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Can a Poor Relationship With Its Owner Ruin a Dog's Sleep?

A strong bond with its owner may improve the quality of a dog's sleep.

Key points

  • Data shows that whether or not humans have formed strong affectionate social bonds can have an impact on the quality of their sleep.
  • The quality of the bond between dogs and owners is measured in the same way as the quality of attachment between children and mothers.
  • More strongly bonded dogs have more deep restorative sleep when they are with their owners than dogs who lack the same degree of attachment.
Stephen Ransom / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Source: Stephen Ransom / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Psychologists have been able to show that among the most important factors in our mental well-being are our social relationships, specifically whether we have formed secure and affectionate bonds with other individuals. The most obvious of these include the emotional attachments between mother and child, or between romantic partners. The lack of meaningful social bonding can affect many aspects of behavior, including the quality of our sleep. Research has shown that children who do not have a positive attachment to a parent do not sleep as well as those who do. Similarly, women who sleep without a regular partner have poorer sleep quality compared to married women sleeping with their spouse.

According to researchers at the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, the nature and depth of the attachment between a dog and its owner can have similar effects on canine sleep patterns. In this recent study, a team of investigators headed by Cecília Carreiro looked at the patterns of sleep in dogs to measure whether these were affected by the quality of the attachment bond that the dog has with its owner.

Measuring the Attachment Between Dog and Owner

The measurement of the quality of bonding between the dog and its owner was accomplished using a variation of what is known as the Strange Situation Test. This is a procedure devised by Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s to observe the emotional responses and the attachment relationships between children and their caregivers (usually their parents). The situation involves a small, relatively barren room, with a couple of chairs in it. There is a fixed scenario of events in which the child is initially brought into the room by his or her caregiver. Shortly thereafter a stranger enters the room and tries to interact with the child. After a while, the caregiver leaves. After an interval of time, the stranger walks out of the test area (leaving the child alone in the room). After a bit of time the caregiver returns. The interactions are videotaped and scored, and the child's reactions to being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people or alone are recorded.

n general, it is observed that in such potentially stressful interactions, the normal well-attached child treats their caregiver as a "safe haven" and seems to gain confidence and security by having their caregiver close by. With their caregiver nearby these securely emotionally attached children are much more willing to explore the room and play with toys scattered around the floor. These same kinds of responses have been observed in dogs using a variation of this test.

Analysis of videotapes from this test shows that for both dogs and children there is a lot of variability in their depth of attachment. Some children (and dogs) draw a lot of comfort and support from having their caregiver (or owner) present and in close proximity, while others do not. This can be measured by a variety of different indexes including how closely the child or dog hovers around their caretaker, whether they seem stressed when their caretaker leaves, how much they hang around the door through which their caretaker exited, and so forth. In this study, the behavior of the dogs was coded numerically and turned into a score measuring the strength of attachment between 42 dogs and their owners.

Recording the Quality of Canine Sleep

As a measure of sleep quality these researchers recorded the EEG (electrical variations of brain waves) using electrodes fixed to the head of the dog. These were relatively non-invasive and didn't seem to bother the dogs. The dog and the dog's owner were then given the opportunity to take a nap together in a sleep lab. Like the Strange Situation Test, it is presumed that sleeping in an unfamiliar place involves a mild form of stress. The EEGs were recorded over a period of one to three hours while the dog (and presumably the owner) slept.

Normal sleep for both people and dogs proceeds in four basic stages. In stage one, there are alpha waves (electrical oscillations around 8 to 12 cycles per second) which are usually taken as meaning drowsiness or light sleep. In each successive stage, the sleep becomes deeper and the brain waves become larger and slower. Over any extended period of sleep the individual will cycle from a deep sleep to lighter sleep, and it is in that lightest sleep stage where dreams occur (REM sleep) and in the deepest stage (NREM sleep) where the sleep is most relaxing and restorative. The quality of sleep can be measured by different indexes, including sleep fragmentation or, as in this study, the proportion of sleep which is in the deep sleep stages. The greater the proportion of the sleep cycle that is spent in deep sleep, the higher the quality of sleep. It is important to remember that sleep plays an important role in many psychological processes such as learning, memory formation, emotion processing, and even neural development. When a human (or dog) sleeps, it is important to sleep "well," which means that more time should be spent in the restful deep sleep stages.

How Emotional Bonding With an Owner Affects a Dog's Sleep

The data clearly showed a significant relationship between how securely bonded the dog is to its owner and the overall quality of its sleep. The better attached dogs spent more time in deep sleep. The less well-bonded dogs spent less time in deep sleep, apparently defensively opting for the lighter stages of sleep so that they could quickly awaken in case some threat might unexpectedly arrive. In a press release, Carreiro explained, "Sleeping in a new place for the first time can be stressful. But these results suggest that, presumably because the owner of these dogs provides a more secure environment for their dog, they can relax and have a good nap."

I am reminded of a quip made by Woody Allen about a biblical passage in which he said, "And the lion will lie down with the lamb — but the lamb won't get much sleep." However these data suggest that for dogs, it looks like they will sleep better because their owner provides a secure base for them and they feel protected and safe from any real or dream lions.

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Carreiro, C.; Reicher, V.; Kis, A.; Gácsi, M. (2022). Attachment towards the Owner Is Associated with Spontaneous Sleep EEG Parameters in Family Dogs. Animals, 12, 895.