Get Down And Get Dogged: What Canines Can Teach Us About Sleep

Published in The Huffington Post

dogMy dog, Isaac, was a handsome, blue-eyed Siberian husky who loved playing Frisbee. And I loved witnessing his wild passion for the game. He would seem dreamlike, almost defying gravity in slow-motion flight while twisting and lunging to capture his prize. But if ever I paused our Frisbee play to answer my cell phone, Isaac would stop in his tracks, glare at me with his head cocked, and then plop instantly down to sleep.

Like other canines, Isaac had a robust sleep-wake rhythm — a remarkable capacity for achieving peaks of activity and depths of repose. He would get thoroughly animated in pursuit of a Frisbee, his poodle playmate or, his absolute favorite, the neighbor’s tabby trespassing in our yard. But in a matter of seconds, with a change in circumstance, Isaac could drop into deep sleep like a stone into water. No, he wasn’t narcoleptic. With regard to his sleep-wake rhythm, Isaac was simply dogged.

Dogs and humans have similar sleep cycles that include a mix of stage and REM sleep. Humans, however, normally experience four or five of these cycles consecutively through the night, while dogs can have 20 or more much shorter ones scattered throughout the night and day. Dogs doggedly get up and get down in a distinct sleep-wake rhythm known as segmented sleep.

Sleeping and waking in shorter segments results in a tighter weave or integration of these states of consciousness. A dog’s ability to repeatedly get down suggests that they never venture all that far from sleep. They keep it close at hand and readily accessible. I’ve never met a dog who couldn’t nap on cue. Although Isaac would not have cared for the term, he was an exceptional cat napper. (Not to mention cat nabber.)

Historical evidence suggests that humans had more of a segmented sleep-wake rhythm prior to the industrial revolution. Rest and repose were naturally woven into the waking day and periods of nighttime wakefulness were common and considered perfectly normal. The rise of industrialization, however, restricted sleep to a limited portion of night and simultaneously escalated demands for relentless productivity.

Unlike dogs, humans now expect to sleep though the night and remain wide awake throughout the day in highly consolidated periods. While dogs keep sleep within easy reach, consolidation overly distances us from it. And while dogs modulate their passionate waking lives with regular repose, we have segregated and even bifurcated the states of sleep and waking. As a result, our waking consciousness has devolved into a relentless mental buzz and bustle known as hyperarousal.

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