We’ve all had those moments when we wonder what goes through our dog’s head. One recently left me scratching mine after watching my dog scratch his bed before lying down at night. It’s an odd thing to see, why do dogs scratch their beds?
Dogs scratch their beds before lying down to mark it with their scent as their own. They also do it due to an evolutionary trait where in the wild dog ancestors would scratch the ground before lying down to create a hole, or dry space to bed down and sleep at night.
As you can see, what seems a peculiar and destructive behavior to us is part of an age-old bedtime routine dogs inherited from their ancestors centuries ago.
The ritual dogs put into scratching their bed before they lie down at night will typically have three phases. These are scratching, digging, and turning round in circles.
It’s called ‘denning’.
Before I describe that though, it’s important to understand that dogs can also scratch their beds before lying down due to anxiety and stress. I’ve outlined what to look out for with that lower down the page.
Why dogs scratch their beds due to denning
The process of denning, i.e., where dogs scratch their beds at night, evolved through the ages so dogs in the wild would feel safe, warm, and comfortable. The human equivalent would be the act of fluffing our pillows.
The denning ritual of scratching at the bed blankets
Please bear in mind that a lot of what happens during this ritual is symbolic and takes place only in your dog’s mind. Not all dogs engage in it, but those who do, do so enthusiastically. Scratching the bed before lying down is not peculiar to any domesticated breed.
Understandably, working dogs such as huskies, who can live outdoors in all weather, have good reason to continue the practice. The average pampered poodle does not.
It might not even be a bed your dog scratches at, some will do the same actions on carpets.
The first part of the process involves scratching. This action removes any actual or imaginary detritus in the chosen area. Your dog will not do a visual check to check the bed (or ground) before embarking on this activity.
Back in the day, these inconveniences would have been stones, sticks, or thorns. In modern time, there may or may not be old treats, half chewed cow hooves or sticks brought in from the garden.
Another reason that dogs scratch their beds and stomp is to mark their territory. Stomping stimulates the scent glands under their paws which leave a virulent trail of information that wards off possible intruders.
If the dog shares the space with other household dogs, family members or sundry pets, this behavior is likely to increase.
My friend has two Jack Russells that share covered cushions, but they are occupied on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis. One dog is happy to dive straight in while the other struts her stuff until the cushion is completely disinterred.
What results does not look comfortable.
The next step is to create a hole big enough for the dog to lie in. Once again, this would have significance in days gone by when dogs lived outside in the snow or sand. It performs no perceivable useful function in modern times when a dog scratches their bed.
The dog would have had to break up hard soil, shape a snow bed or corral leaves into a mattress.
Handy Hint: If you have a dog who is continually digging holes in the lawn or backyard, it could be a sign they are sick.
Nowadays, an adherent to this practice seems only intent on removing the stuffing out of any solid surface so that it has something to work with.
3. Settling down
After your dog has scratched the bed and he’s satisfied that the ‘hole’ is large enough to fit into, and completely free of debris, the dogs starts rotating or circling. It is thought that this is the origin of English idiom, ‘One good turn deserves another’.
After corkscrewing its way into a ball, the dog performs further contortions and finally ends up in the hole it has made in the bed. Where it stops is not as random as observers may think.
The dog’s tail, if it has one worthy of the task, will be covering its face, in order to ward off the cold. The dog will appear smaller and more compact than when standing so as to escape the notice of any predators or potential trouble makers.
The nose will be facing the prevailing wind so that it can detect any hint of danger while sleeping.
The question remains though, why do dogs scratch their beds in the 21st century when the need to has long gone? Here are my theories.
14 reasons why dogs indulge in digging / scratching
There are several reasons, some of them legitimate, why dogs continue to perform these eccentricities such as bed scratching, long after the need for them has disappeared.
1. The custom is passed on
As stated earlier, this behaviour cannot be attributed to any breed but rather to individual dogs, regardless of their breed.
However, a husky that now lives in a city skyscraper may have been reared where denning was necessary for survival, or it may have been socialised by parents who passed on this ancient custom.
2. We reinforce the behavior
The puppy’s new urban owners may think it cute when the pup behaves like a husky in the wild and scratches the bed at night.
The admiration and attention given can then reinforce the behavior, and before long it will be a habit that your dog can’t break.
3. Bed scratching to delay bedtime
The puppy may grow up thinking that scratching at the bed before bedtime is a game or shared activity that he and the owner participate in every evening.
It could also be a delaying tactic, much like a human counterpart might use to postpone bedtime. You might need to work extra hard to tire him out before bedtime.
4. Due to boredom
Your pup could also be bored or too energised to go to bed. Establish a bedtime routine that involves playtime and a walk before bedtime to tire your pup out.
Do not put water or food near its sleeping place or it might leave the bed and start the process all over again on its return. In fact, it can be bad to feed a dog late at night, here’s why.
5. Scratching the bed for treats
After having done your part to tire your dog out, it still may take it into its head to look for buried treasure in its bedding. If once upon a time, it found a treat, all is lost.
Game theory kicks in and the cagey canine will forever treat its bed like a slot machine that will one day deliver another dopamine rush.
6. Possibly out of frustration
If your dog is sleeping alone, it could be looking for comfort. It may not relish sleeping on its own and take some of its frustration out on its bedding by scratching the bed before he lies down.
Once again, this could become a habit with a different underlying cause. Try soothing it with a plushie or similar inanimate companion. Perhaps it’s even time to buy a new toy (view on Amazon).
7. Bed scratching through anxiety
Your dog could be anxious for reasons unrelated to bedtime. Digging and scratching up his bed could be a form of self-soothing.
If you think this is the case, try to reassure the dog gently and praise it when it settles down. There’s more on this lower down the page.
8. Scratching bedding and blankets due to attachment
The bed may represent security to your dog. Denning will be the way that the dog bonds with its bedding.
If you adopt or foster a rescue dog that has a checkered history, it may attach special significance to its bedding to feel at home.
Handy Hint: I wrote a guide about how long it might take rescue dogs to adapt to your home with tips on how to make it easier for them.
9. Scratching the bed to make lying down less painful
If you have a senior or a dog that is off colour, it may scratch, dig and turn the bedding more than usual. This is because it cannot find a way to lie down that is free from pain.
Hopefully, your vet will be able to pre-empt any lingering ailments at the annual check-up. The same behaviour could be expected from a dog that is recovering from surgery.
10. Creating a whelping area before giving birth
Females that are about to give birth will start carving out a whelping space for themselves and their imminent offspring.
Hopefully, you have been expecting the happy event and can be of assistance in providing a safe, comfortable place for mom to give birth to her pups.
11. Creating a warmer space due to cold weather
The ritual may be seasonal. Perhaps, as autumn approaches, your dog starts feeling the cold. This is especially true of old and infirm dogs.
Be sensitive to the changes in temperature and provide adequate bedding or heating. If you need more tips, read this guide to keeping dogs warm in winter (it’s for a Pug, but applies to all).
12. To hide themselves
Some daft dogs think that burying themselves in a hole they have created in their imagination is a form of camouflage.
This would have worked in the wild but with bedding and blankets it’s harder to pull off successfully.
13. Scratching to remove an uncomfortable object
Some dogs will scratch their bed before lying down to remove something uncomfortable, perhaps even sharp objects, like a toy or treat.
Remember the princess and the pea?
Dog divas have the same innate sensibilities and will dig until the offending object, real or imagined, has been dislodged.
14. Scratching at bedding to make it smell “better”
If you have recently washed your dog’s bedding you could be in for a long night. The dog will treat the newly laundered nest as an assault on its nostrils and will work overtime to mask the smell and establish its own.
This throwback to the past may not be a totally futile practice. If you decide to go camping in the woods with your dog, it will have at least one survival skill.
Bed scratching due to anxiety
Sometimes a dog will scratch the bed at night due to anxiety. What started off as something fun, can become and anxious behavior that is compulsive, and seemingly never-ending.
If your dog’s bed scratching seems to be making them more and more worked up, it’s likely there is some underlying anxiety that needs to be addressed. Consult your vet.
Most dogs scratch their bed at night before finally settling down due to ingrained ancestral behavior… but not always.
The next time you see your dog doing it, perhaps run through my checklist above to see what you can ascertain.
And if it looks like anxiety, seek a professional opinion.
You might also like…
- How to calm a restless dog before bed
- Why dogs lick the floor indoors
- Why dogs like to sleep on your clean clothes
Dog in bed photo used in header via https://unsplash.com/photos/nbkvjM05ogY