There are few things more adorable than watching your pup curl up in a little ball to fall asleep. Why does your dog feel the need to make a few circles before finally laying down, though? Is this a normal behavior, or should you be concerned?
Most professionals believe that, while there may be a few reasons for this behavior, circling before lying down is an instinct passed down from dogs' wild ancestors.
By making a circle, a wolf, coyote, or wild dog can survey all of their surroundings. They can get one last look at everything around them to ensure there are no potential predators in the immediate vicinity. They can also make one final check on all the other members of the family unit, ensuring that everyone is safe and sound. Making a full circle also allows a wild dog to determine where the wind is coming from. If they can determine this they can sleep with their nose to the wind, so that they can smell the scent of any predators before the predator can smell them.
Making a Comfortable Resting Spot
Wolves and coyotes don't have the soft, cushy beds and blankets that our dogs get the luxury of sleeping on. They have to make do with fields and forest floor. Walking around in circles can tamp down tall grasses, collect pine needles into a soft place to lay, or even rustle out any insects or wildlife hiding in the brush. Pets at home may have plenty of beds and blankets, but that doesn't stop them from trying to make their posh pet bed just a teensy bit more comfortable. When your dog makes a circle before laying down he may be instinctively trying to make a cozy area to sleep in.
By tamping down all the vegetation by circling, a wild dog can also clearly mark a specific spot as their own so that all other animals in the family unit know that it is spoken for.
Wolves and coyotes have lived in all sorts of climates, ranging from mountain cold to desert heat. Those that have to sleep in the snow will frequently combine circling with digging up the snow. By piling up snow around the edges of where they will sleep, they can not only save themselves from sleeping on top of the cold snow, but they can also use the snow as insulation from the cold temperatures around them. Circling also enables wolves and coyotes in colder areas to curl up in a tight ball with their nose tucked under their tails. It's not just adorable, it also conserves body temperature to sleep this way. Alternatively, wolves and coyotes that have to sleep in warmer climates may combine circling with digging up the dirt. By doing this, they can turn the soil so that they are sleeping on soil that is much cooler than the dirt that was getting baked in the sun all day.
When Should You Be Concerned?
For the most part, circling before laying down is a completely normal, completely benign dog behavior. What if your dog seems to circle excessively or what if they start to circle more? If your dog has any neurological or orthopedic conditions, such as osteoarthritis, your dog may start circling more than they once did. This can be because finding a comfortable sleeping position may be increasingly difficult. Providing your dog with supportive, orthopedic dog beds and proper joint and pain medications can help make your dog more comfortable and can help lessen their excessive circling.
Some dogs can also suffer from obsessive compulsive disorders, such as tail chasing and trancing. If your dog is prone to compulsive, ritualistic behaviors, they may start to circle excessively as another manifestation of their obsessive compulsive disorder. Discussing this behavior with your veterinarian or a veterinary behavior specialist is the first step in the path to helping your dog.
While science doesn't give us a definitive answer for why dogs circle before they lay down, there are some pretty logical hypotheses for the origin of this behavior. If you're concerned that your dog's circling may be due to pain or may be indicative of a compulsive disorder, speak to your veterinarian.