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Why Do Dogs Walk in a Circle Before Lying Down?

Picture of a French Bulldog sitting down

If you’ve ever watched your dog getting ready to lay down, you know he has quite a ritual. Unlike human beings that simply find a spot and slump down into it, dogs like to prepare their space. Though each dog’s method of arranging their resting area may vary slightly, they all share one thing in common—constant circling. To the average onlooker, this seeming obsession with turning to and fro seems like an unusual dance. Why don’t dogs simply find a space and nestle into it? Why do dogs walk in a circle before lying down? 

Circling – A Primal Instinct?

Most canine behavior is rooted in ancient instincts that remain in the dog even after years of domestication. When it comes to circling before settling for a rest, this behavior is most definitely in keeping with activities the wild dog would have engaged in as an important component of his survival strategy.

Though we may never have an answer with absolute certainty as to why our dogs participate in this ritual, there are several primal instincts which may explain the behavior. These include:

  • Protection

Dogs in the wild needed to be concerned about self-preservation. In an eat or be eaten kind of world, the wild dog needed be certain he wouldn’t find himself at the bottom of the food chain.

Since certain aspects of a dog’s body are more vulnerable to attack, circling a preferred sleeping locale allowed the dog to determine the best way to align his body to keep himself protected in the event a predator came upon him while he slept.

Some ancient canine experts assert that dogs would sleep in a particular direction to allow them to detect directional changes in the wind which would help alert them to the presence of danger. Circling would allow the wild dog to determine which direction the wind was moving and to position himself accordingly.

Many owners wonder why the domesticated dog would continue this trait in their homes since it is well-established that they are no longer under any threat. However, these instincts are deeply ingrained in the dog’s DNA. The dog is hardwired to continue many of the same ritual that ensured the continuance of the species when they lived in the wild and had to depend on their smarts to survive.

  • Distribution of scent

Dogs contain sweat glands in their feet which release their own unique fragrance into things that they walk on. Turning in circles before laying down may be a means of the dog marking his sleeping territory as uniquely his.

It is also plausible that the dog may be attempting to stir up dirt to hide his scent in the event a predator would be drawn directly towards him while he sleeps.

Though these two thoughts are complete opposites, both could be true.

  • Increasing comfort level

Let’s face it…sometimes bedding needs adjusting to be its most comfortable. In the wild, dogs would need to tamp down dirt, leaves, and grass to make their chosen bed better suited to sleeping. While circling helped to accomplish that, it also served another very valuable purpose…it allowed the dog to detect the presence of such animals as snakes or rodents that could cause harm to the dog while it slept. Turning in circles would cause smaller creatures taking refuge in the dog’s bed to flee, thus increasing the wild dog’s comfort and his safety in one simple action.

Circling may also have helped the wild dog to maintain a consistent body temperature. Curling up into a ball was a vital means for the wild dog to remain warm when temperatures started to decline. To assist with maintaining warmth in cold climates and reducing heat in hot climates, turning in place helped to tamp down the dog’s bed in the earth where optimal temperatures could be more easily attained and maintained.

  • Typical of a pack leader

In the wild, keeping track of each member of the pack was very important, particularly when it came to sleeping arrangements. Circling allowed the wild dog to survey the position of each dog within the pack to ensure that no one was left behind and was safely nestled in for the night.

But not only did turning in place allow the wild dog to ascertain where his pack members were, it also provided the ideal vantage point from which to search for predators that could cause harm to the pack. This was an important part of keeping the group protected and safe.

Is Turning Before Laying Down Beneficial to the Modern Dog?

There is no question that the modern dog does still participate in this ancient ritual nearly every time he decides to put his head to a pillow. But since the domesticated dog no longer needs to fear for his safety, is it necessary for the dog to continue to circle before laying down to rest? Is turning before laying down still beneficial to the modern dog?

The answer is yes. Dogs are very practical creatures. Their actions are always rooted in a desired result.

Dogs are no different from human beings in that they want their beds to be comfortable. However, their natural instinct plays out far differently than our own. While humans can fluff a pillow or adjust blankets, the modern dog is seeking a den-like space in which to nestle for the night. This takes more than a simple gesture. Circling and turning helps the dog to get his sleeping conditions just right to encourage a restful slumber.

What Do I Do if My Dog’s Circling Becomes Excessive?

At times, dogs will take circling before settling too far. When this occurs, there is typically something wrong with the dog. Dogs that suffer with painful conditions such as arthritis or degenerative disc disease will have a very hard time finding a position that is comfortable. If your dog continually turns but seems unable to find a comfortable place to rest, it may be time to visit your veterinarian for a thorough wellness exam. Often, all it takes is a mild pain medication to help ease the dog’s discomfort, and the circling will return to a normal level of activity prior to assuming a resting position.

Why do dogs turn in a circle before laying down? Though there are many reasons why your dog might indulge in this behavior, the most commonly accepted answer is Fido is simply looking to make himself comfortable.

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