As a behaviourist, I often get calls about disturbed sleep. Sleep deprivation is devastating and dangerous for both humans and dogs, but at least dogs can catch up on their much-needed ZZs during the day with no effects on health! For humans, daytime naps just aren’t as restorative, so it’s a concern when guardians are being disturbed. This problem’s fixable, but first you need to do a bit of detective work to discover the cause, advises Toni Shelbourne.
The problem is usually easy to fix but first you need to work out the root cause. There are many reasons why dogs wake us during the night; here are the most common ones.
Dogs are social creatures, and many would prefer to sleep near their people.
Puppies — very young puppies, just separated from their mothers and siblings — may never have been alone, not for a single second. At this age, it is extremely scary and stressful to be isolated; in fact you can set up a lifetime of anxiety trying to make a puppy sleep on his own, so it’s a good idea, at least for the first months, to have your puppy with you at night. You can wean him out of your room later, but initially puppies need warmth, company, and to be let out regularly to toilet.
Dogs have a different circadian rhythm to us, which means their sleep patterns differ from ours. They are most active at dawn and dusk, so an adolescent dog is likely to be awake and ready to go at these times. Dogs can and do learn to adapt to our cycle, but it can take a while, so be patient and try to encourage a later start by adding on
a few minutes at a time before you get up.
If your older dog is waking you, he may need to toilet more often or be suffering from ill health or cognitive decline; seek veterinary advice if his sleep pattern changes.
Dogs are social animals; they thrive on company. If you go out to work, have children to ferry around to activities, or have a hobby your dog can’t participate in, your dog could be spending too much time alone. Add in the eight hours you disappear to sleep, and you may realise your dog is being deprived of meaningful time spent in your company.
Think of ways he can spend more time with you or work out a way he can sleep in the same room. He doesn’t need to be on your bed but being in the same room can make all the difference to his mental well-being.
Bad weather can frighten some dogs; if yours becomes scared keep him near you for comfort.
This is a common problem in the colder months. We think our dogs will be fine; they have a fur coat, right? But many dogs suffer from being cold, young dogs, old dogs, and short-coated dogs included. If your dog is regularly waking you during the coldest part of the night, usually around 3am, he is probably needing more warmth.
Think carefully about where you position his bed and what type of bedding you supply. Get down on the floor and notice how much colder it is at ground level, or if his bed is in a draught. Raising the bed off the ground, supplying him with extra blankets, or moving the bed to a warmer part of the house, can help.
If he sleeps in your room, it might be OK for him to sleep in a warm fleece coat but ensure it is safe for him to do so. Other options are keeping the heating on low or supplying a heated pad or special thermal bedding.
Older dogs with arthritis, or dogs with pain-related issues, can often suffer at night. If your dog has a known painful condition or your older dog is waking at night and is looking stiff, consult your vet.
As humans we often choose what time our dog eats, and it’s not always when they wish to be fed. Many young, growing dogs can get very hungry during the night, and being hungry can really disrupt sleep. The other common mistake is feeding your dog first thing in the morning, so he wakes up hungry and then shouts for his breakfast. This is often reinforced by guardians getting up and producing the meal — a cycle has begun.
If your growing adolescent is waking you, either slowly move his evening meal to later or feed a small meal just before bedtime. Also, break that expectation of a feed first thing in the morning. After a short period, his early morning habit should settle.
Wildlife in the garden, people walking past the house, noises in the distance — lots of external stimuli can arouse your light-sleeping canine.
I'M BEING DISTURBED
Many things can disturb or arouse a dog at night. Dogs don’t sleep for a solid eight hours like we do. Their shorter sleep/wake cycle means they will naturally have periods at night when they will be awake. They are also very light sleepers, so many things can wake them. These include:
● Security lights — if you have an external light which comes on periodically throughout the night, it can wake your dog. Turning it off can really aid sleep. If you have a dog, you probably don’t need an outside light as he will alert you to any trespassers. However, you will have no control over a neighbour’s light, or you may need your own light to remain on; in this case try a blackout blind.
● Wildlife — dogs will wake at the slightest noise or movement, and they can also be territorial, so if your dog has access to a window that overlooks the garden and he sees a wild animal or cat in his space, he is doing his job of alerting you; however, it’s arousing and upsetting for him.
Blocking access to the window or shutting him out of that room may help. If it’s the noise he is hearing, try white noise to mask external sounds.
● Noises — fireworks, people in the street, even branches knocking against windows can be frightening for many dogs. Internal noises — the boiler waking up, the house settling at night as pipes cool, or white goods noises like the click of the dishwasher or the ice machine rattling
— can also frighten your dog.
Work out what sound he may be hearing and see if you can eliminate it. If your dog is really fearful of thunder or fireworks, it’s really best if he is close to you, so you may have to let him sleep in the same room, even if it is only temporarily.
Dogs are crepuscular, meaning they are more active at dawn and dusk. Darken the room if your dog is waking you up at first light.
● Weather — stormy weather can be just as unsettling: garden furniture being blown around, branches knocking on windows and so forth can be very worrying. Your dog might be so frightened that for a time after the storm he may be unsettled at night.
I have known some dogs who have had to have their sleeping areas relocated after
a scary storm experience.
● I’m frightened — anxious dogs, puppies, dogs who have had a scare, dogs suffering from separation anxiety syndrome, all may struggle to sleep alone. It may not be your preference but think about your dog’s emotional well-being if he is fearful. You can often tell if he is worried as his anxiety will heighten when he sees the cues to your bedtime; he may be reluctant to enter the room you want him to sleep in, or become frantic and vocal.
Studies prove it is just as beneficial for us as it is for our dogs to sleep together, so if you are being disturbed at night why not bite the bullet and try having him with you in the bedroom. You will then know instantly if he wakes and is scared, ill, or needing to toilet.