Why Do Dogs Walk in Circles Before Bed?

Pacing in circles is a biologically driven behavior in dogs.
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You fluff your pillow and arrange the sheets and blankets on your bed just so. It’s all part of getting comfortable for rest -- and it’s similar to the behavior your pup exhibits before lying down. The circular patterns tread over and over by dogs are a biological remnant of their ancestors’ days in the wild.

Denning Behaviors

Before dogs were domesticated, they made use of their natural surroundings to find a comfy place to rest. Biologists theorize that circular walking helped tamp down grass, brush or leaves into a more hospitable sleeping nook. The process of walking in confined circles may have also helped wild dogs discover silent threats -- like snakes or bugs -- hidden in their planned resting spot, according to “Mental Floss” magazine.

Fixed Action Patterns

Although some biological explanations for circular walking seem self-evident, there is little that scientists can do to test the behavior in a controlled experiment, according to a report by biologist Sue Anne Zollinger for “A Moment of Science,” an Indiana Public Media podcast. Zollinger notes that such circling is an example of what biologists call a fixed action pattern -- an instinctive behavior demonstrated across a species.

Other Theories

Other theories attempt to explain how this ritualistic pattern came to be biologically hard-wired in dogs. Zollinger highlights one, which postulates that circling helps dogs test the direction of the wind, so they might align their bodies -- and noses -- toward it. Another suggests the maneuvering is simply a way for dogs to draw their bodies into a compact circle for temperature regulation and protection.

Social Implications

Circular pacing may have been another way dogs marked their territory in the past, according to a report by “Mental Floss” science writer Matt Soniak. This behavior would have come into play in pack settings, to claim one’s own space for sleeping. Having a designated spot may have helped dogs establish their place in the pack hierarchy.

Excessive Circling

It’s common for dogs to circle their beds or favorite spots on the floor at least two or three times before lying down. Sometimes, they may sniff and paw or dig at the ground during this process, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. If your dog is circling excessively or cannot seem to find a comfortable position and is growing restless, this may be a sign of underlying pain. Consult a veterinarian who can diagnose the cause of such issues.