Science Questions

Why do dogs turn in circles before lying down?

Tue, 19th Apr 2016

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Marne Botha asked:

Why do my doggies circle around before they lie down in their baskets?


Kat Arney put this question to ecologist Felicity Bedford...Dog

Felicity -   It’s actually something that is coming back from the time when they were wolves or wild dogs and they had to build a nest. 

Chris - So it’s like the canine equivalent of pillow plumping - is that what you’re saying?

Felicity - Precisely.  In the wild there would have been grass or snow, so they’re literally creating themselves a safe place to plonk down for the night.  A lot of people might also notice that their dog tends to dig at their beds.  So that might be creating a hollow and they will only settle down really once they’ve established their little routine.  Instinct has been settled and they’ll go down for a nap.

Chris - One person said to me that it might be that also by turning circles it’s forcing them to survey the landscape and they might spot predators or areas that are risky.  That something could come and attack them so it kind of makes sure they’re aware and vigilant.

Felicity - There’s probably something in that.  It could be that the process of walking around scares off anything that might bite them - snakes, large insects in the undergrowth that they’re settling down in.  There are so many reasons for this behaviour but back in ancestral genetics.

Chris - I don’t turn circles in my bed when I got to bed.  I just sort of pat the pillow.  Is that what you do, Matt?

Matt - No.  But I’ve got to ask because Kat asked me.  Did they all turn in the same direction?

Felicity - Mmm.  Now there’s something that needs testing.

Chris - I don’t think they do because, unlike humans which are strongly biased to be right handed (90% of people are right handed, 10% left handed), in the animals world it seems to break down 50/50.  They do have a side bias (one paw or fin they prefer using) but, on average, you get a 50/50 bias. The exception seems to be kangaroos which appear to be dominated by left hand use and we don’t really know why.


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I think they do this to perform the canine equivalent of a pillow plumping. chris, Sat, 20th Feb 2016

Great answer chris, but I suspect it may also have something to do with them scanning the 360 degree area surrounding them and identifying any possible threats before their anticipated relaxation. Maybe they need assurance that during this period of rest, they are not making themselves vulnerable or putting themselves at greater risk. While the domestic dog has little to fear from the natural world, we need to remember that they are all born with instincts that are bred into them and some natural paranoia is part of their survival agenda. Ethos_, Sat, 20th Feb 2016

Excellent point and one I had overlooked. I'll certainly add that to my answer bank! chris, Thu, 25th Feb 2016

Thank you Chris, I appreciate the kind words of encouragement. Ethos_, Fri, 26th Feb 2016

While plausible my own - purely anecdotal - observation is that their attention is focused on the ground when performing this action. One would have expected an outward and upward looking gaze if the objective was security.

Also, the circle they make is typically tight. This is consistent with flattening the grass/vegetation they will bed down in.
Ophiolite, Fri, 26th Feb 2016

A very plausible explanation as well Ophiolite. Ethos_, Fri, 26th Feb 2016

I think we could all be right! On the whole, animals tend to "nest" in a situation that offers them an escape route and the widest view of the possible approach of predators or threats. chris, Fri, 26th Feb 2016

Now that you have mentioned it, I notice I have started to circle too. Prester, Sat, 27th Feb 2016

What does your bed fellow make of that? chris, Sun, 28th Feb 2016

The dog circles to flatten the grasses where it is about to lie. quandry, Tue, 1st Mar 2016

If you ever watched a dog sleeping in the cold, they will ball up in a circle to conserve body heat. Another possible answer is as they circle, they spiral downward into their resting circle, with little waste of motion. This action may also adjust the sleeping surface to allow the best insulation R-value.

puppypower, Tue, 1st Mar 2016

I really just have to say here that that's simply the most adorable picture I think I've ever seen posted in a "Cells, Microbes & Viruses" science forum! Aemilius, Fri, 4th Mar 2016

Hmmm.... at 57, I've owned more than a few dogs now. Looking at the thread, it all sounds perfectly sensible at first, but upon closer examination, it's becomes much, much more complicated than simply scanning the horizon for potential threats prior to settling down for an extended period of slumber or any mere "pillow plumping" as Chris suggested. If we look at the behaviour closely, we actually have examples of at least four distinct manifestations of it (circling).... the first example, older dogs will sometimes circle very slowly for a number of days prior to simply laying down and dying. I've seen this myself. the second example (mentioned by the original poster), it's a slightly faster (albeit relaxed) circling motion that's often observed just prior to settling down for an extended period of slumber. the third example, we have the increased sense of urgency that's observed when a dog has been forced to wait, shall we say, a bit longer than it might have liked to relieve itself. At these times there is often a brief period of semi-frantic circling just prior to defacation. the fourth example, we have the excited or overstimulated dog which can spontaneously begin to chase its tail, almost hysterically, under the influence of deliberately intensified playful stimuli.

So, in the first example we have circling behaviour caused by an intuitive restlessneess just prior to death, in the second example we have circling behaviour caused by physical exhaustion just prior to rest, in the third example we have circling behaviour caused by physiological distress at needing to expel waste and in the fourth example we have an overstimulated hysterical response to playful stimuli.

Really fascinating, and to have the input of a groundbreaking Cambridge University educated PhD neuroscientist on the topic is a real treat.... thanks Dr. Smith (hope you're doing well). Aemilius, Fri, 4th Mar 2016

It's a good idea to check for snakes and scorpions before lying down. Once you are on the deck, they will avoid you, but if you just flop down on top of them, they get very upset. alancalverd, Fri, 4th Mar 2016

Hi, this is something that has fascinated me for some time and think I may have something interesting to contribute to the discussion so I'm going to throw you all a bone! Yes, pun most intended!

I've been following many areas of research on electro magnetism and all things related for some time, (most interesting). One area of which appears to affect humans and animals to varying degrees is Earths magnetic field.  There are some recent studies on dogs behaviour that points toward the fact that when finding their preferred place to defecate they will turn in circles to find alignment with the Earths magnetic field.

"Dogs preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the north-south axis under calm MF conditions," according to the findings by researchers in the Czech Republic and Germany. "This directional behaviour was abolished under Unstable MF." The results were published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

There are many more studies and evidence that confirm or also point in this direction (hey, another pun!) I also remember watching a recent BBC documentary where they said the above but added that by marking out specific locations aligned with the magnetic field it would help them to become more familiar with an environment and their position within it upon revisiting that location.

This seems to make much sense, how this would translate or could be measured to answer the question of why the turning in circles in their baskets could be difficult due to the static nature of most dog baskets.  I guess we would need to look more at wild dogs or experiment with baskets that the dog could learn to spin to a desired position. 
I can pre-empt several problems with the latter in that within most households and in some localities the Earths magnet field is drowned out by man made electro-smog, solar flares and other related space weather and geophysical location, likely in some locations geomagnetic interference from underground streams and aquifers and the like also contribute to a corrupted signal.  The Earths surface magnetic field is extremely weak in comparison to many of the EMF and EMR signals that us nature battering humans create, in most built up areas actually sensing the magnetic field would be akin to trying to hear an un-amplified flute over the top of a death metal concert!   

Similar theory's and research also point at this problem with regards to animals navigational centre's becoming confused so... whales and dolphins get beached, elephants walk directly through the path of new built homes, birds miss-shoot their target by many hundreds of miles and bees loose the hives position possibly contributing to colony collapse disorder.  All things to consider!  Is this another case of human intelligence failing to understand the full implications of the roll out of EMF/EMR emitting technology?  Being something we cannot initially see, touch or smell the effects of our ignorance and misunderstanding eventually becomes fatal to our environment and species within it.  Unfortunately this often comes back to bite us in that it really does manifest an eventual effect that can very much be seen, felt and heard...?  You decide! 
Metamind. Peace! Metamind, Fri, 4th Mar 2016

Pertinent and interesting comments, Metamind, as were those of Aemilius. Together they highlight the danger of running with the conventional, or common sense explanation and emphasising that science is about observation and experiment.

Until someone comes up with some citations of all ready conducted experiments we would be best to treat all the suggestions so far as provisional hypotheses. Meanwhile, we can reflect that when the physicists produce their Theory of Everything, biologists will still have many happy centuries ahead of them, studying emergent properties. Ophiolite, Fri, 4th Mar 2016

There's no doubt that many if not all animals, including humans (well, students) can sense the earth's magnetic field, but a lifetime spent with Dandy, Sally, Lucy, Ice, Sophie, Poppy and Chilli (not all at once) has convinced me that dogs will crap in any direction but prefer not to have the sun in their eyes or the wind behind them, so British dogs at least are most likely to poo on a northwesterly heading.  alancalverd, Sat, 5th Mar 2016

You know, you really can be very funny Dr. Calverd. Hah! So, a good way for an animal to make sure there are no poisonous snakes, scorpions or spiders lurking about before lying down is to repeatedly walk around in small circles over the area in question to feel around for anything that might bite or sting before laying down? Somehow, I don't think any animal species that was in the habit of checking for danger that way would last very long! It would be a bit like a Wildebeest, having selected a place to cross the river, wading into the water and splashing around first to check for crocodiles before finally crossing.... hilarious! Aemilius, Sun, 6th Mar 2016

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