If you’ve watched a fair share of dogs fall asleep you’ve probably asked yourself at some point, “Why do dogs circle before lying down?”. It’s a behavior that many pets (cats and dogs) exhibit and it leaves you feeling curious.
When your dog sleeps in your bed this circling routine can be a little annoying, but it is very common. If you’re concerned that your dog’s circling could be a symptom of an illness, book an appointment with your their vet. Some health concerns like arthritis, obsessive compulsive disorder, and neurological conditions can result in circling behavior but chances are your dog is just restless or doing it out of habit.
This article covers 5 possible reasons why so many dogs walk in circles before lying down and answers some frequently asked questions, like what to do if your dog is circling excessively.
Let's get started!
Reasons Your Dog Circles Before Lying Down
The question, “Why does my dog circle before lying down?” has interested enough people that it actually made it into a quirky book by Andrew Thompson called Can Holding in a Fart Kill You?: Over 150 Curious Questions and Intriguing Answers. From this and other resources including an article by Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, we’ve compiled a list of the top 5 explanations for why dogs circle before lying down.
This video also provides a good summary of the behavior and what to do about it:
1. It’s an evolutionary behavior of protection/self-preservation
From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that a dog or wolf going to sleep in the wild would check out its surroundings to make sure it’s safe first.
Turning in a full circle allows animals to do a visual and auditory check of their surroundings, and also position themselves in the wind so they can smell any approaching predators.
One theory states that dogs circled to push down long grass, creating a ring of tall grass around them to keep them out of sight from predators.
2. It’s something pack leaders did to observe
Our dogs’ ancestors were pack animals. One possible reason why some dogs display this circling behavior and others do not is because it distinguished leaders from the rest of the pack.
While pack members walked or slept, leaders would take up the head and the rear to protect the group. Circling around would help them keep an eye on both potential predators and their pack, especially young or old members.
Dogs with separation anxiety also often make repetitive movements, such as running in circles. This is not to be confused when circling around just before lying down to go to sleep. It's important to differentiate since the former is a behavioral issue and there could be several things that can cause anxiety in your dog.
3.In the wild, circling helped your dog’s ancestors make a cozy place to sleep
If a wolf tried to sleep in a place where the sun was shining all day, the ground would be pretty warm. By walking in circles wolves could pat down grass, clear the area, and possibly dig up the first layer of soil to make themselves a cooler and softer place to sleep.
The opposite is also true. In snowy climates, walking in circles may have helped your dog’s ancestors warm up a little before lying down in a bed made of patted down snow.
This circling would also help clear out any snakes, insects, and other smaller animals in the area where a dog and its pack were setting up for the night.
4. It’s a way for dogs to mark their sleeping territory
Even if your dog doesn’t burrow or dig, walking in circles usually makes their spot on the bed or couch pretty easy to see.
They might wear down the area or leave their hair all over. (This pet hair remover is great for keeping your furniture clean and fur-free, by the way!).
In the wild, one function of circling may have been for dogs and wolves to show others in the group a spot that they claimed for themselves. By pacing in a circle, they could stake out a larger spot for themselves to sleep amongst the pack.
5. Modern dogs just do it to make themselves a comfortable bed
If you’re looking for a simple explanation that doesn’t involve your dog inheriting it’s behaviors from ancestors, this one is for you.
It’s totally possible that your dog only circles before lying down because it helps them get comfortable. Just like some humans toss and turn before finally falling asleep, your dog might be over-tired, restless, or taking their time to get their bed prepared just right.
So, What Explanation Is the Right One?
Unfortunately, we may never know exactly why dogs do this circling act except that many believe it is carried over from when dogs had to sleep outside.
If your dog walks in circles and appears disorientated, it's important to call your vet. There are two reasons for this behavior which is common in older dogs - canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome or canine vestibular disease. He should receive immediate medical attention.
Of course, your dog doesn’t need to do this for protection or comfort anymore.
Habits like this that served a survival function in the past tend to stick around even after the circumstances have changed. Sort of how humans are still very scared of things like heights, snakes, and spiders even though we typically aren’t in danger from them anymore.
Besides looking at past and current behavior, we don’t have a lot to go on in terms of pinning down one single answer. One Reddit user made the point that if a puppy/dog who was raised in isolation does this, then you can assume it is an ingrained behavior and not one that is learned.
One study of 62 domesticated dogs conducted by Stanley Coren, PhD, found that dogs were almost three times more likely to circle before lying down on an uneven surface like a thick shag rug compared to a more uniform, even surface like smooth carpet. In a way this makes sense because of how uneven the ground outside can be.
If you buy your dog a warm, soft bed to lay on and suddenly they don’t circle before lying down as much, it could mean that your dog was just struggling to get comfortable.
The main thing to keep in mind is that this is a normal behavior. If it’s within reason, you should let your dog continue to do their thing without interfering.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it normal for dogs to circle before lying down?
Circling before lying down is a normal thing for dogs to do, although not all dogs do this. Some dogs prefer to burrow or dig to find a cozy spot to sleep and others simply plop down wherever. If you notice your dog always does a few circles before laying down don’t worry, it isn’t hurting them in any way.
While there isn’t one single scientifically proven reason that dogs do this, experts have pointed to several possible explanations for this behavior. The two simplest are that it’s a habit carried on through evolution because it served a useful purpose or it may just be a thing your dog does to get comfortable.
Are some breeds more prone to circling than others?
While no one has studied this topic extensively, some breeds may be prone to different characteristics that make them more or less likely to do this circling thing.
For example, one Reddit user cited a source that suggests that dachshunds are burrowers. Instead of circling before lying down they like to shimmy under the covers and lay next to their owners’ feet.
When should I start to worry about my dog circling?
Dogs are excellent at pretending they’re okay and putting on a brave face when they’re in pain. If your dog never circled like this before but starts abruptly and spins in circles - you know something has changed. For aging dogs especially, early detection can make a big difference when it comes to pain management and maintaining quality of life.
As we mentioned before, normal circling behavior before lying down is nothing to worry about. However, if your dog really struggles to get comfortable when resting, a trip to the vet is recommended.
What should I do if my dog circles too much?
Sometimes dogs circle so much that it can make it harder for you to fall asleep. They can also start to ruin your furniture with their repetitive movements in one area.
According to Dog Training for Dummies:
“You may have to intervene when he’s tearing up your bedspread or your couch. If that should happen, you need to deny him access to the bed or couch, or consider covering them with something that you don’t mind being destroyed".
This could mean buying a mattress or sofa cover to protect your furniture investment, and also throwing a thick old blanket where your dog tends to circle to keep the protector from getting ripped.
If your pet turns in circles excessively before lying down and seems to struggle to sleep on your furniture, another option is to invest in a comfortable dog bed. Depending on your dog’s age they may be suffering from pain that you’re not aware of. Other dogs may just enjoy a soft, cushioned bed to snuggle up in!
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