You already know that your dog is a sweet mystery, full of ideas that you can’t understand and she can’t articulate. Your dog moves purposefully through life with her own doggie agenda, often pushed by drives and urges that date back to before wolves were domesticated. As people, we can’t understand the reasoning behind what a dog does, though everything makes sense to her. To a large extent, all we can do is watch our dogs act out behaviors that seem more appropriate to life in the wild rather than a suburban living room.
When you go to bed tonight, watch what your dog does. She may move the sheets around on the bed or she may burrow under the covers. She will likely do a circle dance, walking in slow, tight circles until the savannah grass in her wolf-mind is fully beaten down. Your dog is building a nest, and you have no idea why.
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The Root of the Behavior
When we think of the word nest, the first thoughts that come to mind are birds and eggs. We know that birds build nests to lay eggs and raise their young. Of course, dogs don’t lay eggs. But the building of a nest is one of the clearest warning signs that your dog will soon have puppies.
About a week before going into labor, a female dog will begin to dig. And dig. And dig. Now, most dogs dig a little, and some dig a lot. But a female dog who will soon go into labor and have her puppies goes through a process called “whelping” and will start digging at an unprecedented level. It’s nature driving her to find and improve a safe, enclosed space to have her babies. She will begin to dig everything she can. If she is indoors, you can be forgiven for assuming she is making a comment on your carpet. If she is outdoors, even if you just let her out to do her business, she will start to dig. She is hard-wired to find a dark, warm, enclosed space for her pups in order to protect them from predators and the elements.
But dogs don’t need to be near labor to nest. You’ve seen this in your own dogs, male or female, fixed or intact. You might find your dog burrowing in your bedding when you start heading to bed at the end of the day. If you put blankets down near your dog’s bed, you may see her move them around. Even if your dog doesn’t do these kinds of things often, you will see her do a little circle dance, walking in a slow tight circle multiple times.
The nesting behavior of dogs is directly related to the habits and behaviors of wild canines. A bitch wants to whelp in the safest place possible; she tries to make a little depression so her pups can’t roll or wander out. A sleepy dog wants a safe, flat, soft place, just like you.
Encouraging the Behavior
Nesting is a healthy, normal behavior for any dog. They are literally answering the call of nature. Your response to nesting should depend on why your dog is nesting, so please remember that a pregnant dog who is near whelping simply can’t stop herself from digging and hollowing. Your best bet in this situation is to give her a safe, quiet place to build a nest. Breeders often recommend using a wading pool, filled with towels and blankets, maybe even newspaper for your dog to shred in order to build her whelping nest. A wading pool is cheap, fairly easy to get, and durable considering the kind of treatment your dog is going to put it through before she has her puppies.
For dogs who aren’t pregnant, nesting is easier to shape. Dogs naturally seek a den, a quiet, enclosed space where they can let down their guard. In modern society, this can take the shape of a crate. Make sure that the crate is large enough for your dog to be comfortable and cozy, but not too big. Dogs will naturally keep their nests clean, but if a crate is too big, your dog may end up peeing or pooping in a corner.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If you choose to crate train your dog, and you really should, it’s important that your dog has only good associations with the crate. It should be her safe space, a place where she can take shelter during storms or from visitors during the holidays. Make sure that you reward your dog for going to her crate. Try covering it with a blanket, ideally one that smells like you, for additional comfort. Give her treats and praise. Make sure she has soft blankets to cuddle up with. Never send her to her crate as punishment, and never yell at her when she’s in her crate. Doing this will confuse your dog and make going to her crate to be a stressful event.
It’s easy to look at our sweet, goofy puppies and forget that they were once wolves, wily and wild, until they discovered that people can provide food and shelter. Also laps. But your dog is still a wolf in her heart. Nesting is a behavior that comes from that background. It seems strange and occasionally disruptive but remember that she is just following her ancestors.