Why Do Dogs Circle Before Lying Down?

Since sleeping dogs "lie," we asked pet experts for the true story.

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Is there anything more adorable than watching your dog get ready for a nap? First, he digs an imaginary hole in his dog bed (or your bed, or the sofa, or wherever). Then, he circles around, once, twice, maybe even three times before finally plopping down with a deep, contented sigh. The question, however, is: Why do dogs circle before lying down? Here’s what our veterinary experts had to say about what this odd canine nap prep is really all about. You might be surprised to learn the reason is not necessarily the same as why dogs spin around before they poop.

It started with their furry forebearers

Historically, dogs and their evolutionary ancestors slept outside. Circling around before lying down would have served a variety of purposes in that context (which we’ll discuss below). The fact that we’re observing this behavior in dogs that are bedding down indoors indicates the circling behavior is a “fixed action pattern,” explains veterinarian Nicholas H. Dodman, DVM, Professor Emeritus at Tufts University Veterinary School, and the Massachusetts state co-representative for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. In other words, it’s a hardwired evolutionary trait that has not yet evolved out of dogs. Here are some of the purposes circling before laying down may have served (and may continue to serve) dogs that sleep outdoors.

Getting comfy

“Circling around would have helped to trample down any grass or hay or other rough surface into a more comfortable place to sleep,” explains Jamie Richardson, Medical Chief of Staff at Small Door Veterinary in New York City. This theory is popular among experts, but it has rarely been tested scientifically. In fact, the closest we get is an informal experiment run by psychologist Stanley Coren, PhD, who wrote about it in 2016 for Psychology Today. Coren set up exercise pens for 62 dogs. Half of the pens were covered with smooth carpet. The other half were covered with a rougher shag carpet. Observing that the 31 dogs on smooth carpet were less likely to circle around before lying down (and when they did, they made fewer circles), Coren concluded that one motivation for “nap prep” might be creating a smoother surface to sleep on. Still, as Coren acknowledges, that is just one factor that might come into play. By the way, here’s what your dog’s sleeping position will tell you.

Regulating their body temperature

Have you ever noticed that on hot days, your dog might dig a little indentation into the ground before lying down? “Removing the topsoil exposes cooler soil underneath,” explains Susan B. Krebsbach, DVM, of Creature Counseling Veterinary Animal Behavior Consulting Services, and the Wisconsin state representative for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. The circling behavior we see in dogs may be related to that instinct to dig for cooler earth. Likewise, in colder climates, dogs may circle around before curling up into a tight ball to conserve body heat. Thinking about letting your dog sleep in the kitchen? Before you do, learn how to pet-proof your kitchen space.

Identifying predators and unwanted bedmates

Why else do dogs circle before lying down? “Turning around in a circle provides an opportunity to take one last look for potential predators before bedtime,” says Dr. Krebsbach. “Circling can also help a dog to determine the direction of the wind so that he can position his nose in such a way that he can quickly pick up on a threatening scent, even while sleeping.” Circling around his sleeping space, a dog would also have the opportunity to notice and drive out any “unwanted occupants,” including lizards, snakes, and insects.

Searching for stragglers

We all know that dogs are pack animals (but please don’t believe these 13 common “facts” about dogs that are actually not true). Dr. Krebsbach points out that circling around before lying down would provide an opportunity to assess the pack and survey the area for members that may have fallen behind.

Claiming their space

Circling before lying down could also signal to other pack members that “this” particular place is “my” place. That signaling can be both visual and via scent, notes dog trainer Susan Nilson, who explains that dogs have scent glands in their paws. In addition, rubbing their scent around their sleeping area may promote feelings of well-being and security that support a better night’s sleep. Your pup will also love snuggling up in one of these best dog beds for every type of dog.

When to call the vet

Circling before lying down is normal dog behavior, but like everything else, the key is moderation. If you see your dog circling excessively, it could be one of the warning signs your dog is in pain or discomfort, points out Stacy Choczynski, DVM, a veterinary expert at Pumpkin Pet Insurance. For example, excessive circling could be a sign of hip pain or an ear infection. So, if you’re seeing more circling than usual, it’s probably a good idea to reach out to your veterinarian.

In domestic dogs, excessive circling could also be a sign of anxiety, points out Jesus Aramendi, DVM, senior veterinarian at Chewy.com. “If your dog does this constantly, I would recommend consulting your veterinarian to discuss a possible cause and solution,” he says.

Finally, if, along with the circling, you see your female dog gathering household items like stuffed animals and blankets and bringing them to her sleeping area, it could be a sign your dog is pregnant, says Dr. Choczynski. And that definitely merits a consult with your vet. Now that you know why dogs circle before lying down, find out more reasons behind weird canine behavior.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.