Dog behavior can be puzzling—and pretty funny—at times. If you’ve ever been amused watching your dog undertake the seemingly elaborate preparation for taking a nap, you know what we mean. Turning around in circles before lying down is a “very common behavior in dogs. I have owners ask, ‘Why do dogs circle before lying down?’ all the time,” reports Dr. Peter Lugten, veterinarian at Basic Pet Care Animal Hospital in Lindenhurst, New York.
Some pups spin once, while others spin several times—maybe even pawing at their prospective snoozing spot, before finally settling down. Of course, the couch looks no different to us after all that, so many dog parents ponder: Why do dogs undertake such arduous preparations?
Typical guesses involve dog nesting behaviors or scoping out the environment for threats of any type. Maybe a dog walking in circles is just getting his exercise for the day? Or could it be that it’s just fun? The first reasoning actually comes closest to the truth, says Dr. Lugten. Essentially, they’re trying to make a comfy nest for themselves.
While research on this specific aspect of dog behavior is limited, one study of 62 pet dogs conducted by Stanley Coren, PhD, author of “Understanding Your Dog for Dummies”, provides some clarity on the issue. The dogs napped on either a smooth surface (a uniform, indoor-outdoor type carpeting) or an uneven surface (a thick shag rug). The dogs were nearly three times more likely to circle before lying down on the shag rug than they were on the smooth, even carpeting. Several dogs on the shag carpet scratched or pawed as well as circling, but none of the dogs on the smooth carpet did.
Answered: Why Do Dogs Circle Before Lying Down?
“Remember, your pet’s wild ancestors didn’t enjoy modern creature comforts,” notes Dr. Lugten. “They slept outside, exposed to the elements.”
Thus, they had tall grass, stones and sticks to contend with when they wanted to rest, and the circling and scratching stamped down and cleared off these uneven surfaces. The scratching in particular afforded a way to stay comfortable.
In extreme heat, a dog could dig up cool soil to surround himself with, and when it was cold, scratching up and settling into even a shallow hole helped retain body heat.
Additionally, scratching leaves claw marks on the ground that are filled with their scent from the glands in their paw pads, so it serves as a way of marking territory.
Despite having a cushy dog bed indoors, those powerful dog nesting instincts will lead your pup to act as if he has to sleep outside. Ancestral behaviors, such as a dog walking in circles, tend to stick around way beyond serving a purpose.
Although you now know the answer to, “Why do dogs circle before lying down?” it’s important to distinguish that common dog nesting behavior from abnormal restlessness or discomfort, urges Dr. Lugten. If your dog seems to be having trouble lying down or getting up, or she suddenly starts circling a lot more than usual, a visit to your vet is in order to rule out potential health issues.
For dogs who do have limited range of motion due to aging, injury or other reasons, a specially designed pet bed, such as the chenille Precision Pet Products Bed with low, easy to manage sides, or the modern-looking MidWest Orthopedic Pet Bed, can be worth looking into.
Christina Vercelletto is a pet, travel and lifestyle content specialist and a former editor of Parenting, Scholastic Parent & Child, and Woman’s Day. She lives on Long Island with her Chiweenie, Pickles, and 20-pound Calico, Chub-Chub.