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Why do dogs circle?

Original Publication Date: August 24, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

You may have been amused watching a dog circle a few times before lying down. Some even dig a bit before settling. Occasionally, a pup will circle before relieving themselves outside.

There are reasons for these behaviors. Some may surprise you.

It is not unusual to see a dog make tight circles before settling down for a snooze. They may even claw and dig before their bed seems perfect. In the wild, their ancestors did not have cozy doggy beds, blankets and carpets.

They had to make their own safe comfortable place to sleep. They did it by circling to stomp down tall grass or level snow to make a bed.

In the process, they scattered bugs and other creepy crawly critters from the site. Sticks and uncomfortable objects were probably also scattered aside.

In the summer heat, digging in the chosen spot exposed cool soil that served to regulate body temperature and keep the dog comfortable. When it was cold, snuggling into a hole helped a dog retain body heat and stay warm.

Watching your dog repeat these rituals does not mean they yearn to return to the wild.

Adaptive behaviors tend to linger long after they have lost their usefulness if there is nothing to discourage them.

Your pup is simply following instincts that at one time were important to their ancestors' survival.

More than once a day your dog has to go out to "do their business." They sniff, snoop and find an acceptable spot. Have you ever noticed that they align their body in a North-South direction to relieve themselves?

A study published in the Frontiers in Zoology journal found that dogs line up with the earth's magnetic field to poop and pee.

Why do dogs circle? Why do dogs circle?
(click image to enlarge)

A two-year investigation of more than 70 dogs from 37 breeds found that our canine friends prefer to excrete with the body aligned along the North-South axis when magnetic field conditions are calm.

There can, however, be minor disturbances in the magnetic field that upset a dog's position. In these cases, a dog may circle, apparently, in an attempt to get their bearings.

The researchers recognize the reason dogs orient themselves with the magnetic field is unknown.

It is certainly not clear if a dog makes a conscious decision concerning their polarity. It does seem to be obvious they avoid an East-West direction.

Instincts like old habits, die hard especially if there is no reason to change. Enjoy watching your dog circle and paw to make a comfortable "nest" even if their instincts are settling them into an expensive doggy bed.

Appreciate your dog's internal compass as they align their body North-South before relieving themselves or perhaps circles in an attempt to find the right direction.

Man's best friends have a long and fascinating history of instincts and sensitivities to external forces.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at