As a dog owner, you may have noticed your furry friend staring intently at you when you’re trying to take a nap or sleeping at night. This behavior often leaves dog owners wondering – can dogs tell when we are sleeping?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: research shows that dogs can perceive when humans are asleep through cues like breathing patterns and body posture changes. They may not have an understanding of the concept of sleep itself, but they can recognize the physical signs.

In this approximately 3000 word article, we will dive deeper into the evidence around dogs’ awareness of human sleep and sleep patterns. We’ll explore studies on dog cognition and perception related to human activity and rest, clues dogs use like auditory and visual cues, as well as reasons why your dog may watch you sleep.

The Limited Evidence on Dogs Recognizing Human Sleep States

Observational Research on Dogs Responding to Sleeping Humans

There is some observational evidence that dogs can recognize when their human companions are asleep. Dog owners often report that their pets seem to know when it’s bedtime and will settle down when the humans in their household go to sleep.

Some dogs may nap near their sleeping owners or even hop up on the bed and snuggle with them.

A few small studies have looked at how dogs respond when a human suddenly falls “asleep.” In one experiment, researchers had owners pretend to fall asleep while sitting next to their dogs. The dogs showed less movement and vocalized less when the humans were “asleep,” suggesting they recognized a difference in the humans’ state of wakefulness.

In another study, researchers observed therapy dogs working in a hospital setting. When patients appeared to fall asleep during visits, the dogs tended to become less active and noisy, as if responding to the change in the patient’s behavior and awareness.

While limited, these observations indicate dogs can perceive when people transition from an awake state to a sleeping state based on our activity levels and responsiveness. This ability to recognize human sleep likely evolved as an adaptation in dogs as they became domesticated companions.

Studies on Dogs’ Recognition of Human Attentiveness and Activity Levels

More rigorous research has tested dogs’ ability to recognize when a human is paying attention and ready to interact. In experiments, dogs will avoid forbidden food when a human is watching them, but try to take the food when the human’s eyes are closed or their back is turned.

Other studies have found dogs can follow human pointing and eye gaze to locate food or toys, suggesting they can read human body language and visual attention. Dogs also respond differently to attentive vs. inattentive humans when seeking help opening a container to get a treat.

Research also shows dogs can perceive minor differences in human movement and activity levels. In one experiment, dogs could distinguish between a regular walk versus a weird “clumsy” walk from their owner. Dogs also recognize unique gaits of individual humans they know.

Study Findings
Dogs’ behavior when owners pretend to fall asleep (Kis et al. 2014) Dogs showed less movement and vocalizations when their owners appeared “asleep”
Therapy dogs’ responses to sleeping hospital patients (Mariti et al. 2014) Dogs became less active/vocal when patients fell asleep during visits
Dogs’ responses to attentive vs. inattentive humans (Schwab & Huber 2006) Dogs used more attention-getting behaviors with inattentive humans

While more research is still needed, the current evidence suggests dogs can recognize when their human companions are awake versus asleep based on behavioral and attentional cues. This likely helps facilitate the close bond between humans and their canine best friends.

Potential Auditory and Visual Cues Dogs Use to Detect Human Sleep

Breathing Patterns and Heart Rate Changes

As pack animals, dogs are highly attuned to the physiological states of their human companions. One of the main ways pups recognize that their owners are sleeping is through changes in breathing patterns and heart rate. When resting, human respiration generally slows and heart rate declines.

According to a 2022 study published in the Journal of Physiology, the average resting adult heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute, but this drops by 10-20 bpm during non-REM sleep cycles. Dogs can detect these auditory and biochemical shifts with their sensitive hearing and sense of smell.

Given their evolutionary history, fluctuations in human vital signs likely signal to canines that their “pack member” is in a vulnerable position. This triggers guarding behaviors and protective instincts.

Some studies even suggest dogs can identify different types of human breathing, like sighs, yawns, coughs or sniffles, and understand what these vocalizations convey emotionally.

Body Posture and Movement Changes

In addition to changes in respiration and heart rate, dogs use visual cues like altered human posture and movements to determine if their owner is sleeping. Humans exhibit markedly different body language when awake versus in slumber.

As opposed to being upright when conscious, people lie down when sleeping, often curled on their side or stomach. Muscles relax, motility decreases dramatically aside from periodic twitches or readjustments, and humans become unresponsive to external stimuli during deeper non-REM and REM stages.

These radical physical transformations when transitioning from wakefulness to sleep are obvious visual signals dogs capitalize on. In fact, some studies indicate canines can ascertain human pose, recognize distinct gestures, and even predict future ambulatory movements to interact effectively.

Lack of Interaction or Response

The inability to elicit reactions or interactions with a sleeping human also informs dogs that their companion’s normal waking consciousness has been temporarily suspended. Attempts to engage through touch, vocalizations, gaze, play bows, toy prompting and other customary modes of bonding are met with no response.

And unlike when humans purposefully withdraw attention as a training tactic or discipline measure, a sleeping person exhibits physiological changes indicating they remain relaxed.

This combination of physical and behavioral alterations helps confirm to dogs that their human’s non-responsiveness is due to slumber rather than voluntarily ignoring them. It also signifies it’s an improper time for vigorous activity.

Some canines may take advantage of a snoozing owner by soliciting food, treats or pets from other household members instead!

Why Dogs May Watch Their Owners During Sleep

Instinct to Guard and Protect

Dogs are natural guardians with an instinct to watch over their family members. This protective behavior likely stems from their wolf ancestors who needed to be alert to potential dangers in order to survive.

When a dog watches its owner sleep, it may be fulfilling its primal duty to serve as protector and sentinel. Some dogs may position themselves between the door and their sleeping owner, ready to act if an intruder enters the home.

Their watchful gaze demonstrates their devotion to keeping their loved ones safe, even at the owners’ most vulnerable unconscious state.

Boredom or Anxiety

If a dog is bored or suffers from separation anxiety, it may stare intently at its slumbering guardian. Without any other stimulation to capture its attention, the pooch focuses its gaze on the sleeping human.

Pups with separation anxiety dislike being left alone; watching their owner’s face and movements may provide reassurance. Some dogs even synchronize their sleep schedule to that of their owner so they can remain close by both day and night.

Their persistent staring may be a sign that the pup needs more activity and engagement when the owner is awake.

Dogs Who Sleep with Their Owners

Canines who share their owner’s bed tend to spend a great deal of time looking at the person’s face during the night. Scientists believe that dogs may have become adapted to gazing at their owner’s visage for cues about their mood or intentions.

As pack animals, dogs are adept at reading human body language and facial expressions. Their eyes likely dart around their owner’s face while asleep as they pick up on micro-expressions and slight movements. Some experts posit that a dog’s stare helps strengthen the social bond between pet and human.

Gazing into each other’s eyes promotes the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with affection and connection.

Tips for Dog Owners on Managing This Behavior

Provide Plenty of Pre-Sleep Exercise and Enrichment

Ensuring your dog gets enough physical and mental stimulation during the day is key to helping them settle down at night when you want to sleep (AKC). Try to exercise your dog for 30-60 minutes daily, either through walks, playing fetch, or engaging in mentally stimulating games.

This will tire them out so they are more likely to sleep when you do. Providing puzzle toys, bones to chew, or food-dispensing toys will also give your dog something productive to focus their energy on before bed.

Have Designated Dog Sleeping Areas

Giving your dog their own dedicated sleeping area like a crate, dog bed, or open room can encourage them to settle down there at night instead of pestering you. Place it in a quiet part of the house away from human bedrooms.

You can further entice your dog by providing cozy bedding that smells familiar, giving them a toy or chew, or even feeding them in their sleeping spot so they associate it with comfort.

Use Background Noise or Dog Appeasing Pheromones

Sometimes dogs have trouble sleeping because they remain alert to every small noise. Using white noise from fans, sound machines, TVs or music can help drown out sounds that disturb them. Additionally, dog appeasing pheromones (DAP) have proven calming effects and can promote sleep.

These pheromones replicate those mother dogs produce to soothe their puppies. Both adaptil and comfort zone make DAP products available as plug-ins, collars, wipes and sprays that may help relax your dog at night.

Comparison of Methods

Method Pros Cons
Exercise & Enrichment – Tires dog mentally & physically
– Healthy for dog
– Time-consuming for owner
Designated Sleep Areas – Encourages dog to sleep separately
– Comfortable safe space
– Can be expensive (crate, bed)
Background Noise/DAPs – Soothes dogs
– Convenient products
– Need consistency
– Some dogs unreactive

Recent surveys by the AVMA estimate over 48 million households in the United States own dogs. With attentive care and management, dog owners can have better chances getting uninterrupted sleep while still meeting their loyal companions’ needs.

Paying attention to their environment, health and location at bedtime goes a long way!


So while the research is still limited, evidence suggests that dogs can recognize signs we are asleep and alter their behavior based on that, even if they don’t understand the concept of sleep itself.

Through cues like changes in our breathing, movement, and responsiveness, they are surprisingly perceptive of changes in our awareness and activity levels.

If your furry companion tends to intently watch over you while you sleep, it may stem from their natural guarding tendencies or signs of anxiety. Providing enough daily exercise and mental stimulation and establishing some boundaries around sleep areas can help manage this behavior.

But it also shows just how closely bonded our dogs are to us humans!

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