Dogs Sleep Badly After a Stressful Experience

Dogs fall asleep faster but get less deep sleep after a bad experience compared to after a good experience.

Dogs sleep badly after a stressful experience
Photo: Karen Laventure (Shutterstock)

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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We all know the feeling when something bad happens in the day and then we just can’t sleep at night. It turns out that, just like humans, dogs’ sleep is affected by bad experiences – but the effects are not quite the same.

A new paper by Dr. Anna Kis (Hungarian Academy of Sciences) (including members of the Family Dog Project) took EEG measurements of dogs sleeping after a good or bad experience.

While humans take longer to fall asleep after a bad day, the dogs fell asleep more quickly after a bad experience than after a good one. This is thought to be a protective response to stress. But, just like humans, dogs did not sleep as well after the bad experience, showing their sleep was disturbed.

16 pet dogs took part in the study, which took place over 3 sessions. The first session was a practice one so the dogs could get used to the equipment and being in the lab. In the next two sessions, the dogs had a good or bad experience, followed by 3 hours of sleep. Half the dogs had the good experience first followed by the bad experience, and half the dogs had the bad experience followed by good. At least 5 days elapsed between these two visits to the lab.

The good experience was 6 minutes in which the dog was petted every time it went to the owner, was spoken to nicely, and played fetch or tug depending which it preferred.

The bad experience also lasted 6 minutes and started with the dog having their leash tied to the wall and being left alone in the room. After 2 minutes, the owner came back in and ignored the dog, but did go stand near it. Then an experimenter came in and approached the dog in a threatening manner before stopping, sitting on the ground, and looking at the dog for 3 minutes without responding to it.

After the good or bad experience, the dog was taken to another room and prepared for the sleep measurements. It took about 10 minutes to put on the electrodes for the EEG recordings, and this was done in a manner reasonably consistent with the good or bad experience the dog had just had. So either the dog got lots of petting and nice talk while it happened, or the experimenter ignored the dog as much as they could during the process.

During the three hours after the bad experience, the dogs got an average of 72 minutes sleep and the duration of a sleep cycle was 56 minutes. After the good experience, the dogs took longer to go to sleep, and on average they got 65 minutes sleep with a sleep cycle of 51 minutes.

The different stages of sleep were also affected by the dogs’ experiences. After the negative experience, dogs had a longer period of REM sleep, which is characterized by rapid eye movements (hence the name). The researchers had predicted a change in the amount of REM sleep because it has been associated with emotional processing.

Non-REM sleep was higher after the positive experiences. This is when the deepest sleep occurs, so after negative experiences the dogs got less deep sleep.

The researchers also found that the dogs’ personalities were linked to how they behaved with the owner. For example, dogs that were rated as more agreeable and less open hid behind their owner more when the experimenter was sitting and looking at them in the negative experience. In turn, some of these behaviour differences were linked to changes in the sleep cycle.

What this means is that individual differences in how the dogs responded to the experiences were also reflected in changes in their sleep. The scientists suggest further research on this topic, and on links between sleep and welfare in dogs.

This is the first time that good or bad experiences have been shown to affect how well a dog sleeps.

If you liked this post, check out my award-winning book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "the must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

The paper is open access and you can read it via the link below.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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Kis, A., Gergely, A., Galambos, Á., Abdai, J., Gombos, F., Bódizs, R., & Topál, J. (2017, October). Sleep macrostructure is modulated by positive and negative social experience in adult pet dogs. In Proc. R. Soc. B (Vol. 284, No. 1865, p. 20171883). The Royal Society. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1883

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate, I earn from qualifying Etsy purchases.

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