Why Dogs Turn Around Before Lying Down

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Why do dogs turn around before lying down?

Dogs, unlike humans, do not just plop down in bed when they are tired. They spend lots of time preparing their bed before snuggling in for the night. Sleepy dogs turn around in circles and do kind of a dance before going to sleep. This bedtime ritual is a bit compulsive and sleep evades them until they complete their nightly dance routine.

How does circling help with survival?

Dog behaviorists believe that a dog’s need to perform the bedtime ritual of turning around in circles before lying down is inherited. Canine ancestors, such as wild wolves, did the same thing, and domestic dogs retained this genetic predisposition. Evolutionary behaviors like this one are aimed at self-preservation and are strong influences that persist for generations in the animal kingdom.

"Dog behaviorists believe that a dog’s need to perform the bedtime ritual of turning around
in circles before lying down is inherited."

Turning in circles before lying down is an act of self-preservation in that the dog may innately know that he needs to position himself in a certain way to ward off an attack in the wild. Some wildlife biologists believe that wolves sleep with their noses to the wind so that they can quickly pick up on a threatening scent. Circling allows the wolf to determine the direction of the wind so that he can best position himself. With a quick whiff, the wolf knows that he may be in danger and is alerted for a potential attack.

Most domestic dogs are pets that sleep in our homes or in another safe, controlled environment. Even though they are not subject to attack by wild animals, our canine friends retained this evolutionary protective trait. So, like their ancestors, our dogs turn around a few times before lying down.

Are there other reasons why my dog may circle before laying down?

There is another evolutionary explanation for this circling behavior. Wild canids (e.g., wolves, foxes, and coyotes) travel in packs that include many family members. The entire group is protective of the members of the pack and is on constant lookout for stragglers. Turning around helps group leaders assess the pack and survey the area for members that may have fallen behind.

Turning in circles also provides an opportunity to take one last look for potential predators before bedtime. So, again, this bedtime rotation is actually a form of self-preservation and protection.

Every pack has an established hierarchy. Some members are more dominant while others are submissive. The bedtime turning routine may also be part of a ritual that identifies a wolf’s place in the pecking order of the pack.

Does circling help my dog get comfortable?

A more basic reason for canine circling is that dogs in the wild do not have the luxury of manufactured doggie beds and pillows. They make their own beds in nature. To make their sleeping quarters more comfortable, dogs pat down tall grass and move prickly underbrush and stickers before lying down. They root out rocks and fallen tree branches. In colder climates, dogs circle to reposition snowbanks.

This “nesting” procedure also uncovers unwanted inhabitants such as snakes or insects. Moreover, changing the layout of an area by moving grass, snow, or leaves indicates to other wild dogs in the area that this particular spot is taken for the night.

Does circling help with animals control their temperature?

Dogs in the wild had no control over weather conditions and had to survive extreme changes in temperature. They could not turn down a thermostat when it was hot or grab a blanket when it was cold, so they adapted by “denning” to moderate the temperature of their sleeping quarters.

"Scratching and turning allowed them to find a
more comfortable temperature for sleeping."

Outdoor dogs in hotter climates scratched at the ground to clear away topsoil and grass that retained and radiated the sun’s warmth. Removing the topsoil exposed cooler soil underneath. Scratching and turning allowed them to find a more comfortable temperature for sleeping.

Wild canids in colder climates circled to wind themselves into tight balls to conserve personal body heat. The tighter the tuck, the warmer the dog. In addition, other pack members gathered together in a tight circle to effectively share body heat. So, the bedtime turning ritual had a biological basis, too.

How does circling help our pet dogs?

These are all good reasons for dogs to circle before lying down in the wild, but how does this relate to our contemporary, domestic dogs that lead comfortable lives within our homes and yards?

The desire for comfort is innate, so one explanation is that our dogs circle before lying down to get their beds just the way they want them. Unlike us, a quick plump of the pillow will not do. But their bedtime ritual is more than that. It is a repeat performance of the actions their ancestors took before going to sleep under the stars.

What if the circling is excessive?

While watching our dogs turn around before bedding down is amusing, it can also be a signal that something is wrong. Dogs that are in pain will circle excessively as they struggle to find a more comfortable position. They may also crouch then rise several times before completely reclining.

If your dog has difficulty settling down even after making several revolutions, consult your veterinarian. Orthopedic disorders like arthritis and neurological disorders, such as spinal cord or back problems can turn the routine nighttime circling into a painful experience. With proper evaluation and therapy, bedtime can once again become a comforting and comfortable ritual.

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