If you’ve ever had a dog as a pet, or seen a dog preparing to lie down for a nap, you will have surely noticed a strange phenomenon. The dog will often circle a spot, as though inspecting it, even raking the ground with its claws, before finally settling down for a rest. To humans, this behavior looks a bit mad, but don’t worry… your pooch isn’t losing his puppy mind.
The explanation for this unusual circling behavior has its origins in the past, and as always, the answer has something to do with evolution….
The Different World of Wild Dogs
When we look at the teacup poodles peeking their heads from the sides of designer handbags, it’s hard to believe that dogs have only been domesticated for between 10,000 and 33,000 years. It appears that the split between dogs and wolves happened around 30,000 years ago, but whether this was stimulated by conscious human manipulation is up for debate. There is some discrepancy between researchers whether wild dogs were first domesticated by hunters and gatherers or agriculturalists. Regardless, even 33,000 years is a blip on an evolutionary timescale.
Canines, as a much larger group, encompasses dogs, wolves, coyotes and dingos, and branched into a separate classification nearly 12 million years ago. Therefore, for roughly 11,970,000 years, canines developed their own set of behaviors, many of which are still present in domesticated dogs – even the cute teacup poodles in Dolce and Gabbana handbags.
Life in the Wild
Before dogs were domesticated and given their own beds in warm suburban homes, they lived primarily in packs, and had to make their own beds on their travels. When bedding down for the night, wild dogs in the past would find an appropriate spot and perform the strange circling behavior that you see in your family pet. This behavior helped to mat down the grass to make a comfortable bed, and also chase away any insects or snakes that could potentially be dangerous before they lie down.
Furthermore, as pack animals, wolves and wild dogs also tend to sleep in clumps, but distinct hierarchy structures exist within packs. This circling behavior helped dogs mark their desired or “claimed” sleep space, keeping social structure and hierarchy in place. As we still see when Fido pees on a hydrant or a mailbox, dogs still have very territorial habits, and this circling or scratching to mark their bed is likely a remnant of that ancient behavior.
Even though many of the “wild” elements of wild dogs have been domesticated out of their behavioral patterns, benign habits like circling before sleep or sniffing other dogs’ rear ends upon introduction haven’t had any negative impacts on their ability to live safely with humans, so those traits remain!
What other common habits of dogs seem like they may have more ancient and wilder origins?