Why do dogs turn in circles before lying down?

19 April 2016

Question

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

Answer

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

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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