According to experts, their ancestral past explains this common canine behavior.

By Nancy Mattia
May 12, 2020

It's one of life's great mysteries: Why does a dog circle his bed a few times before settling in for sleep? From the time they were adolescents, most dogs—from a three-pound Yorkie to a 100-pound Rottweiler—perform this sort of dance ritual multiple times a day. Is it because they want to mark their spot (even if they're the only pet in the house), or are they just wanting to make things comfortable while they snooze? Here, check out the facts.

A welsh terrier sleeping on a faded floral print armchair
Credit: Andreas von Einsiedel / Getty Images

Circling is in their blood.

Surprisingly, there's no definitive scientific explanation for this common dog behavior. Even so, there is consensus among experts that it's an instinctual canine behavior, says Dr. Paige Smith Harrington, DVM, medical director of emergency and referral services at Vets Pets, a North Carolina-based veterinary hospital network. "It's wired into a dog's brain from his ancestors." Way back in the day when dogs' forefathers were more like wolves, the animals lived and slept in the wild. When it was time to rest, they would choose a spot, and walk round and round on it to flatten any grass and leaves, pack down snow, and drive snakes away. The result: a nice warm, safe space to take a rest.

"Another theory suggests the turning helped determine which direction the wind was blowing so that a wild dog could better detect scents of nearby predators while asleep," says Dr. Harrington. A final supposition is that going in a circle while getting ready to lie down helps the body get into the tightest and warmest ball possible. "All are really smart theories and show how closely related our beloved family pets still are to their wild ancestors," she says. They also help explain why dogs who have who have safe, fluffy beds to sleep in still retain this trait, even though it's not relevant anymore.

What to do if he stops circling.

There may be a problem if your pet's usual routine changes, and he suddenly doesn't do the circling anymore. "It warrants talking with your veterinarian," says Dr. Harrington. "Turning and bending in a circle requires flexible joints and muscles. It's possible that there is underlying pain and tension that your veterinarian can help diagnose and provide treatment for." It's not uncommon for older dogs to develop arthritis.


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