You get home at the end of a long day and your pup showers you with affection and flops down at your feet, rolling onto their back and giving you unrestricted access to all the soft dog belly you want. Most dogs love belly scratches. Rolling over and presenting their soft undersides is often the only kind of invitation required for the nearest human to lean over and give them a good scratch. Some dogs tend to roll onto their backs more than others. Is there a reason why some dogs roll over more often? What does it mean? Is it just an invitation for belly rubs, or is there something else going on?
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The Root of the Behavior
It has long been believed that rolling over, in addition to giving their humans access to belly rubs, is a sign of submission. If you have a Beagle who rolls over frequently, it means they trust you and want your attention and lots of pets. Between you and your dog, rolling over and showing their belly requires them to trust you, at least enough to give you their vulnerable side. Submissive behaviors that some dogs employ among each other include turning away from direct eye contact, allowing another dog to “win” during playtime, urinating when greeting other dogs, and even showing affection, like licking another dog’s face. Dominant behaviors include mounting other dogs, regardless of their sex, stealing from other dogs, acting pushy or controlling, and staring. A dominant or submissive dog may demonstrate any or all of the associated behaviors.
Any dog can be submissive or dominant. Their attitude can be
dependent upon their specific genetics as much as size and breed. Small
dogs tend to be more submissive than larger dogs, but that isn’t always the case.
Sometimes, smaller dogs like terriers and Chihuahuas may be just as bold and
dominant as a dog several times their size. Sex may also be a factor, but
females can likewise be just as dominant as males. Between two dogs during play time, rolling onto their back might
actually be an aggressive or strategic move to gain the upper hand during a
conflict. In a recent study, researchers observed dogs playing together and found
that dogs who rolled over didn’t remain passive. Instead, they used their
position to defend from and deliver additional play attacks against the other
dog. A dog who rolls over in order to prevent aggression will remain passive.
It just shows that rolling over isn’t a cut-and-dry behavior with a single
Encouraging the Behavior
If you have a dog who doesn’t enjoy belly rubs, it may just be that they haven’t bonded with you enough and lack sufficient trust. A dog has to let their guard down to submit to belly rubs, and if your dog is new in the home or you don’t spend enough time together, your dog may be reluctant to show you their tummy. You shouldn’t force a dog to roll over if they don’t want to. A dog who is distrustful, stressed, or uncomfortable might react defensively or aggressively. You wouldn’t like being held down and neither would your pet. If your Beagle or other dog enjoys a good belly rub, feel free to indulge them.
For a dog, a good belly rub is an essential part of living the good life. To encourage your dog to roll over, you can reward them when they do show you their belly. This will also help your dog learn that rolling over results in a reward, and they’ll be more likely to do so in the future. If your dog rolls over during play time and seems especially aggressive, you may want to consult a trainer to curb excessive aggression between dogs. Likewise, if your dog is fearful or overly submissive, there may be other issues going on. Consult your vet or an experienced trainer for advice.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs who roll onto their backs can also be doing it to disguise their scent, usually by rolling onto something particularly foul-smelling, like garbage or carrion. They might also roll onto their backs because of itchiness, caused by fleas, ticks, or even dry skin or allergies. Watch for flaky skin, raw or red patches, or fleas or flea eggs. Your vet can tell you what else to look out for if your dog seems especially itchy. Another potential reason why dogs roll over is because they’re uncomfortable. A dog who’s being scolded might roll over to try to appease you and attempt to stop the scolding.
Rolling onto their backs and showing their belly is a multi-faceted behavior. It is generally playful and submissive, but other body language may indicate that submission is not all it means. Just pay attention to how your dog acts around people and other pets. Your dog should always be submissive to people and especially children.