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How to wake a dog: The truth in letting sleeping dogs lie

Labrador Retriever puppy asleep on his bed with a soft toy.

Here's how to wake a sleeping dog in 3 steps.

© Unsplash

Undisturbed sleep is important for your dog but sometimes you may need to wake them. Here we look at the truth behind the saying and how to wake a sleeping dog.

By Greta Inglis

Published on the 18/05/2021, 17:00

Sleep is an essential part of your dog’s day, as any owner out there will have noticed. Our pooches seem perfectly content to snooze the afternoon away, provided they are offered enough physical activity and mental stimulation throughout the day. In actual fact, it is thought that your dog probably spends just over half of their day sleeping, with the remaining time split between resting and bursts of activity.

Dogs not only love to sleep, but it’s also key to memory consolidation and their health. Even as flexible sleepers, adult dogs tend to need around 12-14 hours of sleep a day, with puppies needing even more, at 18-20 hours on average. Puppies are very easily stimulated and need this resting time to grow and develop properly. If you own an older dog, you may find they too need to sleep more, preserving their energy for short bursts of activity. Deep sleep is when our dogs process their daily events, from playing with two-legged friends to visiting their favourite sniffing spots.  

Take a look here at our top tips on how to train your puppy.

What are the sleep cycles for dogs?  

Your dog’s sleep cycle will depend on a number of factors, such as their breed type, age, health and energy levels. When your dog first settles and begins to breathe deeply, their blood pressure will also drop. These are signs your dog is entering short-wave sleep, also known as SWS. Within 10-20 minutes, you may notice your dog twitching, moving as if running or even letting out little noises. During this part of the sleep cycle, known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep, your dog is resting and may even be dreaming!

Waking your dog during this stage of their sleep may cause a sleep startle reflex. This is an instinctive reaction to protect them from danger, so care must be taken to wake them carefully and calmly.

Interestingly, the human and dog sleep cycle vary significantly. We as humans tend to spend 7-9 sleeping in condensed period of time, whereas our canine companions sleep in much shorter cycles spread throughout the day. Dogs will often wake up before completing a full sleep cycle, which is why movement and vocalisation may not happen every time they seem to be asleep.  

Should you wake your dog or let sleeping dogs lie? The truth behind the saying

Watching a dog sleep is arguably one of the most adorable experiences, with their supreme skill for curling up into cute and quirky poses. Having said that, there will undoubtedly be times when you’ve needed to move your dog or get their attention. At times like this the old saying may have popped into your head: ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. Is there any truth to the phrase?

Coined by poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1300s, the expression is typically used in spoken English to suggest avoiding interference in a problem, where such interference could, in turn, create further issues. In reality, there is actually a lot of sense behind the saying.

Why does my dog hate it when I wake them up?

Dog dreams are part of the REM sleep cycle, during which thoughts, feelings and learning experiences can be processed. A dog that is woken during this stage of their sleep cycle, may be in a very deep sleep, and could become startled when woken. Some dogs in this stage of sleep can move quite dramatically and may howl or whine. This can be worrying for owners, who may wonder whether or not their canine companion is experiencing night terrors. Researchers haven’t ruled out the possibility of bad dreams for dogs, but it’s important not to wake your dog suddenly as this could frighten them, and a dog that has snapped or growled may simply be responding to this fright to communicate their anxiety.

Do dogs like being touched when sleeping?

With a cuteness overload, it can be hard to resist touching your dog and fussing over them when they’re asleep. If you own a bouncy puppy, they may be hard to cuddle during lively moments, so you may feel tempted to give them a hug when they’re asleep. Waking your dog, whatever their age, must be done carefully and in a way that prevents startling them. A dog in REM sleep will need time to re-orientate themselves and get their bearings, so try to consider their perspective when going to wake them. Most of us are grumpy if suddenly woken, and your dog may be no different! Touching your dog is best when they can actively approach and engage with you.

If you share your home with both children and dogs, it’s very important to teach children to approach slowly and ensure their four-legged friend is awake and alert before offering affection. This can help prevent nasty surprises for everyone, maintaining a strong and respectful bond between everyone at home.

Take a look here at our list of the 10 best dog breeds for children.

What are the risks of waking a sleeping dog?  

The old saying ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ does have a real base behind it. Waking a sleeping dog in a way that rushes or startles them, poses the risk of sleep aggression. A dog that is frightened and jolted awake, may try to defend themselves with a snap or growl. In some cases, particularly if your dog is older and suffers from any form of pain, this could even lead to a bite. This form of aggression does not mean your dog is aggressive in nature, they just need to be woken in the right way.

How to wake a sleeping dog?

Dogs need sleep as much as us humans do. We’ve all heard the old saying ‘a tired dog is a good dog’ and this couldn’t be truer. The other benefit of exercise and mental stimulation is that your dog will get restful sleep, which contributes to their overall well-being. Making sure they have a comfortable and cosy spot, away from noises and movement is just as important, so they can sleep feeling safe and secure.

Whilst the saying may be true, there may be times that waking your dog is absolutely necessary. If the need arises, try these tips. If there are children in your home, make sure they understand to ask you before waking their four-legged friend, in order to avoid any sleep startle reflexes or unwanted reactions.

Tip 1: Don’t touch your dog or shake them awake

Moving your dog to wake them up can be very disorienting and confusing. Your dog may be in REM sleep, totally unaware of the world around them. Putting yourself physically close to your dog when waking them up, creates a situation of unnecessary risk, as they may turn to growl or snap out of fear and find you in the way.

Tip 2: Use your voice to reassure your dog

There will be nothing quite as soothing to your dog as the sound of your voice. With an impeccable sense of hearing, these crafty canines are very aware of noises in the environment and will tune in to this as they wake. Calling your dog’s name and chatting to them as they stir will help your dog wake up on the right side of the bed.

Tip 3: Use food treats to make waking up a positive experience

High value treats can be really useful when it comes to waking your sleeping dog. They serve a dual purpose in these moments, as the smell will begin to wake your dog before any kind of association is formed. Once they are awake, your dog will be able to enjoy a tasty treat, reinforcing a positive waking experience.

In time, you’ll have them waking up like a ray of sunshine!

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