Dogs are creatures of habit.
Many of these behaviors are learned from their owners. Dogs know when it’s time to eat even before their owners start the feeding preparations. Dogs even know what time their people get home from work or school, and will be waiting by the door to greet their humans.
Other rituals are harder to explain. Like the common, but odd, ritual dogs have of walking around in circles and/or pawing at their beds before lying down.
It Dates Back Before Domestication
Although no one can say for sure, the most prevalent belief is that dogs learned this behavior in the past when they lived in the wild. Dog beds weren’t available, so they had to make do with beds make of prairie grass, or leaves, or whatever ground cover was available. Walking in circles not only flatten an area for them to sleep on, it also drove out snakes and large insects that could injure them.
Dogs used to travel in packs, and the pack would sleep together in a circle for protection and warmth. One school of thought is that a dog circled his area to get his scent on it as a way of calling “dibs” on the area where he chose to sleep that night.
Another reason dogs circled an area was so the dogs could tell which way the wind was coming from. One thought is the dogs slept with their noses facing the wind so they could pick up the scent of potential predators. However, in colder climates, the argument can be made dogs slept with their backs to the wind to keep them warmer.
It’s common for dogs to dig holes in the dirt or sand to keep cool, or in the snow to keep warm. The digging or pawing at a bed can be an instinctive reaction to a sleeping area that’s either too warm or too cool. It can also be to smooth the surface of the bed to make it more comfortable.
Dogs will also sometimes rearrange their bedding, especially in a contained area like a crate. This is another behavior used to check for any dangers that can be lurking in the area before the dog settles into sleep.
Some dogs deviate from this procedure slightly, and will walk in a square or an oblong area. Some dogs, especially herding dogs, will walk in a very large circle several times, then walk off at an angle to lie down. Presumably, instinct tells the dog to herd his charges into a group, make sure all the animals are there, and then go to a place where he can keep an eye on the herd before going to sleep.
But My Dog is Domesticated!
Since our dogs no longer live in the wild, why do the behaviors persist? Because there’s no reason to change. True, most dogs these days don’t need to create a dog nest in tall grass, or chase snakes out of their area. But on the other hand, circling his dog bed before he lies down doesn’t create any problems, so there’s no reason for him to stop doing so.
A word of caution, though: if your dog circles around in his bed, paws at the bed, lies down, gets up, and keeps repeating the process never seeming to get comfortable, take him to the vet. This could be a sign of arthritis or some other problem that needs medical attention.
So just enjoy watching your dog as he goes through the motions to get comfy on his bed. He knows he’s safe in your home. He’s done what instinct instructs him to do. There’s nothing left for him to do now but dream.