No matter how many thousands of years we live and work together, dogs can still do things humans find confusing. Circling behavior is one of those things that every dog companion has seen but probably doesn't have an explanation for it. Dogs circle in lots of different ways and for various reasons, and while sometimes it can be a sign of a serious issue, it's usually nothing but fun behavior.
As your dog's best friend and best advocate, it's helpful to have at least a passing idea of what your dog's circling behavior means and when it's time to take it seriously.
There may be no reason why your pooch is walking in circles. Dogs do weird things sometimes, just like people, and not everything means something. If your dog only goes into self-orbit once in a while, or if the behavior isn't combined with anything else like distress or barking, it may just be one of those things. You know, like when your cat runs in the room and then runs out again for no reason.
Circling is an old instinct, like a lot of what your puppy does, and this behavior might be something handed down (pawed off?) from remote wolf and wild dog ancestors. It might be a social thing for wolves, or it could have something to do with living in a den. Even if it doesn't have a direct or obvious purpose right now, your doggo might be reliving the Call of the Wild a bit.
You toss and turn in bed sometimes, and there's no reason why a dog can't have a version of that—circling right before sleepy time might be a pup's way of finding the coziest spot to crash. This is not the same as making a comfy spot, but they could just be moving around until they get just the right combination of carpet padding, body position, and warmth.
This is the explanation most often given for circling: dogs are "tamping down grass" to make a bed. It's a great and logical explanation, and it would be even better if wild dogs actually did this, but they generally don't, so it's probably wrong. Still, if your dog happens to be in the grass and circles, this could totally be the idea. Or it could not. Dogs can be quite the individuals sometimes.
Circling behavior is sometimes seen among mammals in the wild who have to scan the horizon before lying down. In nature, any kind of crazy thing could be out there, from leopards to predatory birds, and a quick circle could be a threat-avoidance instinct. Similarly, a social animal like a dog could have an instinct to look around at the pack to ensure everybody's there, especially before settling to bed.
Dogs are sensitive to stress, and some breeds can be really high-strung. If you've noticed your pal circling a lot when there's a stressful situation, such as a new pet or stranger in the house, loud noises outside, or on a road trip in unfamiliar places, the circling could be stereotyped behavior like a lion pacing in a zoo. If you suspect stress, reassure your pooch and check with the vet for advice later.
Some breeds are prone to hip and joint issues, especially German shepherds. Circling might be intentional behavior, where they want to lie down, but it hurts to just flop into place. If you have a breed with known hip issues, or if your dog is getting up there in doggy years, it couldn't hurt to have a checkup with the vet to rule out serious issues like arthritis.
There are a few medical conditions that can show up as compulsive circling. Worms and some other parasites are easy for dogs to pick up, especially if they go outside and eat random garbage they find, and the discomfort they cause can motivate some circling behavior. It's almost as if the dog feels something is wrong, and "outmaneuvering" the problem is the best they can do. If you see signs of disease, call your vet.
Bugs aren't the only cause of doggy tummy aches. As an animal that likes to rush over and instantly bolt down any food-like object that drops to the floor, your dog could easily eat something that doesn't agree with their stomach. Sometimes this is mild and passing, such as eating a poisonous beetle, while other issues like chocolate and cooked chicken bones can be real problems. Circling with signs of distress should always get checked.
Not all circling behavior happens near the bed. When your buddy gets happy, like really happy, it isn't surprising to see the normally excited wag turn into a full-wheeling-around-circle-time doggy dance. Sometimes a very happy dog will leap into the air for a full 360 when you come home from work. You can usually tell when this is what's going on, and the best course to take for it is belly rubs.
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