Canine Sleep Cycles

Have you ever looked at your dog, watching him or her snore away a Sunday afternoon, and thought, "Oh, the life of a dog!" While it's true your dog likely gets more sleep than you do, you may not have considered the quality of the sleep he or she gets. Dogs wake up much more often than we humans do, so they may not feel like they are getting a good night's sleep very often.

Sleeping puppy

How many hours of sleep is normal?

The number of hours your dog will spend asleep depends in part on his or her age and in part on his or her normal activity level. Puppies and senior dogs tend to sleep more than dogs in the prime of their lives. And dogs who are very active, such as those who herd sheep, will sleep less than a sedentary pet.

Most dogs sleep somewhere between 12 and 18 hours each day. If they're bored, they may sleep longer simply to escape the tedium. Larger dogs are likely to sleep more than smaller dogs because the bigger bodies have a higher need for the physical restoration provided by sleep.

Other things that can alter your dog's sleep time are medications, illnesses, and the environment. For example, your dog is less likely to sleep all the time if he or she is surrounded by noisy toddlers in your home daycare than if you and the dog live alone.

Dogs appear to have a much easier time arranging their sleep schedule than we do. While doctors recommend we try to go to sleep at the same time each night and awaken at the same time each morning, dogs have the ability to simply sleep when there is nothing else going on for them. For example, if your dog usually sleeps from 8 am to 5 pm while you are at work, he or she doesn't usually have any problem being active with you during those same hours on the weekends. Dogs are usually able to simply shift their sleeping time to whatever time is available.

What if my dog wakes me up at night?

If your dog often sleeps all day long, you may have a problem at night if your dog decides you should be "entertaining" him or her while you are trying to sleep. Your dog may be so excited to finally have some companionship, he or she simply cannot fall into a deep sleep. Similarly, your dog may be simply "slept out" by the time you get home so that night-time sleeping is not terribly restful.

Have you ever taken a long nap on a Sunday afternoon, only to find you cannot get to sleep Sunday night? Your dog may experience something similar every weekday, sleeping all day and ready to be awake during the overnight hours.

Although this isn't a problem for the dog, it may well be a problem for you, since you need to get a good night's sleep in order to function the next day. One way you can help your dog sleep more at night is to make sure he or she is awake more during the day. Provide toys for the dog to play with while you are away. Try interactive toys such as treat-filled puzzles that make your dog think about how to get to the food inside.

If you can, stop at home on your lunch hour to walk the dog. If not, maybe you can find a neighbor, relative, or pet sitter to provide some stimulation to your dog during your work day. Better yet, check out dog daycares in your area where you can take your dog a few days each week. The more tired your dog gets during the day, the better he or she will sleep at night.

Take a look at when your dog is eating before bedtime. If you can, feed your dog at least two hours before you want to settle in, and make sure the dog has ample opportunity to take a potty break or two before you go to bed. You might also want to take up the water dish an hour or so before bedtime to prevent midnight pee breaks.

Why do dogs appear to run in their sleep?

Dogs go through the same kind of sleep cycles as humans do, experiencing periods of quiet, restful sleep, interspaced with periods of rapid eye movement sleep. Your dog will cycle through the various stages more quickly than you do, but he or she will visit the various stages, just the same. Humans average about four or five complete sleep cycles each night, each one lasting about 90 minutes. Dogs, on the other hand, may go through as many as 20 or more complete cycles, each one lasting just 15 minutes or so. Wakefulness between cycles is common in both species.

When your dog is lying quietly and breathing deeply and rhythmically during sleep, he or she is likely experiencing slow wave sleep, called the SWS phase. During this phase, blood pressure and body temperature drop, as does heart rate. Your dog will be relatively easy to awaken during the SWS phase.

When the dog passes into a deeper sleep phase, called the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase, he or she will begin dreaming. Just like humans, dogs who are in REM sleep are hardest to awaken, and may be grouchy when they are disturbed. This has important implications if you have children who may try to interact with the dog while he or she is sleeping. A dog awakened from REM sleep may be more likely to bite than at any other time.

During REM sleep, more than just the dog's eyes move. If you watch closely, you may see the dog's face muscles twitch, and your dog may appear to be running. You may even hear a bark or a whine now and again. Studies have shown that there is activity during REM sleep in the same areas of the brain that are active when a dog is chasing prey. Therefore, it is often assumed that the sleepy "running" behavior is caused by your dog's dreams of chasing a rabbit or a squirrel.

Dogs cycle between SWS and REM phases throughout the time they are asleep, ultimately spending only about 10% of the time in REM sleep. Puppies spend a much larger proportion of time in REM sleep, probably because they need to process new information in such huge quantities.

Dog sleeping on bed

Sleep Positions

Most dogs have a definite preference as to the position in which they sleep. Some prefer to be curled into a ball, while others burrow under the covers. Some lie on their sides while others let it all hang out, lying on their backs. It appears that a dog lying on his back is simply trying to cool off by exposing a part of the body with less dense fur cover.

Exposing the tummy can also be interpreted as a sign of submission and trust. A dog who is scared will never roll over on his or her back because the tummy is the most unprotected area of the dog's body. With no bony skeleton over most of the abdomen, the dog has no protection from attack in that position.

Researchers have found that REM sleep is deepest only when the dog is at his or her most relaxed. Curling into a ball takes muscle tension to hold the formation, so a dog curled into a ball is likely not at his or her most relaxed, and cannot fall deeply asleep.

No matter where your dog sleeps or in what position, your job is to make sure your dog gets enough sleep to be both physically and mentally rejuvenated. For most dogs, this is never a problem. If your dog's sleep patterns appear to change radically, it may be a symptom of disease and should be checked out by your vet.

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