5 Dog Sleeping Positions & What They Mean

Sleeping dogs typically enjoy a rest so deep and peaceful, it inspires envy from their tired parents. While this “play hard, sleep hard” philosophy seems especially true in puppies, dogs of all ages enjoy a good restorative nap – sometimes even a few times a day. The secret that few dog owners know is that a dog’s sleeping position can be just as informative as his body language while awake, and easier to spot – particularly if he’s a very active pup. While it may seem that he’s just “zonking out,” this position offers insightful clues into how he is feeling about his environment, his family, and his overall well-being. 

While a dog can mask his feelings or intentions while he’s awake, or even hide to avoid interacting with certain people or aspects of his environment, he’s vulnerable while he’s asleep. A watchful owner can take their dog’s emotional temperature with a quick glance while he’s snoozing, even if it’s in the middle of the day. This article explores various dog sleeping positions and what they mean, from both a physical and psychological standpoint. 

Sleeping Dogs Can’t Lie: 5 Dozing Dog Behavioral Secrets

On a floor, on a couch, or even up on that bed he knows he’s not supposed to be on, here’s what to look for when watching a dozing dog:

  • The “Splay”: Some refer to this Instagram-worthy dog sleeping position as the “Superman” or “Bear Rug” pose. This happens when a dog lays on his stomach and has his legs loosely arranged around his body, giving an appearance of flying across the carpet like a superhero. This is a very common position for puppies and active dogs, since they typically lay in this position to minimize effort needed to pop right back up and play. As a dog gets older and loses some flexibility in his limbs, it may be difficult to obtain or maintain this position, as it forces the joints out a considerable distance.

If a dog is sleeping in this position, he is generally comfortable with his environment – leaving his limbs out and vulnerable indicates he isn’t expecting to be attacked or harassed, and his body temperature is properly regulated.

The Verdict: While it may be a bit inconvenient to step over or around him, a dog sleeping in the splay position is content, though he could probably use some exercising or playing once he’s awake again.

  • The “Lean”: Most owners of older or larger dogs will instantly recognize the lean. When a dog is sleeping as if he was simply tipped over while standing up, legs out straight to the side, he’s in a lean. This is a big show of trust in his environment, family, and other household pets, as it completely exposes his neck and stomach, both extremely vulnerable areas during a fight. It’s also one of the most difficult positions to resituate upon waking up, requiring extra time to get his legs under him and stand up. If a dog is sleeping in a lean position, he is going to sleep feeling safe and secure, and expects to wake up the same way when he does.

The Verdict: A classic bed-hogging move, owners might not be thrilled to be subjected to paws in their back or stomach at night, but they should see it as the gift it is. A dog in a lean sleep position is a happy pup, and typically content to sleep in if their owners are. Avoid harassing him or waking him out of a sound sleep by touching vulnerable areas like his stomach – he may startle or feel uncomfortable.

  • The “Sled Dog”: Huskies and malamutes are popular choices for sled-pulling dogs, they’re often depicted sleeping on top of or under the snow curled into a tight ball. This is because the curled-up position maximizes the insulating qualities of their fur, and burying their nose under their tail protects their sensitive, wet skin. In the curled-up position, their organs and vulnerable areas of the body are all protected, which means a canine in the sled dog sleeping position may be a little chilly or feel uncertain about their environment for some reason. However, just as some humans sleep curled tightly into a ball, sometimes it’s simply a comfortable preference with no deeper meaning.

The Verdict: If a dog routinely sleeps curled up and otherwise seems like a happy, well-adjusted pet, chances are it’s just how he likes to sleep. If he shivers or seems uncomfortable with the temperature, he may be trying to stay warm – offer him a blanket or a warm dog bed to help him relax. Fleece throws make an excellent addition to a chilly dog bed: these inexpensive blankets reflect a dog’s heat back up at his body so he stays warm and comfortable.

  • The “Flip”: Arguably one of the most photogenic and adorable of the sleeping dog poses is the flip, where a dog sleeps on his back with his paws sticking up or curled in. For a dog owner that hasn’t observed this sleeping position before, it can look alarming – as if something is wrong or the dog is sick. In reality, it’s a clever evolutionary trick to regulate body temperature. Just as the sled dog sleeping position conserves heat, the flip helps a dog stay cool and comfortable. Fur is thin along the belly and groin areas, which means heat can more easily escape if these are completely exposed. Additionally, the only places a dog can efficiently sweat through are their paw pads; sticking them up and out helps speed this process.

The Verdict: A dog that often sleeps in the flip position may find their bed or bedding uncomfortably warm. Long-haired breeds may benefit from a trip to a professional groomer in the warmer months, and short-haired breeds may sleep better with a fan nearby or the air conditioner turned up a notch.

  • The “Crowder”: Every pet parent knows the slippery slope of letting a dog sleep in their bed. It may start as begrudging permission to snuggle up at the foot of the bed, but sooner or later it turns into waking up with a pup curled right next to the pillows. Dogs that like to sleep back-to-back with their owners or other household pets are simply displaying a comfortable, secure behavior from puppyhood with their pack mates. Sleeping in a pile or cluster maximizes a pack’s chances at defense and survival, and helps share and regulate group body heat as well.

The Verdict: Unless a dog is displaying signs of canine separation anxiety – chewing up items, pillows, carpeting and so on – it won’t do any harm to let them take a nap or even sleep overnight in the bed. Obviously, it’s a good idea to make sure your dog is treated for fleas and ticks and bathed regularly beforehand – both for their comfort and that of their human sleeping companions.

Bedtime Routines For Pups: Helpful Tips For Dog Owners

A dog needs his beauty rest as much as humans do: in fact, he needs even more. Puppies sleep up to 20 hours a day in total, a necessary recharge for energetic young canines. Older dogs can hit the snooze button for up to 14 hours a day as well – it’s part of their genetic makeup and necessary for overall health. The common phrase “let sleeping dogs lie” comes from this observation: dogs, when unexpectedly woken from a sound sleep, may snarl, snap, or growl reflexively before they realize the waker is friendly and harmless.

Pet parents that want to ensure their dog gets a good night’s sleep should:

  • Provide soft, supportive bedding that is specific to the dog: He’ll feel more comfortable and safe in a designated bed or on a blanket that has his own scent. Crates work very well for this need: the door may be left open or closed, as the owner prefers.
  • Make sure his needs are taken care of before bedtime: It’s generally not a good idea to feed and offer water to a dog just before bedtime – it increases the chances of “nature calling” in the middle of the night, or very early in the morning. Instead, make sure he has access to fresh water throughout the day and feed him a few hours before bed. A short, brisk walk later in the evening will help him empty the proverbial tank, too.
  • Remove particularly “active” toys from the sleeping area: There’s a reason parents don’t send human children to bed with noisy toys, books, or video games: the goal is to fall asleep. If stimulating toys are available, a playful dog will definitely make use of them. Instead, leave one or two chew toys he can gnaw on if he’d like to, and store shreddable, noisy, or complicated toys for daylight hours.
  • Remember that noises, lights, and movements will bother him too: If a dog sleeps on a blanket or in a crate, his sleeping area should be kept in an area of the house that isn’t particularly active or noisy. It’s difficult for a dog to enjoy a deep, restorative sleep when he is involuntarily woken up by slamming doors, stomping feet, and loud TV shows. Remember, his ears are more sensitive than a human’s are.
  • Help him regulate his temperature: Watch to see if he sleeps in the “sled dog” or “flip” position often, and add or remove bedding as necessary. While his fur does have insulating and cooling properties, it isn’t meant to combat the discomfort of a hot, stuffy room, or a cold uninsulated porch. If a human would be uncomfortable sleeping in a particular space, chances are a dog would be as well.
  • Take the time to “tuck him in.”:  Dogs look to their owners for behavioral cues, and few things calm them quite like a few minutes of uninterrupted interaction with their effective pack leader. A dog can be led or accompanied to his bed area and gently pet for a minute or two after he settles in. This reinforcement technique will help him feel secure: if my pack leader seems calm and okay with this, I will be safe tonight.

What To Do When A Dog Isn’t Sleeping Well?

Most pet parents have seen evidence of doggie dreams: legs kicking out and “running” as they sleep on their side, soft chuffing or woofing at imaginary squirrels, tiny under-the-breath growls at fake intruders. Dogs have a rich, unique dream world just as humans do, which means they can have nightmares as well. These can rob him of his sleep and interrupt REM patterns, which will leave him groggy, sleepy, and slow to respond, even when he’s motivated to do so. 

If a dog has recently undergone trauma, such as an injury or the loss of a human or animal companion, he may struggle to sleep soundly. He’ll sleep more soundly if his owner(s) spend time petting and sitting with him at bedtime, but severe cases may need a trip to the vet for medication.  

In other instances, if the cause of the stress is a human companion away on a trip or deployment, try placing a piece of clothing or a blanket with that human’s scent on it in the dog’s bed. Because dogs have such a refined sense of smell, they use it to navigate their world and assess threats and “safe” places: an unwanted, used shirt can go a long way towards easing a troubled canine’s mind. 

Summary: Understanding Your Dog’s Sleeping Habits

No matter what position they like to sleep in, it’s important that a dog of any age gets plenty of canine beauty sleep. It’s a chance for his muscles to relax, any injuries or strains to heal, and his proverbial batteries to reset for another day of play. In addition to overnight sleeping, dogs can benefit greatly from daytime naps too. The next time a dog wants to assume the “crowder” position, pet parents might want to follow suit and catch some well-deserved mid-day snoozing with him: it’s a great bonding experience, and naps are restorative for humans as well! 


Sources Cited:

  1. Marucci, Catherine. “50 Different Dog Behaviors, Sleeping Positions, And Faces And What They Mean.” Animal Channel.co, June 14, 2018, https://animalchannel.co/50-dog-sleep-positions-other-actions-meanings/. Accessed August 25, 2019.
  2. “5 Dog Sleeping Positions and What They Mean.” PetMD.com, (no publish date), https://www.petmd.com/dog/wellness/5-dog-sleeping-positions-and-what-they-mean. Accessed August 25, 2019.
  3. Boldrini, Giovanna. “6 Doggy Sleeping Positions That Will Tell You A Lot About Your Beloved Pup.” Little Things.com, (no publish date), https://www.littlethings.com/different-dog-sleeping-positions/. Accessed August 25, 2019.

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