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This answer was provided by one of our fantastically generous readers, Max G.
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The phrase “running in circles” for humans loosely means doing a lot yet getting nothing done. But did you know that when dogs circle before lying down, it is actually for several good reasons and accomplishes a lot?
There are few things more satisfying than falling into bed at the end of a long day. Humans usually lie down, maybe fluff a pillow a couple of times, and fall asleep right away (or, you know, after several hours of binge-watching and Internet surfing).
But as you’ve probably noticed, dogs have a funny habit of circling around a spot, digging and poking at it, and fluffing it up just right until they can settle in for slumber.
If you have ever wondered why your dog has to turn around exactly six and a half times before finally resting, check out the reasons and explanations for this quirky behavior below.
It may be hard to believe that your chihuahua fur baby is descended from wolves, but it’s true.
Dogs inherit the survival instincts of their wolf ancestors, and that includes pack mentality and checking for safety.
When your dog is circling and looking around before bed, it may be his protective instincts to check for predators and possible surprise attacks, or even threatening-looking weather.
They could also be scanning the area in search of missing pack members. Your dog’s funny quirk is really his way of looking out for you and himself!
Dogs in the wild are not protected from the weather and a range of temperatures, so they had to adapt.
In hot weather, digging up the top layer of soil before lying down unearths a cooler layer beneath that is more comfortable for a dog to sleep on a warm night.
When it’s cold outside, circling and curling into a tight ball helps dogs trap in body heat and stay warm.
Have you heard the story of the princess and the pea? Well, dogs can be sensitive sleepers, too.
Another reason dogs circle and dig in their sleep area is to even out their sleeping surface.
Studies show (yes, there have been studies done on dog circling) that dogs are significantly more likely to circle on an uneven surface, such as a shag carpet or pile of blankets, than a smooth surface.
Think of it as the dog equivalent to fluffing up a pillow before laying your head to rest.
Nesting isn’t just for birds and pregnant women! Circling for nesting purposes relates again to the instincts dogs inherited from their wild ancestors.
Dogs in the wild do not have cozy dog beds and human mattresses to snooze on. Instead, they had to make their own beds.
Circling and digging is a way to stir up and remove unwanted critters from where your dog is trying to make his bed for the night. This is for comfort and also to remove any dangers, like snakes or poisonous insects.
Dogs often sleep in tall grass in the wild, and circling flattens the grass out and makes it more comfortable. Flattening grass and moving leaves and twigs around is also a territorial sign that this spot is claimed for the night.
Circling also releases more of the dog’s scent, further claiming the territory.
Hear me out on this one. It might sound crazy, but dogs are more sensitive than humans to variations in the earth’s magnetic field.
Dogs have a preferred direction to face when settling in for the night. They feel the need to circle until it feels right according to their internal compass.
This also at least partially accounts for why dogs can be particular about where they do their bathroom business.
Research (again, yes, there is actual scientific research about this) shows that dogs prefer to defecate with their bodies in alignment with the north-south axis.
I already knew my dogs are geniuses, but this is Mensa-level intelligence! And I thought I was taking high-tech bathrooms breaks by purchasing a Squatty Potty!
While circling before lying down is perfectly normal and usually not a sign of a need for concern, excessive or unusual circling can be a sign of a problem.
If your dog is circling more than normal, or whining and whimpering while circling, this could mean he is in pain and cannot get comfortable.
He may be circling to try to find the most comfortable position and can’t find one because he is injured or sick.
It could also be a sign of illnesses you can’t detect, such as arthritis or a neurological problem. Trouble lying down or getting up are also causes for concern.
Excessive circling can be a sign of anxiety in dogs as well, and that they do not feel safe in their sleeping environment. If you notice prolonged or unusual circling, check your dog for signs of injury or illness.
If you can’t determine the cause of his distress and the excessive circling persists, take your dog to the vet.
Ultimately, dog circling before lying down (or eliminating) is perfectly normal behavior with many evolutionary and scientific reasons behind it.
Do not discourage your dog from his circling routine as he is only following his natural instincts. Not being able to circle could make him feel insecure and unsafe, not to mention out of the proper magnetic field alignment!
If your dog’s circling or digging is bothering you in some way, make sure his nails are trimmed (which is important for his health anyway!) to keep his claws from damaging your furniture.
You only need to be concerned if your dog is circling much more than he normally does and can’t seem to get comfortable.