The bedtime ritual of circling is a curious behaviour displayed by most dogs before they settle down for a nap. A dog might do a single turn or circle multiple times before finally dropping into their desired position. This will often be accompanied by a digging or scratching action. No one knows for sure why dogs do this but canine behaviour experts believe that it’s a genetic survival instinct dating right back to prehistoric times.
Before domestication, wild dogs had to make their own beds and the act of nesting was vital for self-preservation. With no blanket-lined baskets or sofa spaces on offer to them, the most comfortable option for a good night’s sleep was a small flat area in the undergrowth. To make a cosy nest, a dog would circle on the spot to flatten the long grass with his feet.
The act of nesting is also a way of staying warm or cool in extreme temperatures. If it’s very cold, a grassy nest will offer warmth and by circling and tucking up tight, a dog will be able to conserve body heat. Conversely, if it is very hot, a wild dog will dig down to remove the top layer of soil while circling to uncover a cooler surface to lie on.
Sleeping in the wild is a dangerous activity and puts an animal in a very vulnerable position. Instinctively, an animal will ensure they are in the safest possible position in case another animal should wish to attack them while they sleep. Dens helps with this and wildlife experts believe that wolves purposely sleep with their noses towards the wind so they can smell trouble coming and be forewarned of a potential attack.
Some threats to wild dogs lurk below and it is thought that the act of circling and flattening an area of grass will drive out any snakes or large insects that could deliver a nasty bite or sting if sat on. There is another theory that the act of flattening the undergrowth before settling is a sign of claiming territory, indicating to other dogs that a particular patch has been taken.
As wild dogs live and travel in packs, like a large family, they always look out for one another. It could be that circling is a way of checking that all of the pack is present before settling down for the night.
Genetic behaviour such as this passes down through generations and is hard-wired into the canine brain. Despite there no longer being a need for this kind of self-preservation, pet dogs continue these instinctive routines before bed. However, we know that pet dogs love a comfy spot so it could be that nesting behaviour has continued so that they can make their beds just the way they like them. Digging into a blanket or spinning on a cushion before dropping could be viewed in the same way as us plumping our pillows at night to get comfortable.
While circling before settling is a normal canine behaviour, if your dog is doing so excessively or seems unable to find a satisfactory sleeping position, it could be that they are suffering with some degree of discomfort or pain. If this is the case, get your dog checked over by a vet to make sure there are no back problems or joint issues that could be causing them bother.