dog in bed

Co-Sleeping With your Dog: The New Rules of Bed Sharing

So much for the notion that you should place your dog in another part of your home to ensure a good night sleep.

Studies—yes, they’re now studying this kind of thing—are starting to pile up showing that sleeping with your dog might be better than sleeping alone, and is probably no different than sharing a bed with another human.

It Used to be About Sleep Deprivation

In the past, doctors often made blanket advisements to keep dogs off the bed. They speculated and assumed that a dog in the bed meant disturbed sleep for the human. Since sleep deprivation, no matter its cause, can have negative physical and mental effects, sleep experts are often even more pointed when discussing the issue with patients undergoing studies for insomnia or other types of seriously disturbed sleep. But a report based on research at the Mayo Clinic has found that although people who share their bed with their dog do experience some sleep disturbance, the effects are negligible. They lose a little bit of sleep each night, but it's only producing a minimal drop in sleep efficiency.

No Difference Between a Dog and Another Human

In fact, the disturbance may be no more different than that the average person experiences with another person in the bed. Humans typically go through several sleep cycles each night. Each one consists of four different stages—two levels of light (non-rapid eye moment or NREM) sleep, then one stage of NREM deep or “delta” sleep, and one stage of REM or rapid eye movement sleep. During the first cycle, you’re asleep but your muscles aren’t yet fully inhibited. Your eyes may move and your eyelids flicker open and close. If your dog starts moving around the bed during this stage, you’ll probably notice it. REM stages typically get longer and longer as the night goes on; the last REM stage can stretch to an hour. During this stage of sleep, a dog could twirl in circles on the bed but the average person probably wouldn’t notice.

You're Not Alone

Research has shown that about 60 percent of all dog owners let their dogs sleep with them. Most report simply feeling good or comforted having their dog in their bed with them, especially on cold nights. Dogs do run warmer than humans (three to six degrees higher body temperatures), which, incidentally inspired not only a 60-70s band name—Three Dog Night—but a term Alaskans, Canadian maritime provincials, and even Australians were known to describe cold nights. The number of dogs invited up onto the bed to keep you warm apparently correlated with how cold it was outside. People have also reported that sleeping with their dog makes them feel safe and protected. It has been shown to help make some people relax enough to fall asleep faster. It's well known from research that showing affection for pets, especially dogs, increase levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with affection and happiness, in both humans and dogs. For chronic pain sufferers, it makes even more sense to let your dog sleep with you. People who have pain usually also have sleep problems, including insomnia. A University of Alberta study found that people who suffered long-term chronic pain reported feeling considerably better when sharing their beds with their dogs. Cuddling helped distract them from feeling anxious about being alone at night, and made them feel more relaxed and safer. The study also reported that dogs not only helped their companions improve their bedtime routines but also the level of daytime activity—both factors in better sleep.
dog in bed istockphoto/Photoboyko

The Rules of the Bed

If you decide to let your dog in your bed or are already doing so with mixed success, here are some tips for making sure you don’t lose any sleep over it:
  • You Rule. Let him know he must be invited in before he’s allowed to jump in or up on the bed. Dogs need guidance when it comes to hierarchy. Which is why the next rule is equally important.
  • Bed Pigs. Some dogs become territorial in their human’s beds, and may eventually develop a habit of growling when someone enters the bed or tries to move them when they are on it. Nip this one in the bud fast. It’s neither funny nor endearing. Be the leader and do not let him get away with it. Order him off the bed and onto his own bed until he learns to share. Otherwise, be aware that his behavior can easily escalate to other dominance behaviors, like snapping. With some dogs, it’s "give him an inch, and pretty soon he takes the whole bed."
  • Give them Space. Most dogs will eventually want to move to the bottom of the bed after cuddling at the top with you so they can cool off. Make sure there’s space toward the bottom where he can curl up. If you have the room consider adding a wide bench at the foot of your bed and placing a blanket on it for him to sleep on.
  • Protect the Spread. Place a spare flat bedsheet on top of your bedspread. This way you’ll be more likely to regularly remove it more regularly for washing. You’ll want to minimize the amount of dander, dog hair, and dirt in your bed. This is especially true if you’re prone to allergies. Regularly cleaning of that spare sheet will go a long way in helping keep your bed clean.
  • No Covers. Don’t let him sleep under blankets or sheets. He can easily overheat, start panting, and awaken you. Not to mention the hair.
  • Doggy Bed. Always provide a dog-specific bed on the floor or near your bed (but not in a place where you might stumble over them in the dark) so that if he becomes restless or too warm he has a place to retreat.
References: Salma I. Patel, Bernie W. Miller, Heidi E. Kosiorek, James M. Parish, Philip J. Lyng, and Lois E. Krahn, (2017). The effect of dogs on human sleep in the home sleep environment. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 92 (9), 1368-1372. More information: Cary Brown et al. Undercover Dogs: Pet Dogs in the Sleep Environment of Patients with Chronic Pain, Social Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.3390/socsci7090157 University of Alberta Read more here.

Jo Ostgarden

Jo Ostgarden is a former Dog Life columnist, and has helped vet and foster more than 100 dogs with a rescue group in Oregon for the last 15 years. She has a fur child named Nik, a tri-color English Springer Spaniel, whom she walks or runs daily, rain or shine.
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