18 February 2017

RESEARCH - Sleep Helps Dogs Learn

A recent study shows there may be a new twist to the old adage of letting sleeping dogs lie – with rest proving helpful to the learning process.

It’s scientific findings dog trainers might want to sleep on, too.

The conclusions are the work of researchers in Hungary who wanted to examine so-called “memory consolidation,” in man’s best friend.

While it is extensively studied in humans, memory consolidation – which is where the brain pulls together information and packages it into memories to be used later – has not previously been looked at in depth in dogs.

The question for researchers was – does sleep affect dogs by allowing them to better learn and retain lessons.

The findings showed dogs sleep was affected by learning and that learning was affected by sleep.


Dogs were taught a new English word for a skill they had mastered with a Hungarian command such as ‘sit’ or ‘lie down.’

Those dogs who took part in the study slept deeper after the lesson opposed to dogs who were in the group not taught new skills.

Ana Kis, with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, tells Scientific American this “suggests that the newly acquired information is re-processed and consolidated during sleep.”

The findings of the study, The Interrelated Effect of Sleep and Learning in Dogs, showed that dogs who rested after training sessions as well as those who stayed awake saw impacts on short and long-term effects and retention.

Those who played after learning, however, did not do as well on retention suggesting “interfering with learning experiences impedes learning consolidation,” the study states.

Researchers also noted that sleep proved to be more beneficial if it exceeded an hour in length and it was advantageous if dogs were given time to shake off their sleep before being retested on lessons.

In humans, that time required to shake off sleep/ wake up before being in a better position to learn is referred to as sleep inertia.

“Don’t pretend you’ve never woken up, walked to the bathroom and tried to brush your teeth with your comb,” Kis says, explaining the concept.

The study is said to be ground-breaking given it offers evidence that dog’s ability to learn from humans might be related to sleep-dependent memory consolidation.

In the study, dogs were given post-learning activities – walking, resting, playing with a Kong or being taught a new lesson.

The results showed dogs who slept (their sleep was monitored by EEG for three hours) and walked were better learners while those who were given play time or asked to learn new lessons did not see any advantage when it came to later acquiring new skills.

“Learning a new command should be followed by an activity that does not interfere with this new memory trace (e.g. sleeping, walking, playing–but not learning other things) in order to achieve the highest subsequent performance in the long run,” Kis told Scientific American.

Of course, the research is of interest to domestic dog owners but even more news-you-can-use for those who put dogs to work in roles doing everything from therapy to policing.

About Nadia Moharib
Nadia is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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