Even before the pandemic arrived and upended life across the globe, sleep disorders were on the rise in the U.S. COVID-19 didn’t help. In fact, researchers have coined the term “coronasomnia” to indicate the myriad sleep problems brought about by anxiety, depression, and stress over the challenges individuals face while COVID remains in our midst.
The pandemic’s challenges have been exacerbated by several factors:
- While many still observe quarantine conditions, sleep therapy may not be available to them, especially if they are at risk or because of a lack of local facilities to treat them.
- Among the pandemic’s challenges have been an epidemic of loneliness and depression, particularly among the young and the elderly, which impacts both mental health and the quality of sleep.
- Those who already suffer from conditions such as PTSD, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and more, which feature unpredictable symptoms — especially at night — may not have access to direct care when they need it.
For many, a constant source of support and aid comes in the form of a service animal, usually a dog, who is there with them 24/7 and can help minimize symptoms during the day and at night while its owner sleeps.
The Human-Dog Bond
If you own a dog, we don’t have to convince you of the strength of the bond that exists between a dog and its owner. Dogs have been accompanying their human masters since roughly 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, when they served as hunting companions, guards, and shepherds long before cats or other animals were domesticated.
Today, dogs live in 38.4% of American households, making them the most popular pet in the country. Of those, approximately 500,000 are service dogs. Although initially used to help the blind, service dogs now help those with a variety of medical conditions, from diabetes to PTSD.
Service dogs are, as the Americans with Disabilities Act says, “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.” These highly skilled animals may protect a person who is having a seizure, remind someone with a mental illness to take their medicines, or calm a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack. As the ADA states clearly, they are working animals, not pets.
Service dogs help with many kinds of disabilities, and therefore, are often trained to meet the needs of a specific individual. Someone who is quadriplegic, for example, might have a dog that is trained to turn lights on and off, open refrigerators, and help their owner get into and out of their wheelchair. A person with epilepsy, meanwhile, might have a dog that knows to alert them to an upcoming seizure.
Although service dogs do not have to be professionally trained, it’s a good idea to have a professional dog expert work with any animal you would like to use as a service animal. The specialized skills that the dogs need require time and effort to learn, and a poorly trained service dog can do more harm than good.
The American Service Dog Access Coalition is an industry group that works with the military and canine training institutions to provide access to properly trained service animals. Note that emotional support animals and therapy dogs are not the same as service dogs, and they are not given the same protections by the ADA as service dogs, including the right to enter public facilities.
Sleep Safety With Service Dogs
The biggest reason to entrust the training of your service dog to a professional is the specificity of skills it will need to master for its owner. Many times, it will need to respond to its owner’s needs at night.
Those with PTSD, for example, may experience recurring dreams or nightmares that include aspects of past traumatic events, difficulty in falling asleep, and fragmented REM sleep. A trained service dog can remain alert to the signs of disturbed or fragmented sleep, such as tossing and turning or vocalizing and can then wake its owner and provide comfort and a sense of safety.
A seizure alert dog, meanwhile, recognizes when their owner is about to have a seizure and can wake their owner or a caregiver to provide further care. Training a dog for this specialized work may take more than two years.
Sleep apnea is another condition that can merit the care of a service dog. This serious illness increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, diabetes, and more. A service dog can be trained to alert their owner when they experience the airway obstruction that is a symptom of sleep apnea, as well as provide comfort to someone after an attack of apnea.
Sleep Disorders Service Dogs Can Assist With
As we have seen, service animals can be an invaluable aid to those who experience a range of disorders and illnesses. A dog trained to react to the specific symptoms of its owner can help that individual lead a more normal, active life while opening the door to nights of uninterrupted sleep. Here are a few of the symptoms and illnesses a dog can help with:
- Nightmares: A dog trained to recognize the onset of a nightmare or night terror, which may cause increased movement in bed or loud vocalizations, can wake their owner, bring any medicines that might be needed, and seek additional help if necessary.
- Narcolepsy: Service dogs can be trained to recognize the tiny physical changes that occur in a person’s body before they experience an attack. The dog can alert the owner by barking, nudging them with a paw, or licking them. They can act as a buffer if the person seems likely to fall, and they can stand guard over the person if they fall in a public space.
- Parasomnias: These disruptive sleep-related disorders include sleep paralysis, sleep terrors, confused awakening, and loud vocalizing. Depending on how the parasomnia shows itself, a service dog can wake its owner, get help, fetch medicines, or restrict its owner’s movements, so they do not harm themselves.
- Sleepwalking: This is actually a form of parasomnia, but it’s worth singling out because of the great benefit a service dog provides. To protect its sleepwalking owner, a dog can guide them to a safe place, keep them away from stairs, or, in extreme cases, keep them from leaving the house.
Thoughts From Service Dog and Sleep Experts
Experts — both dog behaviorists and sleep professionals — have weighed in on the benefits of having a service animal available at night to help encourage good sleeping patterns.
Lovelia Horn, a dog trainer and owner of Every Creature Counts, believes it’s a good idea to sleep with your service animal nearby. “Service dogs are known to de-stress their owners by their constant presence, and they can help wake owners up from nightmares,” she says. “They also provide their owner with safety from any unexpected experiences in the night.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Barbera often works with those dealing with PTSD and insomnia. She feels there are pros and cons to having your dog in bed with you.
“In particular, the dog may move around, which could disrupt an individual’s sleep,” she says. “However, if the individual feels safer and less anxious with the dog right beside them, this could be advantageous to improving sleep. It’s most important to consider the unique needs and/or characteristics of each individual and support dog.”
Dr. Peter Bailey, M.D. suggests having your service dog sleep in a bed next to your own so they are readily available to alleviate stress. “Service dogs are trained to pick up on acute reactions from their owners and can sense when they are in distress. They will instinctively jump onto the bed to comfort you if you suffer an issue during the night.”
Find out more about the amazing tasks that a service dog can handle with this TEDx talk by Sarah Meikle, a trainer of service dogs for those with invisible disabilities such as PTSD.
Service Dogs and Invisible Disabilities
Service Dog Safety For The Bedroom
As our experts have suggested, many service dog owners sleep with their dogs either in their bed or in a pet bed next to theirs so that they can assist with nighttime challenges. Having your service dog in bed with you has many positives. If they are large, however, they may also take up a lot of your mattress’s real estate, making it difficult to get comfortable and sleep soundly.
A pet bed can be an optimal choice. Place it in a spot where you won’t accidentally step on your dog or trip over it if you get up for a nighttime bathroom visit. It is also worth taking some extra effort to put away clothes and keep your floor free of other items, both for your own safety and that of your dog. In an emergency, you don’t want your service dog to have to scramble over a pile of laundry just to get to you.
Another precaution to take is to be careful of what plants you have in your bedroom. Some, such as lilies, aloe vera, ivy, and dieffenbachia, can be toxic to dogs. It is unlikely that a well-trained service animal will try to eat your plants, but eliminating the risk is a good idea.
For the same reason, keep your toiletries and medication in a safe place, unless your dog is trained to bring you certain items, in which case they should always be placed in the same, easy-to-reach position. If you have small area rugs on the floor, ensure that they are over a liner so that they are not likely to slip if either or your dog moves across them.
Service dogs have come a long way since the 1920s, when seeing-eye dogs first became popular in the U.S. Today, service dogs assist people with a broad range of physical and mental illnesses. They have proven effective in enabling people with formerly crippling disabilities to lead lives of normalcy. For those whose illnesses manifest during nighttime hours, service dogs are particularly helpful, soothing owners in the throes of a night terror, bringing medicines and other items, and alerting caregivers if their owner has a seizure. In effect, for a person with a disability, a service dog can be their best friend, with whom they have a strong and lasting bond.
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