Is sleep the most underrated factor in canine behaviour?

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Is sleep the most underrated factor in canine behaviour?

June 4, 2024 Uncategorised 0

There are many foundational pillars that contribute to behaviour.

Diet is one factor that many of us have picked up on. These days, we are much more conscious about what we feed our dogs (and ourselves). We are very conscious of the fact that what our dogs eat affects their health and their behaviour.

In fact, choice can be easily overwhelming. Whether you want to feed a raw diet, a homecooked diet or the best dry food diet available, you’re sure to find that you have more than one option.

Should you want to study a course on canine nutrition, you will find many options available. If you want to do in-person courses on what to feed your dog, you can. If you want to do online ones, you can. There are courses for every budget and education level.

Knowing which to choose is bewildering sometimes. One thing is for sure though: we are not short on information about what our dogs should eat. People build entire careers out of this topic.

We also know that exercise is important. Just like nutrition, there are courses to suit every level and budget. If you want to find a veterinary nutritionist or a physiotherapist, you probably don’t have to do much to find one. Dynamic Dog assessments and gait specialists abound.

But is sleep overlooked in all of this information?

A lack of research and information

Just as one example, there are almost a thousand papers if you search for “canine nutrition” on Google scholar. If you search for “canine sleep” there are fewer than a hundred.

In the past two years, thirteen studies have been shared on Google scholar relating to canine sleep. There are 131 for canine nutrition in the same period. That’s a fairly steady ratio of 1:10 where sleep:food is concerned. Should you want to do a course on canine sleep, there are very few good-quality courses about. Most are concerned with getting puppies to sleep through the night. You can learn all there is to know about canine sleep in a single hour from one provider!

This picture is very similar to the picture of research, understanding and priorities in human healthcare.

Diet remains an obsession, followed closely behind by exercise and health. Sleep research and information lags behind significantly in terms of what we know about it and how seriously we take it.

Sleep is perhaps on one of the things we can do immediately to improve our function a few hours later.

The parts of the brain that deal with sleep and wakefulness are some of the most ancient; they cut across species in ways that are remarkably consistent. Insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals all engage in something that looks remarkably like sleep. Some of the most fascinating aspect of animal life are sleep – particularly in circumstances where it would kill you to lose consciousness in this way if you slept like other species. Even the simplest unicellular organisms have active and passive phases, and even if we would call those passive states lethargus, it is remarkably sleep-like.

The benefits of sleep

Unlike diet and exercise which have more diffuse effects over a much longer time period, the benefits of a good night’s sleep can be felt the next day. In many ways, it’s easier to understand the benefits of sleep by thinking about what happens when we’ve lost sleep.

The same is true for our dogs.

Many of us with dogs will know the impact of a poor night’s sleep on our dog’s behaviour. We know instinctively when our dogs are “over-tired”. We know that they’re crabby, that their social interactions are impaired, that their ability to control their impulses is affected.

One of my older dogs Tobby developed some very strange behaviours around a young puppy I’d brought home to foster. I don’t know what it was particularly about the puppy, but Tobby could not leave him alone. He went without food, water and sleep for almost 48 hours before I had to admit defeat and return the puppy to the shelter.

What happened?

For the first and only time in his life, Tobby nipped me.

It’s not always the benefits that we focus upon, but the tensions caused when our dogs have missed a night of sleep.

Physical benefits of sleep

There is not an organ in the mammalian body that does not benefit from down-time. When rodents were kept awake in early (and unethical) experiments on sleep, researchers did not know why the mice and rats died, only that they did. Completely deprived of sleep, a rodent will last about as long as they would if they had been completely deprived of food.

What they noticed upon dissection, however, was that massive internal organ failure was often the cause of death, often as a result of septicaemia.

Sleep affects our hearts. High blood pressure and poor heart health both linked to insomnia, for instance.

Sleep also affects our digestion. The gut-brain axis, the ‘enteric brain’ and microbiome have become fashionable lately when we think about our dogs, their health and their behaviour, and yet good sleep is an important influence on the presence of beneficial microbes in the gut.

In the brain, the glial cells are able to carry out much important work in this state of rest. “Neural detoxification” is one of them, although this a much more complex idea than “neural detoxification” sounds. Neural repair is another. Yet despite how important it is, there are still many questions that relate to sleep.

Perhaps one of the most important things to understand about sleep is just how varied it is across species. It really does require us to think of species differences and individual adaptations. We certainly can’t generalise about sleep from one species to another.

Emotional and cognitive benefits of sleep

Being tired certainly affects our ability to manage our emotions. It also affects our ability to complete tasks. This seems to be true whether we are human or whether we are a dog.

Sleep may also contribute to memory consolidation. Non-REM sleep across mammalian species is often the time when memories become more fixed. When things happen to us when we are awake, those memories are “plastic”, meaning they are much more malleable. They are not as fixed as they will become after sleep.

This matters for both training and real-life experiences. When our dogs learn, it is perhaps during sleep that those memories become more fixed.

During good quality sleep, things that have happened during the day are also perhaps “re-processed” without the same emotional intensity, meaning that our dogs’ sleep is important to help them process exciting or scary events.

Sleep varies across species and age groups

We know that babies need more sleep than adults. We know that adolescents sleep differently than adults. The same is true for dogs. It’s no surprise that many searches for “canine sleep” relate to desperate new guardians who want their puppy to sleep through the night.

Sleep for young social mammals may also depend on security. A puppy may struggle to sleep if separated from the family group – often the first thing that new guardians do. It’s very tempting to start as you mean to go on where sleep is concerned, but the sleep needs of a ten-week-old puppy are probably not the same as the sleep needs of an adult dog.

This is not just about how much sleep, but how and where we sleep. Young dogs have naturally different sleep patterns than adult dogs.

We also know that dogs are not diurnal like humans are. We primates sleep during the night and wake during the day, perhaps with a brief afternoon nap in some cultures. Yet dogs’ natural patterns do not always mesh with ours, since they are more active at dawn and dusk. Despite these differences, dogs generally learn as they age to adapt to our patterns.

It’s not unusual for people to say that their dogs are waking them up at 5am though. They are not always in sync with our human sleep habits.

What contributes to poor sleep in dogs

Perhaps the first thing that contributes to poor sleep in dogs is the culture clash. What this means is that humans are there, waking dogs up when their body’s circadian clocks are telling them to sleep, and trying to enforce sleep when dogs’ innate rhythms are telling them to wake up. Where we tolerate the Midnight Mads for a cat, we are much less tolerant of dogs having the zoomies at dawn.

Human lack of understanding about sleep needs of puppies, adolescent and older dogs also contributes to that culture clash. We’re not brilliant at understanding our own species’ sleep needs and this is even more true for other species. Humans can be remarkably opinionated about things like crates or the amount of time puppies need to sleep, despite an almost complete lack of research in these areas.

22 hours in a crate is certainly not a “fact” that has come from science, for example, yet it is “advice” that is often shared on the internet.

We’re also very good at having poor sleep habits ourselves. We sleep differently at the weekend for example, and get less rest than we need during the week if we work a weekday job. Artificial lighting often messes with our circadian rhythms too. We take stimulants like caffeine and sedatives like alcohol that also mess with our rhythms, and these are then factors that affect our dogs.

Sleep in dogs

Although we don’t really think often about sleep quality in dogs, a surprising number of sleep disorders exist that they share with humans. Selective breeding may worsen some of these disorders.

One example is brachycephaly, or short-nosed dogs. These dogs often seem to sleep more, or sleep in unusual positions. Sleep apnoea seems to affect them more than other breeds, perhaps making them more sleepy during the day or choose to sleep in positions that ease breathing. They are also more prone to heart and breathing disorders than other dogs.

Sleep both affects and is affected by heart and lung health in what is a bidirectional relationship. What this means is that sleep affects heart health and breathing. Poor heart health and breathing also affect sleep. You can see why this may affect short-nosed breeds who may struggle to sleep because of their bodies and health, or whose poor sleep may contribute to poor health.

There are also neuroanatomical changes associated with short-nosed breeds. These mean there is a loss of white matter and also cortical surface space. Because these relate to decision-making and cognitive performance, and these processes are also affected by sleep quality, it may be that some of our dogs struggle more than usual if they’ve had a bad night’s sleep.

Other disorders such as canine narcolepsy exist. This is where the on-off switch controlled by orexin in the brain is not particularly efficient, meaning that dogs can struggle with temporary paralysis known as cataplexy when awake and poor sleep quality when resting.

How sleep affects our reactive dogs

Poor sleep quality or lack of sleep may affect social relationships. This could be our dog’s relationship with other dogs, or it could be their relationship with humans.

It may also affect their ability to focus. Sleep affects our ability to direct our concentration and our attention. There is little reason this should differ in sleep-deprived dogs.

Since light, sound and temperature affect sleep, it is not unlikely that our dogs will suffer from the same problems of poor sleep hygiene as humans do. The influence of LED light on dogs is not well studied from televisions, for example. The same is also true for urban lighting. If we live in countries with a big range between winter daylight hours and summer ones, the effects of this on canine behaviour are not well-understood.

The same is true of temperature. Our modern centrally-heated houses do not always have sufficient coolness to promote good sleep. In the summer, we may rely on air conditioning which may also affect sleepiness and wakefulness. In reality, we don’t know much, particularly about the effects of sleeplessness or disruption on canine behaviour, attention or interactions.

Helping our dogs get a good night’s sleep

Since it’s difficult to know what’s normal, ordinary or usual for dogs, it can be difficult to know if our dog’s behaviour and emotions relate to sleep quality.

If you suspect that your dog is having problems sleeping, creating a good “sleep hygiene” programme could help. It’s something that has been part of the package for a number of dogs whose night-time restlessness was impacting on their humans, or whose behaviour seemed to relate to poor sleep in part.

Having a regular routine can help. This means reducing the variation between when your dog goes to bed (and when you do) and when they get up over the week. While we humans may cope better with six or seven hours during the week and getting up at six am on weekdays, with binge-sleeping at the weekends and lie-ins, our dogs may not find this helps create good sleep patterns.

Other factors that improve sleep

Considering their lifestage may also help. Sleep disruption in later life can be one of the signs of cognitive decline. In humans, avoiding the early bedtime and getting some afternoon daylight can help avoid those early morning wake-up calls.

Considering lifestage also means being mindful that dogs are social animals, and social sleeping may be more important for puppies than adult dogs. Some of my own dogs continued to be social sleepers all their life.

This is not just about synchronised sleeping, where our dogs sleep because we do and because it’s the time of day where we usually sleep, but also about sleeping as a group.

Letting puppies “cry it out” in isolation to “get used” to it may create a lot of anxiety around sleep routines and isolation.

There are many things we can do to make sure our dogs sleep well. Small changes may have a big impact.

We can also help our dogs learn to be more resilient during the day, which may improve their sleep quality at night. Resilience and reducing anxiety can have a huge impact on sleep quality.