Why Do Dogs Turn Around (and Around) Before Lying Down?

I watch our Anatolian shepherd in the field during her regular morning routine. She is a disciplined, efficient animal. Every day, like clockwork, she eats, drinks, does her business, sniffs around the kennel, then moves to the highest point in the field where she takes her sentry-guarding charges. She has settled into the same spot so many times there is a distinct indentation in the ground from her perch.

Still, she migrates to her choice post and then turns in a complete circle not once, not twice, but a full three times before she sits and then lies in “her nest.” Her deliberate, predictable behavior makes me wonder, “Why do dogs turn around before lying down?”

Hard-Wired to Turn

Whether by nature, nurture or the original definition of obsessive compulsive disorder, many dogs (and cats) display the behavior of turning around in circles before finally finding a satisfactory spot. Behaviorists theorize that the habit is inherited from dogs’ ancestors, wild wolves. It is believed that today’s domestic dogs maintain much of their genetic dispositions from wolves.

Security Measures: Evolutionary behaviors for self-preservation are among the most powerful, and a dog may intuitively need to turn to position himself at the best possible advantage in the event of an attack. Legend has it that wolves always sleep with their noses to the wind, providing them with a security alarm for danger. Circling enables the animal to determine the direction of the wind.

Pack Mentality: Some dogs may be acting on a more primal instinct when they perform their settling pirouette. Wild wolves traditionally travel in packs. The instinct to form a tight circle proves necessary for survival. Nesting with the pack distributes body heat and ensures that each member remains within the pack’s protective domain. Turning in circles may also demonstrate an act of orientation and establishing a place within the order.

Checking on the Herd: Some characteristics were selectively bred into dogs to serve specific needs. Dogs like my Anatolian were developed as guardians for livestock in Turkey. The breed was used to protect herds from wild animals for thousands of years. These dogs spent their lives in the mountains with the flocks. It is conceivable that certain dogs may intuitively circle around to check for stragglers and inventory their herd. They may also be acting on the instinct to take a 360-degree look at the area in the event of an enemy approach.

Just Keeping Cool/Warm: Another practical explanation involves temperature control. Dogs that spend time out of doors in warm climates may scratch the dirt to move the hotter, exposed sod and bring cooler soil to the surface before they sit or lie down. In colder weather, turning creates a tighter tuck and assists with heat retention.

Creature Comforts

Of course the less dramatic but certainly more suspect reason for all the twirling (and burrowing too) is the natural desire for comfort. Your pet may simply be conditioning his bed for the most accepting position. The dog’s actions are much like yours when you get ready for bed, plumping pillows and tossing from one side to the other before falling asleep. Your dog just wants to make the most of the time in repose.

Circling exposes the random, uncomfortable stone or prickly twig that may have dropped into the nesting site, and it drives out unwelcome pests that may be buried. The movement of revolving tramples the earth down to a more cozy bed. Even dogs with a nice, padded cushion will often turn in circles as though “fluffing” the bed before settling.

Check out the funny video below, and watch how this cute pup works SO hard to get his bed just the way he likes it:

Not All Dogs Do This

Experts seem to regard a dog’s nature to turn in circles as a “fixed action” typical of the species. I would disagree — not all dogs display the same instinct. My male Lagotto simply drops when he is ready to sit or lay. I often check to see if he has collapsed. Even during the night if he moves he trots to a different location and, “THUMP” he is down. No silly circling for this boy!

So why do dogs turn around (and around) before lying down? Perhaps the best answer is from an old vaudeville routine: “It is because one good turn deserves another!

Additional Resources

Photo: KipferHome/Flickr

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