We’ve all seen it: our dog circling and pawing at the nice new bed we just bought them, turning around and around before finally settling in. Maybe they’ve dug themselves a nice pit in the middle of the bed, or sniffed around the edges before finally declaring their chosen spot to be worthy of them. Sometimes it’s cute but sometimes it’s frustrating – don’t they like that beautiful bed? Aren’t they happy?
Well, it turns out that your dog’s circling has nothing to do with whether or not they like the bed (or carpet, or couch, or blankets) that they’re lying on. So why do dogs circle before they lie down? We’re going to tell you!
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The Root of the Behavior
Many scientists and veterinary behaviorists believe that the ritual of circling around a spot before lying down is a holdover from the days when dogs still lived out in the wild. Stanley Coren did a study on dog circling behavior, testing different types of surfaces for dogs to lie down on, and found that when greeted with a soft, uneven surface – as many dog beds tend to be – dogs will circle more often to make themselves a comfortable “nest” to lie down in.
It’s important to remember that, while dogs have been domesticated for some time, they weren’t always an indoor pet with comfy sleeping conditions. Turning in place allowed dogs to flatten down tall grass, clear away snow, or pat down leaves to make a level surface. Leslie Irvine, a sociologist who specializes in the role of animals in society, says that “In the wild, the circling would…drive out any snakes or large insects…circling the area and thus flattening it leaves a visible sign to other dogs that this territory has been claimed.”
Other reasons your dog may circle may be related to survival and pack behavior. It is speculated that wild dogs would lie with their noses to the wind in order to catch the scent of a predator; your dog has likely retained that instinct, even though there aren’t any predators around in your home. And if your home has multiple dogs, they may circle to check on the other members of their “pack,” making sure that everyone’s doing all right.
You may also have noticed that your dog scratches at their chosen spot in addition to circling. This also ties back to wild dog behavior; when dogs still slept outside, scratching an area of ground clear allowed for dogs to either surround themselves with cooler soil to regulate body heat or retain heat and keep cozy in colder months. Your dog is used to doing this, and it’s generally nothing to be concerned with. Your dog’s adaptive behavior has lingered because there’s nothing to discourage it; many pet owners find dog circling behavior to be cute, and if your dog is just getting comfortable then there’s no reason to tell them not to circle!
Encouraging the Behavior
This behavior is as much a part of your dog as breathing, and there’s no reason to discourage them. It helps your dog feel comfortable and safe in your home and in their bed, wherever they choose to rest their head. As the SPCA says, your dog – like the other members of your family – is making themselves at home when they choose their favorite spot to lie down.
It’s important to remember that this space is your dog’s space, whether you’ve bought them a bed, are using a crate, or simply let your dog lie where they’d like. You want your dog to feel safe and happy in this area, so using a crate or bed as punishment isn’t a good idea; you may disrupt your dog’s “nesting” instincts, which can lead to stress and anxiety.
If your dog is pregnant, she may grow more protective of her bedding, as that can be her de facto den or nest. She may even pull her bed into a darker space, like a closet, in order to feel protected from predators, and may also be more deliberate in her turning and pacing behavior. This is also normal and shouldn’t be discouraged; she’s just trying to make sure everything is safe for her coming babies!
Your dog may not always turn around before resting, and that’s okay too. It’s not concerning if a dog simply settles down instead of turning around or scratching at the bed. It’s possible they already feel safe, or that their bed is in the perfect configuration for them. Turning behavior depends on the dog and the location.
Other Solutions and Considerations
The only times your dog circling may be an indication of a bigger problem is if you notice that it’s excessive. For example, if you notice your dog turning repeatedly but seeming unable to settle down, or circling a while, crouching, and then standing to circle again before finally resting, it could be a sign that your dog is in pain. Issues like arthritis, spinal cord problems, or even some behavioral problems can transform turning from a comforting, normal behavior into a painful, stressful one. If you notice these kinds of issues with your pup, you should take them him or her the vet! The sooner the issue is resolved, the faster your dog can enjoy the comforts of turning behavior again.
Your dog’s turning behavior is a cute way for them to get cozy before settling in with a happy sigh. It’s not a bad habit for them to have, and can be reassuring for both dog and owner, so let your dog turn! Just remember to watch out for signs that the turning behavior is no longer fun or comforting so that you can take care of your best pup, and you’ll have a great, long-lasting relationship.