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Why Do Dogs Roll On Their Backs? [Top 5 Reasons]

Key Takeaways

  • Generally, dogs roll on their backs when they are happy and want to receive belly rubs from their humans.
  • In other cases, rolling on their backs is a sign of submission for dogs.
  • Rolling on their backs is a natural behavior for dogs which shouldn’t cause worries for pet parents.

You probably see your dog do this a lot, which makes you ask, why do dogs roll on their backs? The simple answer is that they are seeking attention and belly rub, but this could also be a sign of submissiveness, respect, or trust.

My dog has all kinds of funny behaviors—I’m sure yours too. While most of them are worth a laugh or two, it’s not unusual to stop and wonder about why your dog acts as he does. Even something as simple as rolling on his back can provoke some curiosity, and learning a little more about why that behavior occurs can actually teach you a fair bit about your dog. 

It’s actually a great idea to start your research into “weird dog behaviors” (you’ll be surprised to know that what you find weird are in fact normal canine behaviors) by looking at something as seemingly simple as when dogs roll on their back. This dog body language is commonly thought of as a simple submissive gesture or like waving a white flag, but as I always remind pet parents, the truth is that things are quite a bit more complicated than many think. Taking some time to look into a certain dog behavior through other body language clues and whatever is going on in his environment can reveal more about why your dog behaves as such. 

Why Dogs Roll on Their Backs

Dogs roll on their backs for a few different reasons. There’s actually enough of a difference between every pup that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why yours might be rolling without knowing a little more about his general behavior. Starting with the base causes, though, can help you to make a few educated guesses. 

An Attempt to Disguise the Dog’s Scent

A surprising number of your dog’s behaviors have very little to do with their day-to-day lives. While you have a domestic dog that enjoys all of the creature comforts of the modern era, there’s a good chance that many of his silly behaviors actually have their roots in a time before man and dog lived side by side. In fact, your dog’s tendency to roll over on his back may have made a lot more sense for your dog’s wolf ancestors than it does for the animal that lives with you today. 

Like so many other dog behaviors, a dog who rolls on his back is probably trying to increase his odds of survival in the wild. Your dog’s behavior may well be an attempt to disguise his scent by rolling around in something that has a less dog-like odor, like poop or dead animals, in order to hide from any predators that might be in the area. This may have been a very useful behavior when dogs had to deal with real predators and it might even be useful for feral dogs who are trying to survive in the wild today. 

Unfortunately for your dog, there are probably not any predator around that will actually make this behavior useful. Nevertheless, your dog may be on the lookout for a nice pile of something smelly in which to roll on so that he can disguise as much of his scent as possible when outside in their wireless dog fence. The awful smell generated by this activity might not be pleasant to your nose, but it would probably have the desired effect on a larger predatory animal. 

What this means for your dog on a practical level is, of course, that he is going to get more baths than might otherwise be necessary. Unfortunately, this is a very deeply ingrained behavior that’s hard to break off most dogs, but taking the time to get rid of smelly piles outside is almost always worth the effort. 

Relieving an Itch

Your dog’s anatomy has a major problem—he has an awful lot of back, but he lacks appendages that can get to those hard-to-reach spots. Unfortunately, your dog’s skin can get quite itchy and he can’t just scratch those itches when necessary. 

Perhaps the most effective way for a dog to scratch an itch in a hard-to-reach spot is to roll over on his back and twist around until he finds relief. It doesn’t really matter where he decides to scratch the itch, just that the motion will bring him at least some level of relief. 

Brown dog scratching.

This isn’t something you really need to worry about as a dog owner if it only happens from time to time. It’s a silly little activity that makes your dog feel better and that really doesn’t hurt anything, so you don’t really need to worry when you see it happen. 

The real problems occur if your dog is doing this frequently. If your dog keeps scratching an itch, he might be dealing with a parasite like a flea or a tick or might have a skin condition that could use the help of a professional. If your dog starts rolling around more than usual, I recommend checking him thoroughly for unwanted passengers and then take him to a vet to see if any kind of medication for his skin is needed. It’s usually a good idea to apply flea and tick treatment for dogs regularly, just in case.

The Dog is On the Defensive

We usually think of a dog on his back as one who is trying to show that he is being submissive. One of the more interesting things that behaviorists have figured out recently is that this may not always be the case. In fact, some dogs may be rolling over onto their backs not because they are trying to show the other dogs that they are submissive, but rather because they find it easier to fight from this position. It is also often used to facilitate play.

If you stop to think about it, the back can actually be a great fighting position for your dog. It gives him much more leverage, it provides your dog with a way to easily maneuver his body on the ground, and it even gives your dog better access to the other dog’s undefended underbelly if he is trying to get in a few snaps of his own. 

It might be odd to think of things this way, but this position really can be the best choice for a dog who knows that he cannot simply outmuscle another dog in a fight. Whether your dog is trying to get the upper hand at play fight or he is trying to get into a better defensive position, rolling on his back can make an awful lot of sense. 

A Basic Submissive Action

While your dog probably won’t roll on his back during a play fight to show submission, this kind of action can still mean submissiveness when it happens at other times. Once again, this is the kind of instinctive action that is probably inherited from your dog’s ancestors and one that probably made much more sense when your dog was living in a pack of other similar animals. 

At a basic level, this kind of behavior is meant to show that your dog poses no threat to the pack hierarchy. He goes in a vulnerable position with legs sticking and providing a clear path to all of his most vital organs as an extreme show of trust and submission, one that would generally be rewarded with a lack of violence. In fact, this behavior is so common that a dog might even do this when it accidentally enters the territory of another predator to convince that animal that the dog simply isn’t worth trying to fight. 

Dog lying on back by a wall.

If your dog rolls on his back in front of you, he may be trying to acknowledge his place in your own pack hierarchy. Because he is rolling over, it is likely a sign of taking on a submissive role to you and placing a great deal of trust in you to keep him safe at the same time. 

Many dog owners actually train their dogs to roll over and show submission as part of establishing a relationship. Your dog’s choice to do this on command isn’t really a show of submission, though, but rather a trick. Your dog has to roll over on his own volition to be in a position to show you anything of real importance. 

The Dog May Just Be Happy

Finally, your dog might just be rolling over on his back because he is just that happy to see you! 

When you pet your dog, he is often at one of his happiest states. The dog is so happy, in fact, that he doesn’t feel scared to be vulnerable around you. Your dog is placing his complete trust in you at that moment, and in doing so he will roll onto his back. 

Man hugging a happy dog.

We can also see this kind of behavior in many sleeping dogs. Dogs who sleep on their backs, for example, are a prime example of dogs who are at total ease with their place in the home. These dogs are so comfortable in their dog bed that they simply don’t have to worry about predators and have placed their total faith in their owners. Dogs who have trouble sleeping will tend to curl up into a corner, in contrast.

A dog on his back may well be a dog who is in a position of total confidence and relaxation. This is one of those behaviors that separate a dog from its ancestors, as you simply wouldn’t see a dog doing this in the wild. It’s also the kind of behavior that should mean a lot to a dog’s owner because it is a sign of the kind of trust that’s hard to find in any other relationship. 

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are dogs happy when they roll on their backs?

While this may not always be the case, your dog rolling over onto his back can sometimes be a sign that he is happy. If you are petting your dog or playing with him, he may roll onto his back to show that he is not only happy but that he feels completely safe in your presence. 

2. Why do dogs roll on their backs and wiggle?

It depends on where they are. If your dog is outside, he might be trying to get the scent of something outside onto his body as a way of scaring off potential predators. If you are inside, though, there is a much better chance that your dog is trying to scratch an itch. Dog behaviors can have multiple causes, though, so it’s always a good idea to keep an eye on what your dog is doing before he starts wiggling to figure out the root cause of the action. 

3. Why does my dog rub herself all over the carpet?

There are a few basic reasons why this might occur. In most cases, it seems like dogs do this because they are trying to scratch an itch that they cannot reach with their limbs. This is especially common in dogs with allergies, but it can occur at any time. Your dog may also be trying to get some kind of smell all over his body, largely as an attempt to ward off predators. This is less common inside, but it can happen if something has been spilled on your carpet. 

4. Why does my dog roll on his side when I approach him?

There’s a very good chance that your dog is trying to show that he is submissive to you in this situation. If your dog rolls over upon seeing you, he may be trying to acknowledge the fact that you are the person in charge of his pack and that he has no real desire to threaten your leadership. With this said, the dog may also just be trying to show you that he feels comfortable and unthreatened when you are around.

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