For many of us, settling down for the night may involve putting on some soothing music, turning on a fan, and plumping and positioning the pillows to be just right. Dogs also have complex and important nighttime rituals that help them feel safe and ready to sleep. It can be distracting and even annoying to be all settled down for sleep, only to have your dog jump on the bed and circle and scratch at the bedding for several minutes.
But this is a normal part of dog behavior, although in some cases it might signal something more serious. It is always important to observe and be familiar with your dog’s normal behavior, so you can quickly identify when things change and you may need to seek veterinary care for your dog.
Why Do Dogs Scratch the Bed?
Dogs most often scratch their beds and circle several times at night before settling down to sleep, although they can also exhibit this behavior during the day prior to taking a nap. Experts in animal behavior believe that this behavior in dogs hearkens back to their wild ancestors and has been retained in the domestic dogs with whom we share our homes. Scratching the bed is likely related to several strategies for defense and comfort that enhance your dogs’ sense of safety and wellbeing.
Your dog’s wild ancestors lived very different lives, and they faced daily struggles for survival that included evading larger predators, protecting the pack, and acquiring food. Going to sleep could be dangerous without taking the proper precautions, and circling and scratching an area before bedding down may have had several protective functions.
Circling may allow a dog to scan the entire environment and identify any potential threats before laying down. Dogs within a pack may also circle to position themselves among the other dogs. Scratching will mark a dog’s scent, thus conveying the message to any other animals that the territory is occupied.
These protective and defensive strategies may persist in domestic dogs on an instinctive level, leading them to continue to exhibit the behaviors despite the safety of their homes from predators and other threats.
Dogs in the wild slept on grass, leaves, and various other natural substrates. In order to create a comfortable bed, dogs would scratch and trample down the area with their feet and paws, flattening spiky vegetation and removing rocks and sticks, to create a comfortable bed. This is called nesting, and it likely wasn’t only about comfort. Nesting behavior also startled snakes, insects, and small rodents from the area and kept dogs safe from being bitten or stung when they lay down.
Like wild dogs before him, your dog scratches and circles to arrange his bedding and blankets and create a soft, pleasing area to sleep in, as well as to ensure no unwanted guests, like insects, are present in his bed.
Dogs in the wild scratch at their sleeping areas to help with temperature control when it’s too hot or cold. Unlike domestic dogs, who live in our homes, wild dogs have to create their own shelter sometimes from limited options. When it’s very cold, dogs will scratch and circle to reshape snowbanks to make an area of warmth in which they can lie down. They will also circle to position their bodies into a tight ball to retain heat.
In hot weather, dogs will scratch away the surface layer of soil or other substrate, which holds more heat, to the cooler layers underneath. They then lay down and allow the deeper soil to keep their bodies cool.
Your dog may scratch at bedding for the same reasons—to arrange the bedding for optimal warmth or coolness.
How to Stop Dogs Scratching the Bed
Scratching the bed is completely normal behavior in dogs. You should never attempt to stop this behavior or correct your dog. However, sometimes intense and ongoing scratching can indicate a problem like anxiety or pain.
If your dog is under stress, for example from a move or a new person or animal added to the home, scratching may intensify because he is anxious and feels the need to mark his territory. Scratching that is frequent, at unusual times, or that coincides with being left alone and other destructive behaviors may be an indication of separation anxiety, in which case a veterinarian should be consulted.
Dogs that circle and scratch repeatedly and take a long time to lay down and settle into a satisfactory position may be suffering from arthritic pain. If this is the case, your veterinarian can assist with a pain management plan to increase your dog’s comfort.
The next time your dog jumps on your bed and proceeds to vigorously scratch and circle before lying down, recognize this as a time-honored ritual he’s inherited from his ancestors and an important way to express his inherent “dogness.” And if you notice any changes to your dog’s nighttime ritual, including excessive scratching and circling and difficulty lying down, be sure to schedule a veterinary visit to assess for pain and other underlying issues.