By Neil Lurssen

For sailors in the Royal Navy in the Nelson days, it was an ultimate sin to strike an officer. Do that and you’d be swinging from the yardarm by dawn’s early light. But you could get away with it at times: if an officer rousted a man asleep in his hammock there was a grace period of a few minutes for automatic lashing out. Showing rare pragmatism, the admirals forgave the sailor’s outburst as a natural reaction. They instructed officers to go ahead and roust when they had to – and then stand clear.

Whoever came up with letting sleeping dogs lie was thinking about the same thing – don’t get bitten by a startled dog. Even if rousted dogs don’t always bite, sleep loss can be very bad for them in many ways – psychologically as well as physically. There are many excellent reasons why a dog’s sleep should not be interrupted and should, in fact, be encouraged and planned with great care.

Marin Humane paid special attention to the importance of this during the pandemic when the shelter had to be closed to the public much of the time.

Until Covid changed everything, the shelter was a popular venue for visitors who came in unannounced at all times of the day – notably at weekends – to enjoy viewing the animals, even if they were undecided about adopting. Kids especially loved to see frolicking puppies and their laughter often echoed around the kennels. Anxious to curb the virus, the shelter asked visitors to make appointments first. With fewer people passing through the adoption areas, the dogs were getting much more time to relax. This positive reaction in the adoption runs was noted with interest.

Says Jane Aten, who supervises the volunteer dog-walker program at Marin Humane: “The dogs had a lot more downtime and everything seemed calmer. While I was at home I realized how much of the day my dogs (and foster dog) were sleeping.

“At the shelter, the dogs were being stimulated all the time. They were being trigger-stacked throughout the day with no break, and we were setting them up to be stressed by the end of the day. So we introduced a three-hour quiet time – from 1 pm to 4 pm – in which the dogs could enjoy a nap and decompress, just as they would in a home setting. “

Dog-walking – a key part of what volunteers do – was also affected by the new arrangement. In the old days, dogs were exercised multiple times in a day by different volunteer shifts compared with dogs at home who normally get out only once or twice a day. From this alone, the shelter dogs were again in danger of being over stimulated. Now they don’t get out at all in their downtime – unless potential adopters want to meet them.

Says Jane: “It’s pretty sweet to see how much the dogs enjoy their downtime. They are fed in enrichment puzzles from around noon to 12.30 pm. Now I often see them in their beds after lunch getting ready for quiet time naps.” They appear to accept naps as part of their routine.

While sleep management is an important element in shelter operations, it obviously warrants the close attention of those of us who have dogs at home. The subject requires more detailed study and analysis – but some things are already becoming clear to behaviorists:

Studies have shown that adult dogs need between eight and 13.5 hours of snoozing a day with an average of 10 to 11 hours. Sleeping up to 15 hours a day is not unusual or particularly concerning. Compare this to humans who require seven to eight. It’s not that dogs are lazier than us; their sleep patterns are inherited from their distant ancestors – wolves. Animal behaviorists note that predators like wolves could afford to sleep as long as they liked, getting up just long enough to hunt and mate. Nothing was stalking them. So evolution turned the killers into sleepers.

Prey animals on the other hand – like rodents, hares ands deer – have to stay awake and alert longer to avoid being eaten. Thus your little Yorkie (who, incidentally, can still be a pretty fierce predator when it comes to mice) is merely responding to his wolf genes when spending the day on the couch. It’s why some dogs howl, too – communicating like their killer ancestors would have done. Some breeds need more sleep, some less.  Studies have shown that big guys like the Newfoundland are among those that like more sleep. Puppies and seniors also need more hours napping than adult dogs in their physical prime. Making sure that our pet dogs get what they need is essential part of their wellbeing – and choosing the most comfortable bed is a good start.

On a personal level, my wife and I thought we knew exactly what our own two medium-smallish dogs required. But we noticed that one of the ladies – in good health – was getting up in the night, pacing about and then sleeping on the carpet away from her bed and sometimes even on the wooden floor. We started to research sleep patterns and tried different beds. Not all of them were that good.

One that hit the jackpot was a circular bed made with a soft shag material with a thick comfy base and, most importantly, a high surround the dogs could push their heads against. Sally and Chloe found them immediately to be super comfortable. Their new beds were marketed as “anxiety easers” – and they lived up to the hype. The snoring from the set-up at the foot of our own bed is phenomenal these nights. But every grunt is worth it. They sleep later now. No more getting us up at 5.30 am.

We found that the effects of sleep deprivation was a relatively untouched research area. But there is some evidence that dogs that don’t get enough sleep or whose sleep is often interrupted can show similar symptoms to humans with those problems. They can show irritability and depression, lack of attention and interest in training, and their reaction to stressful stimuli can be unpredictable and intense. Even dangerous. One researcher found that dogs with good sleeping patterns remembered new commands better than dogs that were sleeping poorly.

So how can we be sure our beloved pets are getting the best snoozing arrangements?  Is it better to let them sleep on our beds with us? Or not? There has been some research into this and the data show two sides of the story. One positive side is that bed sharing can be very good for humans as well as dogs.

A researcher found that 55 percent of American dog owners shared their beds. Snuggling with Fido can enhance tranquility and a sense of security – as well as ease loneliness and uncontrolled anxiety in both animals and humans. It can also have a good effect on the human cardiovascular system by lowering blood pressure as well as reducing the nightly fears of people who often have unsettling dreams.

Melvin chillin with his new sisOne study suggested that allowing youngsters to sleep with their dogs may help to boost the children’s developing immune systems by exposing them to mites, weeds and other nasties that could bring on allergies later. There are lots of bacteria in our homes and surrounds and our dogs will probably gather them up more frequently than we do since they don’t shower or bathe every day like us. The theory is that getting closer to all those microbugs by sleeping with our pets can make us healthier by strengthening our immunity.

But, as we said, most stories have more than one side. One negative side is that people with compromised immune systems or those with open wounds may not benefit from increased exposure to the bacteria on their dogs. It could in fact be dangerous for them. Another is that dogs – especially the big guys who love to sprawl – often grab more of the bed space than they deserve. If you push them away for space reasons or because their bodies are too warm for your comfort, their sleep pattern will be interrupted, negating all the positive results.

So it comes down to finding a working balance on who sleeps where so that both you and your fur baby can get a good night’s rest.

(It is an obvious thing to say here, but it is important to discuss your dog’s needs for a healthy life with your vet – and your own needs with your physician.)