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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 or she does. Even something as simple as rolling on his or her 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 dog behaviors by looking at something as seemingly simple as when dogs roll on their back. This 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 he or she does. 

Why Dogs Roll on Their Backs

Dogs roll on their backs for a few different reasons. There’s actually enough of a difference between them that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why a dog might be rolling without knowing a little more about your dog’s 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 or her 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 or her 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 or her back is probably trying to increase his or her odds of survival in the wild. Your dog’s behavior may well be an attempt to disguise his or her 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 predators 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 so that he or she can disguise as much of his or her 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 or she is going to get more baths than might otherwise be necessary. Unfortunately, this is a very deeply ingrained behavior that’s hard to break most dogs off, but taking the time to leave smelly piles alone outside is almost always worth the effort. 

Relieving an Itch

Your dog’s anatomy has a major problem – he or she has an awful lot of back, but he or she lacks appendages that can get to those hard-to-reach spots. Unfortunately, your dog’s skin can get quite itchy and he or she 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 or her back and twist around under he or she finds relief. It doesn’t really matter where he or she decides to scratch the itch, just that the motion will bring him or her at least some level of relief. 

Brown dog scratching. | The Pampered Pup

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 get up in your arms when you see it happen. 

The real problems occur if your dog is doing this frequently. If your dog keeps scratching an itch, he or she 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 normal, it might be a good idea to first check your dog thoroughly for unwanted passengers and then to take your dog to a vet to see if he or she needs any kind of medication for his or her skin. 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 or her back as one who is trying to show that he or she 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 or her much more leverage, it provides your dog with a way to easily maneuver his or her body on the ground, and it even gives your dog better access to the other dog’s undefended underbelly if he or she is trying to get in a few snaps of his or her 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 or she cannot simply outmuscle another dog in a fight. Whether your dog is trying to get the upper hand at play fight or her or she is trying to get into a better defensive position, rolling on his or her back can make an awful lot of sense. 

A Basic Submissive Action

While your dog probably won’t roll on his or her back during a play fight to show submission, this kind of action can still be submissive 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 or she goes in a vulnerable position with legs sticking and providing a clear path to all of his or her 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 show this behavior 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. | The Pampered Pup

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

Many dog owners actually train their dogs to roll over and show submission as part of establishing a relationship with the dog. 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 or her 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 or her back because he or she is just that happy to see you! 

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

Man hugging a happy dog. | The Pampered Pup

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 or her 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 or her back can sometimes be a sign that he or she is happy. If you are petting your dog or playing with him or her, he or she may roll onto his or her back to show that he or she is not only happy but that he or she 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 or she might be trying to get the scent of something outside onto his or her 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 or she 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 or her 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 or she is submissive to you in this situation. If your dog rolls over upon seeing you, he or she may be trying to acknowledge the fact that you are the person in charge of his or her pack and that he or she has no real desire to threaten your leadership. With this said, the dog may also just be trying to show you that he or she feels comfortable and unthreatened when you are around.

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