Q:My dog digs in his bed every night before he settles down to sleep. Why do dogs dig in bed? Is this normal?
A: Yes, he’s quite possibly just repeating what his wilder ancestors did thousands of years ago.
It happens almost every night: You’re seconds away from drifting off to sleep when you hear your dog come into the room and flop down into their little bed. You relax again, and you’re almost out when they start digging into the fabric... and digging... and digging a little harder. By the time they settle down, their bed is a full three feet away from where it started, they’re curled up like a cherubic little doughnut, and you’re wide awake.
So what gives? Why do dogs dig in their beds? Basically, the digging, scratching and turning in circles in their bed (or in your bed, if they sleep with you) is a throwback to the generations of wild canines that came before them, the ones who lived and slept outdoors instead of on memory-foam beds embroidered with their own names.
“This is a normal behavior, and domestic, feral, and wild dogs do it,” says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore I. Haug, DVM, DACVB, CABC, owner of Texas Veterinary Behavior Services in Sugar Land. “In the wild, some dogs dig dens, so there is likely to be some instinctual drive there.”
Dogs may dig dens to make themselves feel more secure or more comfortable.
“Dogs aren't ‘denning’ animals, like groundhogs and other species that live underground, but mother dogs do create a maternal den of sorts into which they settle to give birth,” says Dr. Leslie Irvine, Ph.D., a professor of sociology and director of the Animals and Society Certificate Program at the University of Colorado Boulder. “My understanding from the research is that it's a comfort-seeking behavior, deeply ingrained from puppyhood. The digging and scratching gives them a comfortable surface to lie on.”
For wild dogs, digging in their beds can help them find any sticks, rocks or other uncomfortable objects that might’ve been pushed into their preferred sleeping spots during the day. It can also help them locate any predators like snakes or scorpions that might be hiding underneath them. Our pet dogs may, essentially, be doing the same, according to Dr. Haug.
“Many dogs do this to also make the bed more to their liking,” she says. “My dog always digs her blankets up on her dog bed, but she doesn’t do this on my bed.”
And speaking of being comfortable, den digging can also be a way for dogs to try to regulate their temperatures during both hot and cool weather. Sled dogs, Dr. Haug explains, are known to dig holes in the snow, then curl up inside them to help them trap their body heat overnight.
While it’s usually normal, a dog digging in their bed could be a sign of a medical condition. For example, Dr. Haug says that older dogs, especially those who have arthritis or other musculoskeletal conditions, may dig in their beds because they’re trying to find a pain-free position to lay in.
“If someone has an elderly dog digging a lot before resting, or a dog that has a notable change in its napping pattern, [they] should see their vet,” she adds. Other tipoffs that the bed-digging could signify a bigger issue is if your dog seems obsessive about it, or if it’s accompanied by panting, whining or other signs of distress.
There are a lot of theories about the causes of this behavior, and it’s hard to tell if some breeds are more inclined to do it, or whether it just comes down to the preferences of particular dogs.
“I don't know of any research on this, but in my view, it seems to be individual more than breed specific,” Dr. Irvine says. “Anecdotally, I’ve known dogs who dig and dig and dig and rearrange their bedding endlessly before settling in, and I've known dogs who circle once or twice and that's it.”
Now if we could just figure out what they’re dreaming about after they fall asleep.