Let the Dog Bark: A Story of Disturbed Sleep and of Training

Who me?

My outpatient therapist and nurse reminded our group that depression is strongly correlated with disturbed sleep and we ought to work on our sleep patterns and “sleep hygiene“. Did you know that depression, demonically, seems to be both cause and effect of sleep disturbance? (See:  National Sleep Foundation Harvard Medical School Sleep Medicine Division,  NIH paper. ) I know, I know…time for me to get serious about sleep (again).

According to this chart from the National Sleep Foundation, my age group needs 7-9 hours per night. Yet even when I set a reasonable schedule to get a solid eight hours and practiced good “sleep hygiene” habits, I still had to work on one area where I’d partly defeated my efforts: I had accidentally trained one of my dogs, a spirited greyhound named Pixie, to wake me up every night.

Every night it goes like this: from the other room come two soft, almost polite barks, as if at first she has some compunction about this routine: “I hate to disturb you when you’re sleeping, but…” Quickly she drops all pretense. The notes grow longer and more insistent. And meanwhile, the barking shoots right from pianissimo to fortissimo. I groan piteously, “Pixieee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee” and pull my blanket over my head. The barking hurtles up at least two octaves and then follows some misshapen musical scale downward, finally morphing into a plaintive wail. “Plea-ea-ea-ea-ease let me out!”

I slap my bedside table for my glasses, drag myself out of my fleecy bliss of long lost sleep, and yank open the sliding glass door. In my defense, Pixie used to legitimately have to pee in the middle of the night. She wasn’t quite house trained when we got her and I was grateful she learned to say, “bark, bark?” to alert me when she needed to go. So convenient! And then she went through a bad stomach period when, if I didn’t let her out, I might wake to a terrible smelling surprise. But now she’s just taking advantage. She learned that if she persists–just keeps barking–I’ll give in and she gets to stalk out into the cool night, backyard all her own to sniff and prowl.

I don’t wait at the door. I crawl under another fleece blanket, this one on the couch, and doze until the “let me in” barking begins. It takes a minute to reorient myself to being—where am I?—not in bed–in the middle of the night, being summoned by my pesky hound to let her back in already. I throw the door open and then shove it closed as she settles happily back down on a dogbed in the living room. I’m too exhausted to swear aloud.

If my interrupted sleep is part of my problem, then time to admit I’m its author. Last night I decided to face the music and let the dog bark. And bark and howl and bark and try again and long into the night, until finally, finally giving up. My earplugs are no match for Pixie, but my will is strong. Every night I will let her bark until the midnight excursion “behavior is extinguished” (in the parlance of behavioral psychologists). I predict that within a week Pixie will sleep through the night. I am hopeful I will reap some uninterrupted sleep benefits.

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