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Why Do Dogs Walk In Circles Before They Lie Down

Introduction

You've probably pondered why your pup seems to chase his tail before settling in to sleep. Why exactly do dogs walk in circles before lying down? Fortunately, science has come a long ways, and theories exist which are more robust than the idea that your pup is trying to will a tornado to life.

Based on the musings of cynologists (scientists who study dogs for a living), this circling behavior could come from scoping out predators before lying down, positioning oneself to sniff the scents of the breeze, or the "nesting" theory, which seems most sensible and which will get explained in greater depth below.

Pups are mysterious creatures, though prepare for some mystery-busting as the prevailing theory gets unearthed in short order in the proceeding paragraphs!

A Woof of Warning

As a preface, it's worth soaking in that these three theories which you'll dive into like a dachshund are simply hypotheses; in other words, nothing's known with 100% certainty as far as why pups walk in circles prior to lying down.

However, you'll likely be able to discern which theory of the following three seems most credible (which in this author's opinion seems to be the third theory), though kick off the rust of those Gr. 9 biology gears in your brain and decide for yourself which seems most plausible!

Scoping Out Predators

Theory number one, as to why pups circle before bedtime, is that they're trying to scope their surroundings, peering into the distance to ensure that no pesky predators will stop their slumber. This theory however — which you'll find by scouring the internet — seems somewhat silly.

For example, the last time your pup spun in circles prior to passing out, you very likely didn't see your pup gazing into the distance for coyotes and dog groomers (the top predators of pups); rather, she was likely staring at her naptime nest, ensuring it looked as comfortable as can be.

To put this theory to bed, dog scientists could survey, say, 100 pups, observing if they seem to peer into the distance for predators during this bedtime circling, though the answer anecdotally seems to suggest that this theory is unlikely!

Catching Wind of the Wind

Another theory for these pre-bedtime spins is that pups try to position themselves at the perfect angle to sniff scents!

The theory itself seems fair to hypothesize; dogs use up to a whopping 30% of their brain to analyze smells; bloodhounds for example have an estimated 300 million scent receptors set in their snouts, while humans have a measly 6 million. Given the gargantuan weighting towards their sense of scent, it's no wonder why cynologists surmise that pooches would want to sniff the breeze as the settle to sleep.

As the facts stack up, this theory could hold water, as they say, though it's not been properly proven. To do so, cynologists could survey packs of dogs, determining the direction of the breeze, and observing if nappy pups seem to settle with their snouts downwind of the breeze.

With that being said, this theory seems somewhat faulty as well, given that pups circle before lying down even indoors, where there's usually no breeze to catch. For a more plausible theory, please proceed to these next paragraphs, which touch upon the "nesting" theory.

The "Nesting" Theory

The "nesting" theory states that pups circle so they trample the ground, also checking their settling spot for uncomfortable objects obviously in the way.

Howl you delve deeper into this mystery? Simply by tracing the lineage of pups to their wolf ancestors, who — sure enough — engaged in the same spinny habit of circling before lying down. In fact, these aren't our words, but the thoughts of Dr. Karen Sueda, DVM, of the West Los Angeles Animal Hospital, who say that, “while no one can be certain of the exact reason why canines [circle before lying down], the ritual is likely a residual habit from the days when wolflike dogs lived out in the wild.” Now this finally feels like a plausible theory. Much in the same way your pup likely marks his territory at every lamppost, a habit likely deriving from wolf ancestors, your pup's circling probably comes from wolves as well!

The proof is in the pudding! Simply have a good gander at this wolf below, circling before curling up for a nap. Notice how he paws at the ground as well, likely trying to remove any pesky pebbles, twigs, or bugs, ensuring the naptime spot he's nabbed is comfortable and cozy.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Does your dog circle before lying down? <br>This is a trait inherited from their evolutionary ancestor- the wolf! <br>Wolves clear away debris + small critters by circling + digging, this also flattens the area to indicate to other wolves that the territory has been claimed. <a href="https://t.co/zqrFSXFb3Z">pic.twitter.com/zqrFSXFb3Z</a></p>&mdash; Wolf Conservation Center (@nywolforg) <a href="https://twitter.com/nywolforg/status/1506289706614595584?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">March 22, 2022</a></blockquote><script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

By this point, it seems quite clear that dogs spin in circles before lying down so they can claim a comfortable resting place. Though, to hammer the point home, know that Dr. Stanley Coren, professor of the University of British Columbia's Department of Psychology, and author of several pup behavior books, conducted quite the confirming study. To test this nesting theory, he surveyed 62 dogs, waiting patiently for the pups to place themselves onto the ground, with half the pups given uneven surfaces (such as blankets or grassy areas), or even surfaces (such as hardwood); his theory was that, if dogs circle before napping in order to trample the ground, it seems likely that they'd circle more often on ground which they could soften (such as blankets), while not bothering to circle as much on harder surfaces which they can't tamp down anyways. Sure enough, the pups were 3x more likely to circle on uneven surfaces, indicating a resounding victory in his hypothesis.

For all intents and purposes, this seems to verify quite clearly that pups circle before lying down in order to trample their resting place, making it nice and comfy.

Helping to Claim Their Bed

But wait — there's more! Tacking on more information to this "nesting" theory, by trampling and pawing at the ground, it's possible that pups get to "claim" their nesting spot. Oddly enough, dogs emit pheromones (which are chemical signals meant to subconsciously communicate with others of the same species) through glands in their paws! It's true — the eccrine glands, located in the paws of pups, help dogs indicate their presence. Remember how the wolf in the video above paws at the ground and probably presses his paws 25 times into the ground? Those pheromones are likely released into that spot, indicating to others in the pack (and wolf packs can reach up to 40 members!) that it's his spot, and no one else's!

Conclusion

It's practically universal that pups walk in circles before lying down. It no doubt leads to the obvious question of why dogs seem to do this. As you can imagine, uncovering the answers involves deep-diving into the annals of biology, discerning the evolutionary function of such an act. While there are several theories for why pups circle before bedtime, the most convincing theory remains to be the "nesting" theory, which says that pups circle to trample their bedtime spot, making it more comfortable and ensuring debris is cleared from the area.

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