How I Taught My Dog to Sleep Later in the Morning

A white dog with reddish-brown ears and speckles lies asleep in a curved position on a colorful blanket
Lewis sleeps in

When Lewis first came, he had just spent 10 critical weeks of his puppyhood living in a vet’s office. He grew up keeping clinic hours. He was ready to get up in the morning between 5:00 and 6:00 AM.

Groan. Now, I’ve been both an early bird and a night owl, and sometimes, unfortunately, both. My current hours lean more toward the night owl. But the switch to getting up early was not the problem. The problem, and it was a big one, was that on Lewis’ schedule, I lost my morning work time.

My normal schedule for the past few years has been to get up sometime between 7:00 and 9:00 AM, then work in bed for a couple of hours before I take dogs out and do “getting up” chores. And suddenly my morning work time, my prime time, was gone. Because when I first got eight-month-old Lewis, we sure weren’t going back to bed after we got up.

There’s a Fix for This

I knew there was a fix for this problem; I had even recommended it to some of the desperate people posting about their morning woes on social media. “My dog gets me up at 5!” or “My dog is getting up earlier and earlier!” But I had some immediate panic. What the hell? I couldn’t do my work?

Then I reminded myself of the training plan and talked to Marge Rogers about it. It took every ounce of willpower I had, but I did it. I taught him to get up much later, and in general, to wait until I was ready to get up.

The Fix

This plan is for an adult or late adolescent dog who has no problem sleeping through the night without having to get up to eliminate. If you have a young puppy, you’ll be on their schedule for a while. In that case, don’t try this as I have written it. Lewis had already learned to sleep through the night, so we didn’t have to work around house training at the same time.

The concept is simple: it starts with getting up earlier than your dog.

This seems counterintuitive at first. It’s tough to convince yourself to get up earlier as a step toward the goal of getting up later. But it makes sense in the long run. Here are the steps I took, written out as instructions.

  1. For 3–5 days, record the time your dog gets you up in the morning. Include workdays and non-workdays in your record-keeping.
  2. Using the information you got, get up earlier than your dog, consistently, every day. If they’ve been getting you up at 5:30 AM, get up at 5:10 AM. Whatever it takes to beat them to it.
  3. Keep this up for a week or more at that oh-so-early time. You are teaching them a new cue for getting up or “dogs are active now.” Lewis’ previous cue, I assume, was the staff arriving at the vet clinic, and that was probably at a consistent time. He internalized that time of day as “time to get up.” I wanted his new cue to be me getting dressed. Not the time he got accustomed to before, and not just me stirring around (details about this part in “My Personal Challenge” below).
  4. Once they’ve learned the routine, write out a schedule to gradually and SLOWLY push the new ritual later. First in perhaps 5-minute intervals, then maybe 10-minute intervals some days. Not more than that, and not every day. Keep some days the same, or even get up earlier again. You are adding duration, and just as when you train a stay, bounce around a little. Don’t create a schedule that gets inexorably longer with no breaks.
  5. Now implement your schedule for changing the time. Be ready to adjust the schedule in case you have made the time change too fast. Again, this is like teaching a duration behavior.
  6. If you mess up one morning, and your dog gets up before you do, get up immediately. Don’t give them a chance to bug you. Also, do not succumb to the temptation to coax them back to bed. It probably won’t work. What will probably happen is that they will fidget and bug you, and you will finally cave and reinforce a long sequence of bugging. Cave instantly and you won’t teach duration behavior. If this happens, backtrack your schedule and get up earlier again.
  7. Be fair. This is for an adult dog, but don’t ask them to stay in bed for 12 hours. If you stay in bed in the morning, give them a chance for a late-night potty. Or teach them, as an offshoot to this plan, to go outside for a potty in the morning and go back to bed. And obviously, if your dog is in distress, drop the schedule and get up with them.
  8. Gradually adjust the schedule until you have one that is to your liking.
A tan dog with a black muzzle has her head propped up on the corner of a laptop while she sleeps on a bed. There is a white dog sleeping back-to-back with her.
Clara shows her cute teeth while snoozing on the laptop

If you have already reinforced your dog for nudging you, poking you, running around the room, rattling something, barking at you, or for any other behavior by getting up and starting your day, this will be a harder process. I’m not mocking anybody; I’ve done it all. It’s a hard cycle to escape. You can use the plan above as a jumping off point, but you will probably need to stretch it over a longer period and change the time in smaller increments. I was fortunate to start as soon as Lewis arrived, and that helped a bunch.

Also, I wrote this as step-by-step instructions, but such a plan doesn’t have “if” branches for all the ways things can get off track. There are plenty, and I can’t address (or even think of) all the individual issues. For instance, I didn’t go into detail about shifting the cue to something other than the human getting up, but I described below some of what I did. Non-pro trainers like me might need to consult expert help. But I hope this plain version will be useful for some people.

My Personal Challenge

My situation had a specific challenge. Because of my work habits, I needed to wake up but not get up. I needed the cue for dogs getting up to be a couple of hours after I got up. So once I taught Lewis the initial predictors that it would be time to get up, I tweaked them. I taught him I was going to stir around a little, then come back to bed and work, and dogs weren’t getting up yet.

Two dogs lie on a bed. One is tan with black ears, muzzle, and tail, and is stretched out. The other is white dog with reddish-brown ears and speckles. He is curled up but his eyes are open and he is alert.
The dogs wait while I do morning chores

Once I got him staying in bed until 8:00 or so, I started quietly, with as little fuss as possible, getting my laptop out at 7:30 and working for a half hour before doing the full “we’re getting up now” routine. I didn’t even turn my light on, which was probably bad for my eyes, staring into a back-lit computer. But I needed to decouple “Eileen wakes up and does stuff” from “we all get up.” And I did this while keeping the getting up time steady. I only added duration again after he was used to this addition.

He also learned my alarm going off was not a cue for us all to get up. He doesn’t even stir now when my alarm goes off. And he learned that Nothing Interesting for Dogs happens while I’m in the shower, so that was another way I could extend my morning activities before it was time for dogs to get up.

The Hard Part

Keep in mind: Lewis’ arrival in my life diminished my ability to work to about one hour a day at first (if I was lucky). I was desperate to work, getting behind, and starving for some focused time for myself. I had to absolutely force myself to hold to my pre-planned time of getting up before him. It was so tempting, while I was on a roll with some work and he was sound asleep, to tell myself I could cheat a little and work longer. But I didn’t do it. There’s that human tendency to push our luck until the dog does something “wrong,” then we can correct it. That sequence of events doesn’t work here! This is an example of a situation where it’s essential to minimize errors.

Despite the temptations, I held to my schedule. I knew I had to put up with diminished morning work time to create a permanent change in his behavior. I played the long game, and I won.

This is another example of the ways I have limited choices for a younger dog to give them more freedom in the long run. Clara enjoys our mornings in bed, but also can jump off the bed and look at me, and we’ll get up when she wants to instead.

The Science

What was the mechanism of this behavior change? Did I punish Lewis’ behavior of getting up before me? Did I put it on extinction? I think neither. I changed the antecedents. I established stimulus control for getting up out of bed in the morning. He still got up in response to an external cue; I just taught him a new one.

Getting up in the morning is followed by a whole crowd of potential reinforcers. He still has access to all those and also seems to enjoy lounging in the bed while I work.

Epilogue

The morning after I wrote the bulk of this post, Lewis hopped off the bed at 7:30, at least two hours before the dogs usually stir now. I instantly turned on my light, got ready to get up, but also invited him back up on the bed for a snuggle. He loves to do that after Clara, who has priority and seniority, has gotten off the bed. We had our snuggle, then I got up “first.” He settled down and waited while I did my getting up stuff and got dressed (that’s exactly what he’s doing in the photo above). He has practiced our system enough now that an occasional glitch doesn’t hurt anything. But mostly, he dozes through the morning as he waits for me to start the day.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson