piece of wisdom. It means that you shouldn’t revisit or otherwise disturb a matter or a conflict that has quieted down. But have you ever noticed the way your dog sleeps? She runs in her sleep, she barks, she wakes up whenever someone enters the room or even when someone knocks on your neighbor’s door. Then, despite all the fuss she makes, she seems to plunk down and drop off to sleep almost as quickly as she did before, often in one of the least convenient places she can find. What’s up with that?
The Root of the Behavior
It should come as no surprise that your dog’s sleep patterns are very different from yours. For instance, although people can nap, it’s not a requirement. Strictly speaking, people sleep in long intervals. Most modern thinking is that people need a solid eight hours of sleep a night. Dogs, on the other hand, get their sleep in short bursts, spending most of their time napping. And, in fact, it is most of their time. In fact, some larger breeds such as Great Danes will sleep up to 18 hours a day.
While dogs have different sleep patterns than people, the stages of sleep are the same. In stage one, which we refer to as a “catnap," a sleeper begins to lose consciousness and control of her limbs. However, as this is such a light stage of sleep the sleeper still awakens easily. In the next stage of sleep, called stage two, the sleeper’s pulse and respiration rate slow down significantly. As much as 45% of a dog’s sleep time is spent in this stage, while it’s only a transitory stage for people.
Stage three sleep, called “slow wave sleep," is best understood as an intensification of stage two sleep. The heart rate is even slower, blood pressure and body temperature drop. For people, this is the most restorative stage of sleep. Both dogs and people will fluctuate between this stage and the fourth stage of sleep, the fourth stage being where dreams occur.
Stage four sleep is known as REM sleep, or “rapid eye movement." For both people and dogs, our eyes twitch quickly while our brains dream to process the information we’ve received during the day. And yes, although your dog doesn’t go to work and doesn’t have to attend marketing meetings, she still has information to process. In fact, puppies spend approximately 10% more of their sleep time in this stage of sleep. While this sleep stage is the longest for people, it doesn’t last that long for dogs, which explains why they sleep so much. Their bodies are compensating for the lack of restorative sleep by getting more sleep in general.
Encouraging the Behavior
On average, dogs sleep an average of twelve to fourteen hours a day. Napping just comes with the territory. We don’t need to encourage our fuzzy face friends to nap, as they are going to do it anyway. There are some things we can do as dog families to help our dogs have a better quality of sleep. We can make sure that our dogs have comfy and appealing beds throughout the house which are out of the way of foot traffic, but still near their people. Notice where your dog takes her naps. Does she seem to like small, enclosed spaces, like an alcove, or a spot behind your favorite chair, or does she pick the sunniest part of the room? You should pay attention to how your dog sleeps. Does she usually curl up in a little ball? Then she may like a bed with sides. Does she stretch out and take up as much floor space as possible? She will most likely enjoy a sizeable bed where she can stretch out. An older dog might like a mattress for an arthritic dog. A very thin dog, like a Greyhound, will often prefer a very soft bed.
Once you have found and placed a good dog bed, take the time to make it as appealing as possible. Put one of your old t-shirts near it so your dog feels close to you. Put one of two of her favorite toys near the bed. When you see your dog preparing to nap, try to escort her to her bed. Praise her, and maybe give her a treat. You want to let your dog know that this is a good place to sleep, and she will be rewarded for choosing it.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Our dogs spend a lot of time sleeping, napping, or just generally relaxing. But sudden changes in sleep habits can be cause for concern. For instance, a poor diet will cause your dog to spend more energy on digesting their food rather than playing or interacting with you. Thyroid and heart issues will also cause your dog to spend more time sleeping. There may be other symptoms, of course, such as getting easily winded or having a noticeable change in bowel and bladder habits, or even a sudden change in your dog’s coat. Other health concerns, such as arthritis, may result in your dog developing insomnia. No one knows your dog like you do, and no one can speak for her like you can. If you have any of these concerns, you should make sure to speak to your vet.
So why do dogs nap? The simple answer is because they can. Our dogs may not have to drive to work or pick up the kids or go to the grocery store. But their lives, and their sleep, are still complicated in a number of ways. It is easy to envy your sweet puppy as she dozes in the bright sunlight, but remember that she is dozing because she has to, just as you sleep through the night. Hopefully, your sleep involves less barking.