Have you ever watched your dog twist, turn, and walk in circles before lying down? This can be amusing, enduring, and sometimes silly. Many dogs will circle over the same area on their beds before finally lying down and going to sleep. But what’s the reasoning behind this repetitive twisting and turning? Is it simply a habit or is there a deeper reason behind it?

Well, it turns out that nobody really knows for sure why dogs spin in circles before lying down. But that doesn’t stop people from speculating!

Evolutionary Reasons

Some people think that the spinning behavior is due to evolution. Although our pet dogs have adapted to living in our comfortable homes, they still have some survival instincts from their wild ancestors.

“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,” writes Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, DVM and co-owner of The Animal Center in Zachary, Louisiana.

Wolves and other canine ancestors had to check their surroundings for possible threats before settling down to rest. They did this for security reasons, which seems logical.

A Way to Assess the Pack

There’s another evolutionary explanation for this spinning behavior, and it has to do with traveling in packs. Your dog’s wild ancestors traveled in packs that included many family members.

“The entire group is protective of the members of the pack and is on constant lookout for stragglers,” Buzhardt points out. “Turning around helps group leaders assess the pack and survey the area for members that may have fallen behind.”

It also provided an additional opportunity to look for potential predators before settling down to sleep.

Getting Comfortable

Another sensible suggestion is that dogs in the wild had to circle around in order to get comfortable. Dogs had to make their own beds or “nests” to sleep in. They would do this by trampling down tall grass or brush in the area, which would help uncover any stones or twigs. This also helped uncover unwanted insects, snakes, or vermin.

“Moreover, changing the format of an area by moving grass, snow, or leaves indicates to other wild dogs in the area that this particular spot is taken for the night,” Buzhardt explains.

What Does Science Say?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much scientific research out there about this circling behavior in dogs. Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC looked through published research and couldn’t find any studies that addressed this spinning behavior in dogs. So Coren decided to collect some of his own data.

Coren said, “I wanted to test the idea that the dogs were turning around in circles to flatten out the area where they wanted to rest and essentially build themselves a little nest.”

So he set up an experiment by setting up an exercise pen and placing it in the corner of a large room. The floor of the pen was covered by either a flat, densely woven carpet or loosely woven shag carpet which was placed in the pen with no attempt at smoothing out wrinkles and lumps. Because the first carpet was flat and densely woven, it wouldn’t need much trampling down. The loosely woven carpet would mimic an uneven surface in the wild.

Owners placed their dogs into the pen, and an experimenter observed the dogs’ behavior.

The results? Dogs were nearly 3 times more likely to circle before lying down on the uneven surface than on the smooth surface.

“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% of the dogs who circled more than one full rotation before they went down on the uneven surface,” Cohen pointed out.

Of course, this is only one experiment, so we can’t say that it is the only reason dogs walk in circles before lying down. But it does give evidence that one reason dogs spin around is to make themselves a more comfortable area to sleep in.

Excessive Circling

If your dog’s circling behavior is excessive, you should consult your vet. It can sometimes be a sign of arthritis or back problems. Dogs that are in pain may circle excessively because they can’t find a comfortable position.

Otherwise, your dog’s circling behavior is probably similar to you fluffing your pillow or readjusting to get comfortable!