It’s an odd and amusing sight to see when your dog will walk in circles before lying down. Whether it’s on their own bed, outside, or a random patch of ground, they do it quite often. Despite that it might look strange to many dog owners, it’s actually a perfectly normal behavior. The action even originates from their ancient ancestors.
When in the wild, animals such as wolves will create beds before they sleep for any length of time. This behavior is called nesting. This is common for domesticated dogs even when they have a human made ‘bed’. It’s a behaved that has been carried down since before the dogs were domesticated, stemming from habits we can observe in wolves as a practical and ritualistic behavior.
In the wild, a canine will do this to flatten down the grass or tamp down the snow, depending on the weather or the season. This serves to create a level of comfort by flattening the surface as well as creating a circle of warmth. Domesticated dogs will circle their beds for a similar reason.
This is why the behavior is seen as more ritualistic in domesticated dogs than practical. Dogs will circle a spot before lying down even if there is nothing to flatten, such as a carpeted floor, or even a wood floor. Even if it is a dog bed, and should be comfortable whether they ‘flatten’ it or not, it is something that has become instinct.
When the ancestral benefits of doing this are actually fulfilled, then the dog is acknowledging the worth of the act. Whether it is inherited by genetics or learned early on, almost all dogs do it. However, there is no cause for concern if this is a habit your dog doesn’t partake in. The same goes for a dog who does this sporadically.
That the behavior is comfort has root in the nature and habits of wild dogs. Often times sleeping in grass fields or in the woods, there is not always a perfectly comfortable spot of land for them to sleep on. Flattening the grass will provide a make-shift bed of sorts for the dog. This behavior is likely passed on instinctively.
It is also possible that the behavior is not for bedding and ‘softness’ comfort, but for temperature comfort. When it is hot weather, it is common for dogs to dig holes and sleep in said holes. Circling may be done to expose a layer of cooler dirt in the wild, and the instinct to do so is passed on.
The idea that this behavior is largely instinctual is very common. The idea is that dogs do this because it instinctively ‘feels right’. While the notion may sound a bit vague and perhaps silly, it is something all animals have. Even humans have instincts that are not necessary for our survival, or even for our comfort, but we do anyways. While this varies from person to person, it also varies from dog to dog.
This comes from the pack nature of wolves. They would lie down to sleep in tight circles in order to generate heat, comfort and security from one another. Body heat from their sleeping neighbor would keep both of them warm and it is common to see domesticated dogs wanting to cuddle. Also, if another member of the pack was attacked or in distress, it would alert the group.
It is also possible that dogs do this to establish their territory. Before they go to sleep, they are marking the spot as theirs with their natural scent markers on the pads of their feet. This also orients them in the circle, identifying it as theirs even to themselves.
Dogs are not the only animal that engages in odd rituals before they sleep. Cats kneed, for example, and humans have various habits before going to sleep. Whether it is purely instinctual or they are actually trying to get comfort, it is a habit of many dogs that they will carry out almost every time. Many dogs do not even seem to think about doing it, and this is very likely true. There is no reason for any dog owner to be afraid to see their dog doing this, save for excessive circling (most dogs do it on average of three circles before lying down, though sometimes they may do more). Excessive circling is more likely to be an issue in the dog’s comfort rather than anything else.