Why Dogs Nest When Pregnant

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Introduction

Nesting is a very common behavior seen in many female dogs. While it primarily affects intact females, spayed females also engage in this activity from time to time. It's an interesting phenomenon to observe, and you can't help but wonder what all the digging and resource gathering is all about. There are a number of behaviors that pregnant females show when they are nearing the time to whelp their litter. When a female is pregnant, her maternal instincts are very strong, and she intuitively begins to prepare a safe place where she can whelp and care for her babies. Nesting is an important part of that preparation process. What is the purpose of this nest? What will it be used for? Maternal instincts are deeply rooted in female dogs, and their process in preparing to whelp is fascinating. A closer study of the roots of this behavior can help us to better understand our dogs and why they do what they do.

The Root of the Behavior

As early as a week and even four days leading up to a pregnant dog's whelp date, she will begin the nesting process. This process begins with trying to locate a place that is quiet, dark, and removed from the traffic of a busy household. Some dogs will choose a closet, while others may crawl into a laundry basket or underneath a chair. Once your dog has selected the spot that she feels provides the security she needs in order to safely deliver her puppies, she will then start to fill it with items that will keep her puppies comfortable. For some dogs, this means gathering blankets or shredding newspaper. Others will drag favorite toys into the nest. These are all important items that your dog feels she must have to help raise and protect her puppies. Hormones bear the responsibility for signaling to your pregnant dog that it is time to get ready for the impending arrival of puppies. It is an instinct that your beloved girl was born with and one that is necessary for the survival and proper nurturing of her litter. 

Dogs in the wild would have had no choice but to try to find a secure location in which to deliver their puppies and to keep them safe from harm while they raised them to become independent members of the pack. Since puppies are completely dependent upon their mothers in the early weeks of life, the pregnant dog needed to find a spot with adequate warmth and shelter but one that would also be hidden from plain view. In the wild, death by predator attack would be a very real possibility for dogs who had just whelped a litter. The necessity of finding secure accommodations for both whelping and caring for her puppies would be paramount. Camouflage is a critical element of the nest in the wild. Because mother dogs require nutrition in order to produce quality milk for her babies, it would be necessary for the mother dog to leave her young for short periods of time to hunt. Without her there to protect her puppies, the ability to conceal them from predators would be critical. This camouflage is found in the choice of location but can also be aided by outdoor elements like branches, grass, sticks, and brush. All of these items could provide necessary coverings to disguise the puppies from nosy animals seeking their next meal. 

Encouraging the Behavior

In the modern dog, we still see this nesting behavior. Though there is no longer a need to hide her puppies from the world, your dog will still seek the comfort of a quiet, dark place because those instincts, though no longer valid, are still very much alive in her. Many dogs prefer a whelping box that is just large enough for her and her puppies. One that is too large can cause your dog great distress. Why? Logic tells us that it is easier to protect something that is close to us. For our dogs, a box that is too large allows the puppies to roam too far from their mother. This not only makes it more difficult for the mother dog to keep track of her puppies, but it can also put them at risk for dying from malnutrition or cold. Since puppies are born with their eyes and ears sealed tightly shut for approximately two weeks, newborns can only find their mothers by gravitating towards heat sources. In a large whelping box, a puppy who has shifted too far away from his mother may have great difficulty finding his way back to her. Sadly, his attempts to locate her may be futile. Puppies cannot regulate their body temperature when newly born and easily succumb to chill when separated from their mother and siblings. For these reasons, it is easy to see why a mother dog wants her young close to her at all times, and a small nest plays a critical role in that.

By nature, dogs are animals that like to live in dens. Nesting is an important part of getting the 'den' ready for the arrival of puppies. This is why it is vital that you introduce your dog to the area you have selected for her to whelp her puppies in well in advance of their arrival. You want her to understand that that space is hers alone. Many owners choose a specific small room in their house in which to set up a pen. These rooms include sleeping areas for the dog's owner as well. In anticipation of the big day, some owners opt to sleep in the whelping room-and some right in the box with their dog!-to help the dog feel comfortable and to 'claim' the space as her own. 

Other Solutions and Considerations

Selecting the space for your dog and then introducing her to it is significant because if you fail to do so, you may find that your girl chooses her own spot. The danger with that is it might be someplace that is not as safe or sterile as you would like for a birth. It could even be someplace where you are not easily able to reach your dog in the event that she needs your help such as under a step or a deck or even a barn. To prevent this from happening; when your dog is in the late stages of her pregnancy, you should always take her outside on a leash. Her survival instincts are strong, and she may feel compelled to source and build a nest outdoors if she is very near to her whelp date. and left to her own devices. It is best not to take any unnecessary precautions as births do not always proceed as smoothly as we would like, and your girl may need your assistance. But more than that, your presence is calming for her, so it is important that you have full access to her. 

Interestingly enough, these behaviors are also seen in spayed dogs though to a different degree. If you have ever observed your girl digging at blankets or repeatedly circling before finally sinking down to rest, you have seen nesting at work in your dog. Burrowing is a natural instinct in our dogs. For dogs in the wild, it played a role in helping them to create a space that would provide warmth in the outdoors. Circling allowed the wild dog to tamp down the earth in the hopes of making a more comfortable bed. It also provided the benefit of chasing off any animals that might be lurking in the soil such as snakes. Today, our dogs have no fear of these things, but the instinct remains intact and every once in awhile we are privileged to catch a glimpse of it. 

Conclusion

Yes, pregnant dogs do nest. Their powerful maternal instincts compel them to get ready for the arrival of their puppies, and nesting is but one way they do so. Encourage your pregnant dog in her quest to find a safe space to whelp her litter. If she is nesting, puppies will soon be arriving. Buckle up! It's going to be a wild ride.