Skip to main content

Why do dogs turn in circles before lying down? The answer goes back centuries

Dogs do so many quirky things, from chewing on everything in sight to kicking up the grass after relieving themselves. No matter how many times pet parents witness these acts, though, it’s hard to tell exactly why they do what they do. Even their bedtime rituals can leave owners guessing. For example, why do dogs turn in circles before they lie down?

Even though animal behaviorists have only recently started looking into these questions, the answers already make sense. After all, there’s a lot to learn from the wolves and wild dogs our four-legged friends evolved from. It’s certainly possible that we don’t know all the factors that affect a dog’s circling behavior, but here’s what we know so far.

A small beige dog sleeps curled up on the ground
Andy-OSK98 / Shutterstock

Why do dogs turn in circles before lying down?

If you’ve noticed your pup turning in a circle or two to get comfy before a nap, there’s no cause to be alarmed. As odd as this behavior is, it’s also completely normal. There are actually several reasons why they do it.

For comfort

A quick circle or two before lying down might look like your dog’s attempt at getting comfortable—and it very well may be! The SPCA of Texas notes that turning, as well as pawing and kicking, can be your pup’s version of “denning” behaviors, wherein they make the space as comfy as possible before settling down.

A 2016 behavioral study further supports this theory. According to the University of British Columbia’s Professor Emeritus Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC, findings concluded that dogs were significantly more likely to circle at least once before lying down on an uneven space, like a shag carpet. He concluded that circling may help pups flatten out textured surfaces to create a perfect “nest” for resting.

Temperature control

In the wild, denning behaviors can help dogs find an ideal temperature for sleeping. The SPCA of Texas also notes that to cool off, a dog will walk in circles and scratch away the top layer of grass and soil, exposing the cooler ground beneath. In cold weather, a dog may circle to help themselves “ball up” and preserve body heat. Packs might even ball up together!

Pack relationship

Though it hasn’t been confirmed, according to VCA Hospitals, it’s possible that a dog or wolf’s circling behaviors are related to their place in the social hierarchy of the pack. It’s unclear which actions denote seniority and which show submissiveness, perhaps since this phenomenon can only be observed in a pack setting.

It’s also likely that circling before lying down gives a dog one last chance to look around before settling down for the night. They can make sure every member of the pack is present and accounted for—whether their pack is made up of a dozen wolves or a couple of humans.

Looking out for predators and pets

As pups circle and survey their surroundings, they’ll want to ensure no predators are nearby before settling in for a nap. They may do this visually with a quick, 360-degree scan as they circle once or twice, or they may position themselves with their nose to the wind, according to VCA Hospitals. By doing this, a dog will be able to get a whiff of a predator from far away. That means more time to alert the pack and get everyone to safety.

Dr. Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia also notes that circling may have served an additional purpose in the wild. As a dog steps around, the vibrations against the ground were likely useful in chasing away pests, bugs, and vermin that may have inhabited their sleeping spot.

A beagle puppy sleeps on a white bed
New Africa / Shutterstock

Why does my dog circle excessively?

Though circling may have served a vital purpose in the wild, it’s not as essential for a pet. There are no predators to look out for or vermin to chase away, but the instinct to circle may still be present. And that’s fine! Circling can be a way of getting comfortable, but if you notice your dog circling more than four or five times every time they lie down, you may want to look into some alternative reasons.

VCA Hospitals points out that if your pup seems uncomfortable, they may be suffering from joint discomfort or canine arthritis. Neurological conditions like a spinal cord injury can cause restlessness and the inability to settle down, so be sure to keep an eye on your dog’s body language and rest patterns if anything seems off.

Circling is perfectly normal

Let’s circle back ourselves. It’s completely normal for a dog to turn in a circle once or twice before lying down for a nap. It’s a deep-rooted instinct that stems from ancient survival tactics, though it’s more often used as a way for today’s pets to get comfy. Every now and again, circling can be a sign of a larger problem, but the vast majority of the time it’s just another doggy quirk to appreciate.

Editors' Recommendations

Gabrielle LaFrank
Gabrielle LaFrank has written for sites such as Psych2Go, Elite Daily, and, currently, PawTracks. When she's not writing, you…
Why do dogs cough? What you need to know
The reasons behind your coughing pooch
A small brown dog lying on the back of a sofa in mid-yawn

As a dog owner, it can be easy to worry whenever your furry friend starts exhibiting symptoms of ill health. From reverse sneezing to a loss of appetite, just about any new change could make a pet parent keep an eye out. We all want the best for our furry friends, of course, but we don't always know what it means when a new symptom comes up.
For example, you may be asking yourself, 'Why is my dog coughing?' It's no secret that there are lots of causes behind canine coughing (not to be confused with reverse sneezing), but it's not always clear what to look for. Fortunately, we're here to explain several of the most common causes of dog coughing and what each case may look like. Hopefully, you'll have more answers soon!

Why is my dog coughing like something is stuck in his throat?
If your dog's persistent cough sounds dry and hacking, or even like a spasm or wheeze, your pooch might be suffering from tracheal collapse. This happens when a dog's trachea, or windpipe, becomes "soft and floppy." It's more common among flat-faced dog breeds like boxers, Shih Tzus, and pugs, but it can also occur in dogs who are overweight or who suffer from allergies. It worsens in hot temperatures or during exercise,

Read more
Why do cats hate dogs? The answer isn’t all that simple
This is why your dog and cat may not be best friends
A cat and Yorkie playing

"They’re fighting like cats and dogs" is a euphemism often used to describe sibling rivalries, marital strife, or disagreements among company executives. However, it stems from the idea that two of the world’s most popular companion animals, dogs and cats, prefer to feud with one another over forming friendships.

For folks who are distinctly "dog people," "cat people," or "not-into-either people," whether this idea is accurate or not is irrelevant. For those who love — or have — both dogs and cats, it’s essential to determine: Why do cats hate dogs? Better question: Do cats truly hate dogs, or is this cliche a rumor?

Read more
Why do dogs cry? The 5 most common reasons
Is crying a real thing with dogs? Find out here
A dog lies on the floor making sad eyes up at the camera

One of the best parts of dog ownership is having someone to comfort you when things feel tough, and we try to do the same for them. However, dogs can cry for all sorts of reasons, and it's not always a good idea to indulge them. Sometimes you need to train your pup that crocodile tears won't get them their way — when they cry to get out of the crate or to get a treat, for example.

On the flip side, you always should keep a watchful eye out for cries that indicate a deeper issue, like sudden pain or discomfort. So you know whether to turn a deaf ear or reach for your phone to call the vet, these are five of the most common reasons your pooch might cry.

Read more