Monday, May 21, 2012

Why Do Dogs Circle Before Lying Down?

By Linda Cole

My first dog, Jack, was an American Eskimo. When he started to get older, I adopted an American Eskimo puppy named Kirby. My mom had an American Eskimo named Heidi. When our dogs were together and we took them outside to do their business, we always enjoyed a ritual they all engaged in. They would spread out and Jack would circle one way, Kirby circled the other way and Heidi matched one of them. They always started to circle at the same time, circled for about a minute and then stopped at the exact same time to do what they needed to do. It was like watching a choreographed dance routine. They also circled before lying down.

Circling is a common practice most dogs do at one time or another. Going around and around before doing their business is one example; however, not all dogs do this. A curious or concerned dog will circle an area to check for the scent of another dog. A dog's nose is always on guard for scents he needs to pay attention to. Few dogs can resist checking out another dog's calling card.

No one knows for sure why dogs circle, but scientists believe it's a hard wired behavior that goes back to before we domesticated dogs. In the wild, there are no doggie beds with soft cushions. Wild dogs had to make their bed wherever they could find a suitable location, and sometimes it was in grassy/weedy areas. Most likely, circling is an instinctive behavior, and a dog circles to flatten the area where he intends to bed down to make it more comfortable.

Another behavior dogs do prior to circling or while in the process of going around and around is to stop every now and then and scratch at the floor or carpet. A couple of my dogs really get into pawing at the carpet, and at times they act like they're trying to dig through the floor. This is another instinctive behavior used to scrape away rocks, twigs, pebbles and other debris from a resting site. Scraping or digging at the ground was also a way to even it out, making the bed more comfortable. Even dogs in the wild appreciate a comfortable place to sleep. In colder climates when dogs had to deal with snow and wind, digging down into the snow and circling to pack it down made for a warmer bed. Digging a small impression in the ground to reach cooler dirt made a cooler bed in the summer.

Circling may have also been used by early dog packs to mark an area as theirs. If a wandering pack came across flattened patches of grass, it was a sign they had stumbled into another pack's territory. Sniffing the resting areas gave the intruding pack information about the dogs that had slept there.

Since no landscaper takes care of the wild lands and keeps the grasses cut short, wild dogs might encounter snakes, insects and other small creatures living in grass and weeds. Circling made it possible for them to check the area they wanted to make a bed in to make sure it was safe from biting insects and snakes. By walking around before settling down, they could catch and kill or chase away anything that could harm them as they slept.

Today, dogs that spend time outside will still dig into the dirt to find cooler soil when it's hot. Some dogs of the North that are used as sled dogs have been known to prefer sleeping in the snow rather than a shelter, and will dig into the snow and then circle to pack it down before curling up for a nap.

Circling isn't a problem for the most part, but if it becomes obsessive and your dog seems to be distressed or upset, his behavior could be a sign something is wrong. Pacing and circling may indicate he's feeling pain or stiffness. Slowness in getting up or lying down could be a sign of arthritis or a pulled muscle. If he has trouble getting comfortable, it's a good idea to have your vet examine him to make sure there isn't a medical problem causing him to circle more than normal.

We may have domesticated dogs thousands of years ago, but some instinctive behaviors from their earlier ancestors still resides in canines today. Your dog may have a nice comfy bed to sleep on, but as far as he's concerned, it's not soft enough until he's had a chance to give it some proper circles to make sure it's just right!

Photo by Outlier Dogs

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. I don't "love" to see my dog do this, but when a dog picks up a scent they want to roll in, they sort of turn their head and push down into the scent. Its a wonderful movement, and I would love to know more about why they roll in something stinky and why the movement? Maybe you could write about that sometime.

    Jo, Stella and Zkhat

  2. I had always read that dogs do that circling to make their bed like you said.I have had only one or two that little exercise. Take care.

  3. Ciara is our circler here, but only when she wants to lie down on the carpet. Phantom is a poop walker:) BOL, he makes his way around quite a bit of the yard before he is done. Wonder what that one means.

    Woos - Blue Eyes, Thunder Dunder, Prissy Sissy, and Flash a.k.a. Phantom, Thunder, Ciara, and Lightning

  4. Fascinating! I've always wondered about that. Sounds like lots of other people have, too. Thanks, Linda!

  5. aw.. Dogs and their weird habits. I think the comfort one makes the most sense, at least for my Border Collies. They often do 4-10 circles before laying down to sleep and it doesn't look like they are smelling for other dogs. Seems more like they are trying to make an even spot for themselves.


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