Do you let your dog sleep in your bed with you at night? Research has shown that slightly less than one-half of all pet owners share their bed or bedroom with their pet. Even so, you have likely been told by at least one well-meaning person that your dog should sleep on the floor, in his crate, or in his own bed. However, according to recent research, there are many benefits to co-sleeping with your dog, and there is nothing to be ashamed of.
The journal Human Nature recently published a study by Smith et al. entitled “A Multispecies Approach to Co-Sleeping: Integrating Human-Animal Co-Sleeping Practices into Our Understanding of Human Sleep." The researchers looked at the practice of allowing a dog to sleep in the bed or bedroom, comparing it with adult-child co-sleeping.
The study pointed out that sleeping in the same bed or bedroom as our pets is not just a modern phenomenon. In fact, some traditional cultures considered co-sleeping with animals as beneficial. For example, Aboriginal Australians often slept beside their dogs and/or dingoes for warmth and protection from evil spirits. Unfortunately, modern culture tends to focus on the negative aspects of co-sleeping rather than the benefits.
It’s true there are some health concerns related to co-sleeping with your dog. Human allergies can be aggravated, for example. There is also the risk of transmission of disease, from both the dog to the human and the human to the dog. However, such transmission is rare.
Quality of sleep can also be affected. Previous studies have shown that owners sharing a bed with their pet report greater sleep disturbances than people whose pets did not sleep in their bed. One factor that may explain this difference is that dogs are polyphasic sleepers and average three sleep/wake cycles per nighttime hour, whereas humans are monophasic sleepers (one period of sleep over a 24-hour cycle). Dogs also stay alert for sounds, even when sleeping, which may make them lighter sleepers than their humans.
Urban myths abound about dogs sharing their human’s sleeping spot. For example, your dog will think he’s dominant to you or he will become spoiled. While there can be a link between bed-sharing and behavior problems, it’s not known whether co-sleeping creates the problem or the problem leads to co-sleeping in the first place. For example, a dog that shares his owner’s bed might have problems with separation anxiety. However, did the co-sleeping create the excessive attachment or did the dog’s excessive attachment cause the owner to let him into the bed?
Sometimes, the issues are unrelated, and co-sleeping simply highlights already existing problem behavior. For example, a dog with resource guarding issues might growl and bark to protect his sleeping spot on your bed. But the problem is really about your dog unnecessarily defending what he sees as his items and territory, not about the co-sleeping.
For a well-adjusted, well-behaved dog, it’s quite unlikely that sleeping in your bed or bedroom will do anything except delight your dog, comfort you, and enhance the dog-owner bond. But if your dog is showing signs of aggression or any other problem behavior that is being worsened by co-sleeping, provide your dog with his own sleeping space while you consult with a professional trainer, a behavior consultant, or your veterinarian.
Despite the drawbacks to co-sleeping with a dog, the researchers explain that so many owners do it because the benefits likely outweigh the disadvantages. Studies have shown many physical and mental health advantages to owning a pet, and co-sleeping increases the amount of time spent with that pet, potentially increasing those benefits. For example, co-sleeping can increase the feelings of comfort and companionship your dog provides.
Co-sleeping with your dog can also ease anxiety and provide a feeling of safety and security. Your light-sleeping canine will alert you to anything out of the ordinary, so you can rest easy through the night. Dogs are also perfect bed warmers, keeping you toasty on a cold night. And finally, there is no substitute for waking up to a tail-wagging dog.
The research study concluded that even though society may not currently regard co-sleeping in the best light, because of the many benefits, there is no need for unnecessary concern. I think those of us who share our beds and bedrooms with our dogs already know that any disturbance or inconvenience is well worth a nighttime of snuggles.