Dog wagging tail in sleep: Doggy sleep questions answered

Like humans, dogs are classed as diurnal (mostly awake during the day and asleep at night) and it is thought that their sleep habits evolved to match our own as they became domesticated.

However, dogs do snooze more than we do- roughly 50% of their time is spent asleep, compared with 30% for the average human. 

If you’ve ever watched your dog while he is sleeping, you may have noticed some interesting behavior such as tail wagging, leg twitching, whimpering and even howling. 

So what does this fascinating doggy sleep behavior mean? Do dogs dream? Why do dogs twitch in their sleep? Should you worry if your dog howls in his sleep? 

Read on for answers to all your doggy sleep habit questions!

Table of Contents

Why do dogs wag their tails in their sleep?

Scientific studies show that dogs experience sleep cycles similar to our own. These sleep cycles are marked by changes in brainwave patterns that show two main stages; REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NREM (Non- Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. 

Dog sleep cycles are shorter than our own, they will experience 15-20 sleep cycles compared to the human average of 5 cycles a night.

When your dog falls asleep, he first enters the NREM stage and moves from light sleep to a deep, restorative sleep known as Slow Wave Sleep. Your dog will be relaxed and calm, his breathing will be slow and regular and his heart rate drops. 

After around 15 minutes he moves into the REM stage, where the brain starts to process information that it has taken in during the day. 

Brain activity increases during REM sleep and in humans we know that this is when dreaming occurs. It is highly likely that this is also the case with dogs. 

During this dreaming phase, you may notice eye movement, whimpering or howling and your dog’s legs may twitch or even appear to ‘run’. Your dog will also breathe faster. 

This is the time when you may see your dog wagging his tail in his sleep. In humans, our dreams are often reflective of significant events and life experiences and the same is probably true for dogs. 

Tail wagging is strongly linked to emotions so your dog is probably dreaming of something fun and exciting, such as greeting you or other dogs. 

We do not know exactly what dogs dream about, but chasing squirrels and car rides are probably high on the list!

We do not know exactly what dogs dream about, but chasing squirrels and car rides are probably high on the list!

Do dogs have nightmares?

Dogs experience negative emotions such as fear and anxiety just as we do so it is perfectly possible that they also experience nightmares.

Owners of dogs that have experienced trauma report that their dogs appear to have nightmares and will howl and tremble in their sleep.

Should I worry if my dog howls in his sleep?

Dogs will often become vocal during REM sleep. They may whimper, bark, growl or howl. If your dog is howling in his sleep, it is likely that he is having a bad dream or a nightmare. 

This is usually not something to worry about, it is just a dream and your dog is not in physical danger

The good news is that dog sleep cycles are short, so you can be reassured knowing that the REM sleep will soon be over and so will your dog’s bad dream.

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Should I wake my dog up if he is having a bad dream?

It can be upsetting if you think your dog is having a bad dream, especially if he is howling or trembling. Resist the temptation to wake your dog up- dogs can be grumpy or even aggressive when woken from a dream so it is safer to leave him to sleep. 

REM sleep is a vital part of the sleep cycle and there is no benefit to waking your dog from his sleep. The old phrase ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ rings true here. Wait a few minutes and the dream will be over.

How much sleep do dogs need?

Studies show that dogs require an average of 12 hours sleep a day, but this can range from as little as 7 hours to as much as 16 hours of sleep. 

Puppies and older dogs require more sleep, and smaller dogs tend to sleep less than large dogs.

Dogs are ‘polyphasic’ sleepers, meaning that their sleep is divided into three or more periods during the day. A large chunk of this is night time sleep, but most dogs will also have two or more periods of sleep during the day.

In addition, they will also have light naps and periods spent loafing around. The average dog is only active for around 20% of their day, with 30% spent loafing and 50% spent sleeping. 

It’s a hard life being a dog!

What happens if my dog doesn’t get enough sleep?

Just like humans, dogs can suffer if they don’t get enough sleep. All dogs are different and sleep deprivation will affect them in different ways. 

Common symptoms of sleep deprivation in dogs include:

· Irritability or unexplained aggression.
· Reduced ability to tolerate stress.
· Difficulty focusing on training tasks.
· Restlessness or hyperactivity.
· Clumsiness.

Getting enough good quality sleep is vital for your dog’s good health. Long term sleep deprivation can increase stress and may cause health problems. 

Sleep is particularly important for puppies as this is when growth occurs, so it is important to make sure your puppy gets as much sleep as he needs.

How do I make sure my dog is getting good sleep?

There are steps you can take to ensure your dog is getting the sleep he needs. Good sleep starts with the right environment so make sure your dog is not being disturbed constantly.

Your dog will not be able to nap during the day if he is being disturbed by people walking past your front window. Territorial dogs are particularly prone to sleep deprivation as their drive to guard the house or yard means they struggle to switch off and relax. 

Move your dog’s bed to a quieter area of the house where he can’t see out and play some relaxing background music so he can’t hear every sound outside.

If you have children, make sure your dog has somewhere safe to rest and ensure your children know not to disturb your dog when he is asleep.

Work out what type of bed your dog really likes. Some dogs like a crate or covered den area. Your dog may prefer a donut bed or a flat, mattress type bed. If possible, have more than one bed so your dog has a choice.

Use blackout blinds at night to make sure your dog has a dark room to sleep in. Try to ensure the room is as quiet as possible at night.

If your dog has had a very busy day, schedule a quiet day afterwards to allow him time to catch up on sleep.

If you have young, playful dogs and senior dogs at home, you may need to separate them for periods to ensure the oldies are getting enough rest time.

Make sure your dog is getting enough exercise and mental stimulation. We know that this helps humans to sleep better and it is likely that this is also true for dogs.

Dog sleeping positions

Dog sleeping positions can be influenced by whether your dog is simply resting or actually sleeping, how safe and relaxed he feels and the temperature of the environment. 

If he lies with his tummy on the floor and his head and front legs outstretched, chances are that he is just having a rest and isn’t actually asleep.

A dog sleeping on his side is fully relaxed and feels safe in his surroundings. 

Make sure your dog’s bed is big enough for him to stretch out when asleep as good quality sleep occurs when he is in this sleep position. 

Some dogs will curl up to sleep, often with their nose buried in their tail. This can be a sign that the dog is cold and is trying to conserve heat, or that the dog doesn’t feel safe enough to fully stretch out. 

Many dogs in rescue shelters will sleep curled up like this. Finally, if you see your dog asleep on his back with his legs in the air, know that your pooch is as relaxed and content as a dog can possibly be!

dog sleeping positions

Dog wagging tail in sleep - final thoughts!

There is nothing cuter than a sleeping dog, especially if he is wagging his tail and woofing in his dreams. Good quality sleep is as important for our pets as it is for us, so make sure your dog has a nice comfy bed and a peaceful environment to sleep in.

If you notice a change in your dog’s usual sleeping position or sleep habits, it is a good idea to discuss this with your vet as a change in sleep habits can be a sign of underlying health problems.

Suggested reading: Do dogs sleep with their eyes open?

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