For many of us, getting ready for bed means turning on some relaxing music, turning on a fan, and making sure our pillows are just right. Dogs also have important and complicated nighttime routines that help them feel safe and ready to sleep. When you’re ready to sleep, having your dog jump on the bed and circle and scratch at the sheets for several minutes can be distracting and even annoying.
But this is a normal thing for dogs to do, though it could mean something more serious in some cases. Always keep an eye on your dog and get to know his or her normal behaviour. This way, if something changes, you’ll know right away that your dog may need to see a vet.
Why do dogs scratch at the bed?
Dogs usually scratch their beds and circle them several times before going to sleep at night, but they can also do this before taking a nap during the day. Experts in animal behaviour think that this behaviour in dogs comes from their wild ancestors and has been passed down to the domestic dogs we live with. Scratching the bed is likely one of your dog’s defence and comfort strategies that makes him or her feel safer and better.
The lives of your dog’s wild ancestors were very different, and they had to fight every day to stay alive by avoiding bigger predators, protecting the pack, and finding food. If you don’t take the right precautions, going to sleep could be dangerous. Circling and scratching an area before laying down may have done more than one thing to keep you safe.
By going in circles, a dog might be able to look around and find any possible dangers before laying down. Dogs that are part of a pack may also circle to find a place among the others. Scratching will leave a trace of a dog’s scent, letting other animals know that the area is taken.
These protective and defensive behaviours may be instinctive for domestic dogs, so they may keep doing them even though they are safe from predators and other threats in their own homes.
When dogs lived in the wild, they slept on grass, leaves, and other natural surfaces. To make a comfortable bed, dogs would scratch and trample the area with their feet and paws, flattening out sharp plants and getting rid of rocks and sticks. This is called “nesting,” and it’s unlikely that comfort was the only reason. The dogs didn’t get bitten or stung when they laid down because the nesting behaviour scared away snakes, bugs, and small rodents.
Your dog scratches and circles his bed, just like wild dogs did before him, to arrange his bedding and blankets and make a soft, comfortable place to sleep. He also does this to make sure there are no bugs or other pests in his bed.
Dogs in the wild scratch at their sleeping spots when it’s too hot or cold to help keep their bodies at the right temperature. Wild dogs don’t live in our homes like domestic dogs do. Instead, they have to make their own shelter out of what they can find. When it’s really cold, dogs will scratch and circle snowbanks to change their shape and make a warm place to lie down. They will also circle in a tight ball shape to keep their bodies warm.
In hot weather, dogs will scratch away the top layer of soil or other substrate, which holds more heat, to get to the cooler layers underneath. Then they lie down and let the deeper soil cool them off.
Your dog may scratch at its bedding for the same reason that you do: to rearrange it so that it is as warm or cool as possible.
How to Stop Dogs from Scratching the Bed
It’s completely normal for dogs to scratch the bed. You should never try to stop this or teach your dog a lesson. But intense, long-term scratching can sometimes be a sign of a problem, like anxiety or pain.
If your dog is stressed, like when you move or bring a new person or animal into the house, he may scratch more because he is worried and wants to mark his territory. If your cat scratches a lot, at odd times, or when you leave it alone, along with other destructive behaviours, this could be a sign of separation anxiety. In this case, you should talk to your vet.
Dogs that constantly circle and scratch and take a long time to lay down and get comfortable may be in pain from arthritis. If this is the case, your vet can help you come up with a plan to help your dog feel less pain.
When your dog jumps on your bed and vigorously scratches and circles it before laying down, this is a ritual he learned from his ancestors and an important way for him to show his “dogness.” And if you notice any changes in your dog’s nighttime routine, like more scratching, circling, or trouble falling asleep, make an appointment with a vet to check for pain or other problems.