Written by FOTP Team
Watch your dog next time they’re fast asleep. You might see tiny movements as their brain relives parts of their day. How and why do dogs dream? Let’s delve into their dreaming minds.
A happy dog will have a good sleep pattern. We know that changes to our dogs’ environment, body, or state of mind will affect their sleeping pattern; it’s a good marker for wellness in dogs. It’s also important because it allows their bodies to concentrate on processing certain things.
Researchers believe that sleep is important for two key reasons:
Sleep is crucial for puppies: that’s why they do it so much (up to 15-18 hours of the day). It’s when they grow – so much that you’ll sometimes notice a difference overnight!
But like humans, dogs of every age need good sleep. Studies like this one have shown us that dogs need sleep time to process tasks that they have learned during the day. In the study, dogs were taught new words for familiar tasks (sitting and lying down). Not only were they all better at the task after sleeping, but sleep quality mattered too: the dogs who experienced two-stage sleep (REM and non-REM periods) produced better performance.
What does this mean? New challenges are processed in the brain during sleep – and you’ll see better learning from a well-rested dog. In other words, your dog’s sleep is a vital time for them to file away and remember important new information!
Dog sleep is quite similar to human sleep. They experience periods of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and SWS (Slow Wave Sleep). It’s thought that about 10% of sleep time is REM.
But it’s not just their eyes that twitch during REM. You’ve probably seen your dog twitching their legs, paws, lips, and even mouth.
Although we can’t know for sure what they’re seeing when they’re dreaming, one theory is that dogs are reliving their day. They move legs as if they’re running, and puppies sometimes move their mouths to mimic suckling. This is normal because they are probably processing memories from their day (or month) so that their brain can sort through the important ones!
There’s not much research on this matter. But one study showed that puppies (aged 16 weeks) slept more during the day, but less at night, than mature dogs (aged 12 months). During those early months, pups sleep more frequently during the day, but as they mature, they’ll sleep for longer during the night. Could they be sleeping during the day in order to process the ongoing list of new tasks and memories?
When they reach 1-1.5 years old, dogs will sleep for 60-80% of each night. A study of domestic dogs showed that they have short periods of sleep followed by brief moments of wakefulness.
Sometimes our dogs are twitching vigorously during sleep. Their legs are racing and you can see their eyes and mouth moving. We’ve all been there, and we know that it can be alarming: should they be woken from what looks like a nightmare?
Most experts agree that you shouldn’t wake your dog during this kind of sleep. It is better to leave them undisturbed and they will settle down again. In fact, your dog could be processing their day’s work, and disrupting them will affect their memory.
It’s also very important that children are taught to never wake a sleeping dog. There’s no way of knowing what your dog is dreaming about, waking them in the middle of a REM cycle (or even when they’re completely still) could jolt them awake creating a moment of disorientation. Even the most placid family pet could snap in this situation so it’s important never take the chance.
When your dog’s asleep, they are easy to wake up. You will know that if you creep downstairs for a glass of water in the night, your dog will be straight on your case. Apparently they can hear the treat cupboard opening, even if they were fast asleep at the time.
A seizure is different because we can’t wake our dogs in the middle of it.
In our (unfortunate) experience, a dog who’s having a seizure can often have their eyes open. The movements are jerky and violent; their jaws may lock onto something static, they are likely to drool, and they can hurt themselves. A seizure means that the dog has lost control of their body and is not acting consciously.
It can be dangerous to get close to a dog during a seizure as their jaws might clamp onto you, and when they wake up they can be confused or angry. You should, however, remove any risky objects from the vicinity if you can. When they wake up, be near (but not too close – they may not recognize you immediately) to offer reassurance. Talk to them in a calm, gentle voice so they can acclimatize to their environment as quickly as possible.
Now that you’ve read all the reasons our dogs need sleep, you might be wondering how you can help your dog to catch their best Zs.
Top tip number one: Dogs respond to routine. You probably have your own routine, and your dog will soon learn how it works.
When you bring home a new dog, start new habits with them. Putting them to bed at the same time every night is essential. They’ll learn to expect a wander in the yard to empty their bladder, then a good long rest – that’s when we want them to get their quality memory-building time (…us, too!).
But you can have a daytime routine as well: whether you do frequent, shorter walks or one long walk, aim to stick to certain times, and your dog will learn to anticipate them – and rest between times. Puppies might need more activity, so include ten minutes of tug-of-war in your coffee and lunch breaks!
Lots of people use puppy crates to give their new dog some private space, and this is useful if you have kids or other pets. You don’t have to keep them in a crate forever. It can be a good way to establish habits and routine.
Is your dog waking up at night and barking? The best plan is ignoring them, according to the experts. Take comfort from the fact that you’re not alone. In fact, this study reported that 13 out of 18 test subjects barked during the night (researchers caught the evidence on video). It may be a nuisance for the neighbors, but their vigilant woofs will deter potential security breaches – sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs bark!