The answer has a little something to do with evolution.

By Zoe Denenberg
April 16, 2020
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Have you ever noticed your dog turning in circles before settling in on his pillow for the night? I’ve observed my dog Melo enact this ritual many times—he’ll circle over the same spot on his dog bed 4 or 5 times before finally plopping down for a nap or a good night’s sleep. We all have our little routines to get comfortable, but sometimes Melo goes overboard, scratching at his pillow like he’s digging for treasure or nuzzling his head into the side of the cushion. I wondered if this was a sign that his bed was uncomfortable (unlikely: it’s memory foam) or if it was just a weird habit.

To get to the bottom of this canine behavior, I did some research and found that Melo is not alone—this circling tendency is quite common in dogs. In fact, it’s a trait that dogs inherited from their distant ancestors: wolves.

“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,” writes Dr. Lynn Buzhardt, co-owner of The Animal Center in Zachary, Louisiana, for VCA Hospitals.

So dogs inherited this little pre-bedtime dance from their ancestors. But what purpose does it serve? As it turns out, this circling practice is geared towards survival. “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,” notes Dr. Buzhardt. “Turning around 360 degrees also provides an opportunity to take one last look for potential predators before bedtime.”

Don’t worry, this is no cause for alarm: unlike his wild predecessors, sweet Fido is probably not living in fear of attack. Even though your dog is safe and sound in your home, dogs nonetheless retained the protective trait from their wolf ancestors. Now, circling before they lay down has simply become habit.

In addition to self-protection, circling and nesting help dogs in the wild to make their sleeping space more comfortable. Undomesticated dogs don’t know the luxury of fluffy pillow and plush cushions—to make a “bed,” they mat down grass, clear away rocks and branches, and reposition brush. This practice helps dogs uncover any hidden threats like snakes or other critters, and it also allows them create a nice sleeping niche.

In a domestic context, circling remains a simple way for dogs to make their bed more comfortable before tucking in for the night. Don’t you want to get your pillows and blankets positioned just right before you drift to sleep? Dogs—wild or domesticated—have the same impulse.

Evolutionary patterns help explain a dog’s tendency to circle in his pillow before settling down, excessive circling could be indicative of discomfort. “If your dog has difficulty settling down even after making several revolutions, consult your veterinarian,” recommends Dr. Buzhardt.

But unless the circling is really over the top, there’s no cause for alarm. Your posh pup is just making himself comfortable.