The Power of Sleep: Latent Learning and Mental Recovery in Dogs

Updated on July 12, 2019
kblover profile image

Brian is a dog lover who's highly interested in the mental and emotional lives of dogs. He owns and trains Wally, a Coton de Tulear.

Why Are You So Tired?

When I first started working with Wally, I often wondered why he was so tired after training sessions. I mean, all he did was sit or bark or touch things. How exhausting could that be? "You dogs were meant to do much more than touch people's hands," I would say playfully to him. But, sure enough, he would go to his bed in my room, lie down, and sigh, already looking like he's half asleep. About 20 minutes later, he's on his side in the "dead dog" position. Eventually, I might hear him "barking with his mouth closed," "running," or even showing his teeth.

How little I knew then. There was indeed a reason he wanted a nap.

Do not disturb. Dog at rest.
Do not disturb. Dog at rest.

Mental Fatigue

What I didn't realize is that training in and of itself can be mentally draining to a dog, especially if he's learning something new and, for him, complex. I was probably pouring lots of information into his head, all of it new or presented in a new way, and his mind had to sort it all out and give focus and concentration, which also costs mental energy.

I would notice this a lot once I introduced shaping to him. He would look somewhat tired during "down times" during sessions and while he'll keep giving his all (motivated by the prospect of food, no doubt), once it was all done and he had time to relax, it was sleepy time. This gave a very good way for me to sap any excess energy out of him for times where I didn't want to spend time outside (say, during a storm) but didn't want to leave him with nothing to do which could make him restless and cause him to get into trouble - or just be a nuisance!

It doesn't look like it, but I'm working SO hard right now.
It doesn't look like it, but I'm working SO hard right now.

The Ways That Training Tires Dogs

Training is a multi-pronged attack against excess energy, striking at the 'enemy' from these directions:

  1. Physical Exertion: Of course, any physical activity is not "free" for the body or mind (it costs energy to move and to think about how to move) and movements that are tough for the dog to do or require physical effort to get to will wear his body out. Not to mention, throwing in a long walk between more mental aspects makes for a nice outdoor training exercise for him.
  2. Focus and Concentration: One thing I had to realize was that him staring a hole in my head waiting for the next round also has it's cost in mental energy. Blocking out anything else his senses might be picking up to devote it all on the movement of my hand or a sound I might make requires energy.
  3. Anticipation: This goes along with #2. While he's focused alertly on my every move and sound, the body is ready to strike. It, too, is in an alert state with energy stored inside to move quickly. Of course, to manage quick movements, the brain and senses have to move quicker as well.
  4. Sniffing: Yes. Sniffing. Something dogs do all the time. Of course, there's sniffing and then there's sniffing. Think of it like this - which is likely to tire you more: Reading a comic book, or reading a textbook while studying for a test? Sniffing the ground at random tends to be more like reading the comic book. Sniffing with an intent and major effort is more like studying for a test. Sniffing games can really tire out a dog. I know I can tell a MAJOR difference between Wally sniffing at random and him doing sniffing games—even the "sniffs" are louder and far more rapid, and he's clearing his nose of scent more often. All that said, sniffing is harder than it looks. It takes concentration to interpret scents, pick out the one you want out of all the scents, and follow it.

Latent Learning

Latent learning is the process by which a dog (or any animal, but since we're talking dogs here...) can learn a behavior while not actually performing the behavior. What happens is you work the dog on something, say, pawing the door, and then stop. During the down time, the dog's brain has the chance to process what just happened, in this case the relationship between pawing the door and getting a reward. The dog is learning how to paw doors better, while not actually pawing a door or working on the skill. That's latent learning.

One way to use rest periods is to facilitate this learning. It goes something like:

  • Work the dog on something for a while. For example, I'll be working Wally on something like sitting on his scale, an example I used in when I wrote about finding motivators, then I'll stop and let him relax and unwind but not do anything else. I'll take him to his bed and let him rest.
  • While he's resting, his brain is sorting through all the information he picked up. What behaviors get rewards. In what sequence did they occur. What was the end of the behavior that got him released. I let this go for a while, give him time to relax, go into his sleep/rest and let his brain organize the information.
  • After a few hours, I'll go back to working him on the scale. Frequently, progress has been made. He might not go from step 1 to the end, but if he was just getting the hang of pawing the scale - now he's gone straight to putting and keeping his front paws on, where before he had nothing from the start, except the natural curiosity to sniff a new object.

Data Transfer and Memory Optimization

No, I'm not talking about computers here or the internet, but dogs still.

It's been said that dogs use sleep as a time to sort the information they've picked up and organize it and store it away into memory. This is especially true of the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep. In REM sleep, the brain is highly active and it is thought that one reason for this (in both people and dogs) is that the brain is organizing and storing information and memories among other mysterious tasks (like causing dreams - as far as I've found, no one yet knows what point dreams serve in either dogs or humans).

Of course, I don't know if it definitively true, but I know that when I started introducing shaping to Wally, he dreamed very often. This would indicate he was in the deep, brain active phase of REM sleep. He also needed (not just wanted - outright needed) more sleep, likely to try to process what he's just learned. Even now, he still sleeps or at least rests deeply not very long after a training session.

Let Them Rest

Of course, there will be times where you can't have latent learning as a possibility or hours of time to where they can rest between training or working sessions. Even then, let them rest when they can have that down time. Give them some time to unwind and process their day and then wake them to play and have fun or to do another task.

After all, they are doing more than resting their bodies when they are laid out sideways in dream land.

My eyes are open, but I'm about as rested as I can be.
My eyes are open, but I'm about as rested as I can be.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2010 Brian McDowell


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    • kblover profile imageAUTHOR

      Brian McDowell 

      9 years ago from USA

      Thank you! I'm glad it was enjoyable and informative for you!

    • toknowinfo profile image


      9 years ago

      Great Hub! Lots of good info. Thanks for sharing.

      Looking forward to reading more from you. Rated up and awesome!


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