Dog behaviorists believe that a dog’s need to perform the bedtime ritual of turning around in circles before lying down is inherited. Canine ancestors like wild wolves did the same thing, and domestic dogs retained this genetic predisposition. Evolutionary behaviors like this one are aimed at self-preservation and are strong influences that persist for generations in the animal kingdom.
- Turning in circles before lying down is an act of self-preservation in that the dog may innately know that he needs to position himself in a certain way to ward off an attack in the wild. Some wildlife enthusiasts believe that wolves sleep with their noses to the wind so that they can quickly pick up on a threatening scent. Circling allows the wolf to determine the direction of the wind so that he can best position himself. With a quick whiff, the wolf knows that he may be in danger and is alerted for a potential attack.
- Most domestic dogs are pets that sleep in our homes or in another safe, controlled environment. Even though they aren’t subject to attack by wild animals, our canine friends retained this evolutionary protective trait. So, like their ancestors, our dogs turn around a few times before lying down.
- Doggy beds and pillows haven’t always been around, so wild dogs had to pat down tall grass and underbrush to make a comfortable bed for themselves and their pups. The easiest way to prepare that night’s sleeping area was by walking around in a circle.
- The rounding ritual may also have served as a safety precaution. “In the wild, the circling would flatten grasses or snow and would drive out any snakes or large insects,” said Irvine, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in the role of animals in society.
- While research on this specific aspect of dog behavior is limited, one study of 62 pet dogs conducted by Stanley Coren, PhD, author of “Understanding Your Dog for Dummies”, provides some clarity on the issue. The dogs napped on either a smooth surface (a uniform, indoor-outdoor type carpeting) or an uneven surface (a thick shag rug). The dogs were nearly three times more likely to circle before lying down on the shag rug than they were on the smooth, even carpeting. Several dogs on the shag carpet scratched or pawed as well as circling, but none of the dogs on the smooth carpet did.
- A total of 62 pet dogs were tested (31 for each of the surfaces). The dogs’ owners simply placed their dogs in the exercise pen, and turned and walked away to the far side of the room where they sat down and read a magazine or drank coffee for up to 15 minutes. The experimenter, who was seated on a chair next to the owner, observed the dogs and noted their behavior when they decided to lay down. Whether the dog turned a full circle before lying down was noted, and those instances where more than one rotation occurred were also noted.
- The results were rather straightforward. On the smooth surface, roughly one out of every five dogs (19 percent) turned at least one full circle before laying down. On the shag-carpeted, uneven surface, more than half of the dogs (55 percent) turned at least one full circle before they finally rested. That means to say that the dogs were nearly 3 times more likely to circle before laying down on the uneven surface than on the smooth surface. That is a large difference which is statistically significant.*
- Furthermore, if we look at the number of dogs who circled more than once before laying down, we find only one who did so on the smooth surface, as compared to 19 percent of the dogs who circled more than one full rotation before they went down on the uneven surface. Although no specific count was kept, several dogs on the uneven shag carpet also poked or dug at the surface before circling, and this behavior was never observed for the dogs on the smooth surface.
- Thus it appears that when dogs are presented with a soft, uneven surface, they are more likely to turn in circles before they lie down. Obviously this particular set of data cannot say that that is the only reason that dogs turn in circles before resting, but it does indicate that one reason that dogs are spinning about is to make themselves a more comfortable temporary “nest” to nap in.