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Key Points
  • A new study shows dogs are more active when humans are around.
  • Could remote working be disturbing dogs' sleep patterns, and if so, what can we do about it?
Poodle sleeping on a woman's lap at home.

How much of the day should a dog spend snoozing? This perennial question has felt more pressing the past year, with humans locked down at home and able to pay much closer attention to their pooches’ sleeping habits. So should your dog really be sleeping for 12 hours a day? Or is there a problem? Here’s the lowdown.

Healthy Sleep Patterns in Dogs

The question of how much dogs should sleep has typically been hard to answer because the research was out of date—until a new study in December. Researchers set out to determine the healthy average sleep patterns for dogs, so that they could measure how conditions such as chronic pain affect their sleep.

The researchers stress that their findings aren’t designed to reveal health problems in specific dogs. “Our study showed the overall pattern, the average, for a group of healthy dogs,” Dr. Margaret Gruen, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at NC State and corresponding author of the work, says. “Within that group, there was still variability, and dogs’ patterns may be a bit different day-to-day.” With that in mind, here’s what the study found, after observing 42 healthy adult dogs aged between two and eight:

  • Most of the dogs studied had two peaks of activity each day: between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., then later, between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.
  • All dogs were more active during weekends than on weekdays.
  • Female dogs seemed to be more active during the evening peak than males.
  • For lighter dogs, some activity occurred in a short window just after midnight.
  • Older dogs were less active during the peak activity windows.

The key takeaway? Dogs are more active when humans are around: in the mornings and evenings, and on weekends. Not so surprising, perhaps, but this proven fact could have a huge impact on dogs’ wellbeing now that humans are at home more than ever.

How the Pandemic is Affecting Dogs’ Rest

One person who’s been sounding the alarm about dog rest levels is Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, Clinical Assistant Professor specializing in Animal Behavioral Medicine at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Dogs, like all predators, sleep a lot,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Dogs can sleep 12 to 14 hours a day, depending on the age of the dog and of course on how much physical activity they get during the day.”

So what happens when home offices and home schooling disturb the hours when dogs are used to getting some shut-eye? The consequences can be serious, Dr. Borns-Weil notes. “With COVID and the restrictions associated with COVID, there’s been an explosion of dog bites,” she says, citing research published in June 2020. One hospital reported an almost three-fold increase in children experiencing dog bites, based on a month-by-month comparison with 2019. Dr. Borns-Weil speculates that dogs’ tiredness is feeding the trend.

Even outside of dramatic consequences, Dr. Borns-Weil has observed confusion and concern among dog owners over their dogs’ perfectly normal needs for sleep and rest. Owners have come to her worried that their dog is depressed or behaving in an anti-social manner, when, in fact, they’re sleeping the normal amount, and seeking solitude because they need downtime.

“What we’re seeing is the dogs are around more, they don’t have their normal activities, and people are around more, kids are around more, parents are working from home but they don’t have attention for the kids because they’re trying to work full-time,” Dr. Borns-Weil notes. “So what we see is the dogs are not getting the rest and downtime that they need.” She adds that, even in families that don’t expect constant interaction from their dog throughout the day, the dog may feel an increased pressure to protect the home from intruders while the family is there—turning lockdown into a long period of doggy duty, in their minds.

French Bulldog sleeping halfway out of its dog bed.

How to Make Sure Your Dog Gets Enough Rest

So how much rest is enough, how much is too much, and how can you make sure your pup is well-rested in the new normal of pandemic life?

The starting point, Dr. Borns-Weil notes, is to “figure out what’s the normal rest for your dog.” At a certain level, you can trust your dog to tell you when they need sleep. “As the expression goes, let a sleeping dog lie,” she says.

But there are exceptions to that rule. Dr. Borns-Weil notes that dogs who don’t get enough stimulation during the day might spend more time sleeping than they need to—so start by making sure that your dog is getting enough exercise and interaction.

Once your pup has had as long a walk as they need, Dr. Borns-Weil recommends making sure they always have access to a “safe space” where they can go and be left alone—particularly if there are children in the home.

When the dog is sleeping, whether in their safe space or elsewhere, adults and children should call the dog to them, if they want to interact, rather than go to the dog’s resting place. “And when you’re calling the dog to ask to play,” Dr. Borns-Weil adds, “don’t think of it as a command, think of it as an invitation. Because some dogs, if you say come, they get up and come. It’s better to treat it like an invitation, if you’re not sure whether they’re sleeping.”

By creating the right environment for your dog to sleep comfortably when they need to, you’ll also be in a better position to judge changes to their individual sleep pattern, which can be a sign of health problems. Dr. Gruen says that “changes to the sleep-wake cycle (particularly nighttime wakefulness) is one of the main signs associated with cognitive dysfunction syndrome in dogs,” and that for dogs with chronic pain, sleep can be disturbed when they’re not on anti-inflammatory medications. But for you to notice those changes to the norm, dogs have to be allowed to rest enough to establish their own norm.

It’s been an exhausting year for everyone—dogs included. By protecting our pups’ slumber, we can make life better for them and, by extension, the whole household.

Related article: How to Make the Most of Virtual Dog Training
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