Night Waking: how to restore the peace

by Pippa on July 22, 2014

night waking puppiesNight waking is a common problem behaviour in Labradors under a year old.

If your dog is barking and howling at night, this article will help you restore peace to your household.

By around five months of age, most Labrador puppies are sleeping through the night until a reasonable time in the morning.

We all vary in what we define as reasonable labrador behaviour, but for me it means remaining quiet until after 6:30 am.

Anything before that is ‘night-time’ in my book.

Puppies vary in their bladder capacity and some Labradors can last long enough for you to get a half decent sleep, say around seven hours, even sooner than five months old.

If your puppy is over six months old, and still wakes before 6:30 am,  scroll down to the bottom of this post to look at the ‘early waking cure’

Once you have reached this important landmark you can give yourself a little pat on the back and allow yourself to feel a little smug.

The battle is won….

Or is it?

It is quite common in dogs under a year old, for night waking to begin again after several weeks or months of sleeping well. When I say ‘night waking’ I mean noisy night waking.

All dogs wake from time to time during the night, but they don’t usually make a song and dance about it once their bladder can hold a whole night’s wee.

When noisy night waking restarts, there is sometimes an obvious reason for this, the dog might be feeling unwell, he may have been disturbed by a fox in the garden, or by hedgehogs snuffling outside the back door.

One of my pups started night waking at nine or ten months old, and it turned out that a family of mice had moved into the kitchen.

It may be that you never discover what the problem is, and that’s ok, the important thing is to move on and restore the peace. You do not need to send your dog off for psychotherapy, nor do you need to be sleep deprived for weeks on end.

Obviously if you have mice in your kitchen you need to get rid of them , for hygiene reasons, never mind your beauty sleep. If your dog is unwell then that needs to be resolved.

But eventually you will hopefully be left with a healthy dog, and a mouse free kitchen.

You are probably not in a position to fix the animal noises in the garden, but you do require your dog to learn that making a noise himself is not the appropriate response.

However, depending on what your initial response to the barking or whining was, you may also now have a dog that has discovered a very good way to get your attention at 3am. You  need your sleep though. Perhaps more than you know.

Making things worse.

What many people do when their dog starts night waking is to  get up and pay some attention to their dog.   They then continue to provide this attention long after the problem (if there was one) is resolved.

Sometimes they are delightfully kind and sit next to the dog until he goes back to sleep.

We tend to do this because we are basically nice people,  and because we are attributing human emotions and feelings to the dog. Dogs find attention very rewarding.

If you take him into bed with you, he will find that even more rewarding. And behaviour that is followed by a reward, is more likely to be repeated in the future and to eventually become a firmly established habit.

Think ‘dog’

A lot of people worry that their dog is lonely at night. But his senses are very different from yours. His nose is thousands of times more powerful and his hearing more acute. Your dog knows that you are in the house. He can smell you, and probably hear you snoring! He feels safe and secure enough, he just likes a bit of company.

People frequently refer to dogs that whine for company as having ‘separation anxiety’ and guilt trip themselves into believing that they cannot leave the dog on his own.

If you have had your dog since a puppy and he was previously sleeping well, then you can rest assured he is not lonely. And he does not have separation anxiety.

Of course he would prefer to sleep on your bed, or snooze in his own bed next to you whilst your head nods into a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. But he does not need to do either of these things.

Sleep is important

When discussing and advising others on night waking,  people often grossly understimate the effects of sleep deprivation.

You need to give yourself a break. Your sleep is very important. You are very important. Loss of sleep has been thoroughly proven to cause accidents, sometimes serious accidents. It also causes irritability and arguments. It is very bad indeed for family life, and that in turn is bad for your dog.

You do not need to have your dog sleep on or by your bed unless you want to. He will be ok if you just leave him to ‘cry it out’. Whilst this sounds draconian and unkind. It is the best answer to the problem.

A pair of ear plugs will help you to sleep through the fussing and he will learn that people don’t play during the night. Remember: he knows you are  in the house.

But what if my neighbours are disturbed

If you live in an attached house, or the dog becomes fascinated by the sound of his own voice (as sometimes happens) and is happy to sing all night, every night,  you may have to take stronger action in order to make him stop.

This is one of the few instances, where, for the sake of good neighbourly relations and sufficient sleep, you may find an aversive is the best answer.

You need to decide how you are going to correct the dog, and how you are going to make sure he knows what you are correcting him for. If you decide to correct him by squirting him with water for example, by the time you get out of bed, down the stairs and arrive at his crate, he has probably stopped howling and is wagging his tail in anticipation of your company.

It is no good at all punishing him at this point. What you need is a correction ‘marker’. A sound or signal that tells him that the noise he is making is the thing he is doing wrong.

And the marker has to be given whilst he is exercising his vocal chords, not after he has stopped. My marker is a very loud NO! in my fiercest and most unfriendly voice.

And believe me I am seriously unfriendly at 3am

As soon as he hears your distant shout, you need to get down those stairs and deliver your correction without any delay. You must then return instantly to your bed so that he is deprived of your attention. Don’t worry about the fact that he is now damp. It won’t hurt him. If he starts up again in a few minutes, you will have to repeat your actions.

If you have been rewarding him for howling for several nights, it could take several trips down the stairs to break the habit. You need to do whatever it takes. The objective is to get the message over in no uncertain terms that night times are for sleeping.

You will win if you want to, I have never known this method to fail if applied with commitment.   And yes,  it is not very pleasant for your dog to be corrected at 3am.  But you have to keep things in perspective.  Your actions will not hurt your dog,  he will get over it.  And your health and safety must come first.

But I don’t want to punish my dog!

More and more people nowadays do not want to use punishment on their dogs.  Not for any reason at all.  And there is nothing wrong with this.

Training through rewards and avoiding aversives will not ‘spoil’ your dog, provided you are consistent and train effectively.

If this is your philosophy then you are going to have to ignore the noise, until your dog gives in and goes back to sleep.  You will need to compensate your neighbours in some way for the disturbance.  How you do this, will depend on your neighbours and your relationship with them.

What about dogs that persistently wake up too early?

What about the dog that is not really night waking.  He is just waking up too early.

In his view it is morning.  He has been a good dog and slept all night.  It’s just that his idea of morning, is slightly out of sync with yours.

You think 7:30 is a reasonable time to get up.  He begs to differ and prefers 6:45.   If you don’t get up he gradually gets noisier and noisier.

He can’t go back to sleep as he now has a full bladder and is getting hungry.  What should you do?

This can be quite a frustrating problem, because even if you get up and let the dog out for a wee, and give him some breakfast, and even if he is happy to go back to bed.  You can’t, because you have to get ready for work.

The solution here is to pre-empt the dog using a signal that he can hear.

The early waking cure

So you need to set a loud alarm that will wake both of you.  Set the alarm to go off half an hour before he normally wakes up.

Get yourself downstairs before he start to make a noise and reward him for being quiet.  Be very calm, and avoid getting the dog excited.

The following day, repeat the process but after getting downstairs, wait a few seconds before greeting the dog and letting him out.

The next day, you can bring the alarm forwards a couple of minutes.

Keep going until you get an acceptable ‘wake up’ time.

Repeat, each day either increasing the time you wait before greeting the dog and letting him out, or, bringing the alarm forwards a few minutes.

The objectives here are two-fold.  Firstly you are teaching the dog he doesn’t need to make a noise in order to get you up.   You get up, when the alarm goes off, and he is not responsible for waking you.

Secondly, you are teaching him that you getting up is not a big deal.  It isn’t something worth getting all hot and bothered about.  He needs to know that early mornings are boring.  Nobody wants to play or chat at 6:30.

Many dogs, if put through this process, and if you make yourself boring enough,  will actually start ‘sleeping in’ and ignoring you when you get up.

You’ll know you have won this battle when you come downstairs at 7:30, and your labrador opens one eye and then goes back to sleep.

Let us know how you get on, in the comments box below, or join us in the forum for a chat.

This post was originally published in October 2011 and has been expanded and updated

More help and information

If you enjoy Pippa’s puppy articles, you will love her new book: The Happy Puppy Handbook – a definitive guide to early puppy care and training.



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