Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (And Look for Clues of Health and Happiness)

Dogs look adorable when they are sleeping. However, did you know that sleeping positions and behavior can tell you a lot about their health and happiness?

It’s true.

Dogs, like people, spend a big portion of their lives sleeping. Depending on the age, people sleep about 7 to 13 hours, while dogs need about 8 to 20 hours a day of snooze time, although dogs sleep mostly during the day, unlike humans.

However, the most important thing about the sleeping habits of dogs is what it can tell you about how they are feeling. Since dogs can’t really speak (despite what some fur parents believe), you need to look for non-verbal signs of their overall health and well-being. Here are some clues your dog is giving you by the position they choose when sleeping and other behavior.

Position

Dogs change positions when they sleep, but again, like humans, they have a preferred position under normal circumstances. Once you identify their typical position, any changes to that will tell you something new is happening to your dog. The new thing could be an injury or pain, so be mindful of these changes.

1. Side sleeping

If your dog is sleeping on its side, congratulations! It means they feel secure and safe because this position leaves their vital organs vulnerable to attack. If they’re not worried about that, you are doing a good job providing them with a great environment. Expect them to switch to a different position when in a strange place or when there are strangers around, though.

Of course, the position also gives a clue to their personality. Dogs that choose the side sleeping position tend to be relaxed and easygoing. Their limbs might move quite frequently in this position such as kicking or twitching, but they’re probably just dreaming of chasing a running porkchop or doing battle with a one-eyed cat with a cutlass.

2. Curling into a ball

Many dogs curl into a ball while sleeping. The nose-to-tail configuration is a defensive one because it keeps the vital organs protected, and common in dogs when they are in a strange place or around strangers. Dogs in that position also move less, perhaps as a way to keep a low profile.

The position might show a sense of insecurity, but it could also mean the dog feels cold and is looking to conserve heat. Some dogs, especially smaller ones, just find the curled-up position more comfortable.

3. Tummy sprawl

It might look funny, but some dogs like sleeping with their tummies on the floor and limbs akimbo because they want to be ready for action. If you see your dog in this position, chances are they are just napping, not really sleeping. Just like Superman, they can be up and running with the speed of light.

Most puppies will favor this position because they take naps between short bursts of high energy, so they just plop on the floor when tired. At the same time, they won’t miss the action because they are ready to go at any second.

4. Back sleeping

Dogs sometimes roll over on their back with their paws in the air while sleeping because they are feeling hot. You will see this behavior in puppies during summer, but some adults are not shy about doing it as well.

It seems incredible that they can sustain that position for any length of time, but they can. It is also a good sign of feelings of security because this is definitely a non-no position when in the wild. Everything is exposed, even the genitals, and it takes longer to get to their feet in an emergency.

5. Snuggling

Some dogs are very affectionate and don’t like to sleep alone, so they snuggle up to the nearest warm body they can find. If your dog snuggles up to you or another pet, they are looking to bond. It also shows a significant amount of trust.

This is common with many puppies looking to form connections. However, some older dogs will do the same thing with their owners, especially after a long separation.

Other behavior

Sleeping enough is well and good, but the quality is more important than quantity. Just like with humans, dogs sleep to health and repair. You want them to get to REM sleep where they can get the most benefit from sleeping. The following behaviors can tell you whether they are getting quality sleep and if they are experiencing health problems.

6. Reconnoitering

You have probably noticed your dog circling and even digging around the area where they intend to sleep. This is normal, a piece of genetic memory when their wild ancestors would have to trample down leaves and grass to make the surface more comfortable or dig a hole to keep out the winter chill or summer heat.

However, when your dog seems to be circling forever or has trouble settling down, it might be an sign of an incipient neurological disorder or pain such as from an injury or arthritis. If your dog does this regularly, have a vet check them out.

7. Napping

Puppies nap all the time because they get tired easily, but adult dogs typically nap when bored. A long nap is fine, but fitful napping in not very restful. If your dog’s eyes are just semi-closed or their ears perk up at the smallest movement or noise, it probably means they are waiting for something interesting to do.

If that’s the case, you might want to exercise away that excess energy by taking them for a walk or playing a round of fetch. That will help them sleep more soundly and effectively. If your dog has mobility issues, don’t let that stop you giving them the exercise they need. A dog wheelchair will be just the thing.

8. Twitching and soft barking

When dogs move around quite a bit when sleeping, that usually means they have attained REM sleep. In that case, you want to leave them alone and avoid making loud noises. You want them to get to the end of that satisfying dream and wake up refreshed and healthy.

You might notice that puppies and older dogs move around a lot more than middle-aged dogs, and there is no real explanation for it. However, if the weather is cold, the twitching might mean they are feeling cold. In that case, consider moving your dog’s sleeping area in a warmer place or supply them with a blanket. Or both.

9. Agitation, whimpering, or sharp barking

While REM sleep is great, sometimes your dog might be reliving a traumatic experience or having nightmares. You will notice agitated movements, whimpering, or sharp barking during these events. Like napping, this is not restful sleep.

You can soothe them without waking them out by stroking their back and murmuring their name. If this happens frequently, consult a vet.

10. Seizing

Excessive twitching during sleep might mean your dog is having a seizure. Try waking them up as they might just be having a particularly good or bad dream.

If the dog does not wake up when you call their name or touch them and continues to feel stiff or shake, get emergency help.

You should pay attention to your dog’s usual sleeping habits so you know the difference and can tell when something is out of the ordinary.

Summary

Dogs need sleep just like humans and if you pay close attention to their sleeping habits, you can tell a lot about their health and happiness. If you notice a big change in the length of their sleep (more than 14 hours for adult dogs) or signs of distress, it might mean something is wrong. Your dog might have a sleeping disorder. Consult a vet immediately.

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