By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
Dogs don't just roll on their back to get their tummies rubbed; there are several scientific reasons why they do it. Back-rolling is a completely normal behavior; it can be an intuitive defensive position, it may be caused by a medical issue such as fleas or parasites, or it could be your dog's way of saying, "please stop."
As dog owners, we constantly ask ourselves why our dogs do the weird and adorable things they do. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering, “Why does my dog roll on its back?” - this article is for you.
Reason #1: To Experience Their Environment
A dog's nose is roughly three hundred times more sensitive than the average human nose. So it makes sense that scent detection is a regular part of communication for dogs. With their nose upside down while on their back, this gives the nostrils an advantage to take in even more information. This multi-sensory experience is the most common reason our pups roll on their backs. But let’s talk about some more interesting reasons now.
Reason #2: Getting Something Stinky Off (or Getting Something Stinky On)
Do you have a dog that will roll over a dead bug, a patch of foul-smelling grass, or even an animal carcass? It's theorized that some dogs retain an old defense mechanism that drives them to coat their fur with the scent of something else (sometimes even poop - ew) to disguise their own scent. Rolling on their backs helps them to spread out that stinky smell and confuse potential predators. Alternatively, when something has coated their fur that they don't like, they may roll on their backs to disperse the scent (or the feeling) as quickly as possible.
Dogs also leave scent messages by rolling on their backs to let other animals know they were there. This is a form of territory-marking behavior, similar to when a dog urinates in small amounts in various locations.
Reason #3: Alleviating an Itch
Have you ever had difficulty scratching an itch behind your back that's almost impossible to reach without a partner or a tool? While you may not roll on the floor on your back to get it, that's exactly how a dog can alleviate that irritating itch. You can almost feel the "ah, that's the spot" watching a dog do a full-body wiggle to satisfy that itch.
Most of the time, alleviating an itch is as simple as getting a good scratch in and moving on. However, you should keep an eye on your pup if their itchiness becomes excessive. This can be a sign of more serious concerns, like allergies, parasites, or a skin infection.
If you notice any redness, hair loss, or excessive itching, contact your vet to make a plan to help provide your pup some relief. Your DVM may suggest an allergy supplement for mild or seasonal allergies. However, more severe afflictions may call for more aggressive treatment.
If itchy skin is a chronic problem, take additional steps to help your dog from the inside out by choosing a high quality, limited ingredient, human-grade fresh food diet and ensuring your dog gets plenty of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) such as Omega 3s and Omega 6s.
Reason #3: They're saying, "That's enough; please stop."
A dog rolling on their back is often mistaken for an invitation for affection, such as a belly rub. An anxious or scared dog may use this as a polite maneuver to convey that they are not interested in further engagement, especially from a stranger. If you've ever heard of dogs snapping at someone that had just been rubbing their belly after they rolled over, this is a clear example of when rolling over meant "please stop" - not "please touch me."
Dogs have boundaries just as people do, but due to how dogs communicate (primarily with body language), that communication of boundaries gets misconstrued due to speaking a different language than we do, which can confuse people.
As pet parents, we must protect the boundaries of our dogs and disallow touching when our furry friends are clearly saying "no thank you" to a visitor. The solidity of the human-animal bond is built on trust - something your dog feels when you intervene in their discomfort and provide security.
Reason #4: As Strategic Moves During Playtime
A dog rolling on their back has often been seen as a submissive posture, waving the white flag or tapping out, so to speak, to reduce the likelihood of a threat escalating or getting injured during playtime. That is sometimes the case, but another reason a dog may do this is as a tactical maneuver to gain a positional advantage. Yes, that's right; even dogs do things to gain the upper paw in play, and rolling on their backs often precedes a play attack on their opponent. This suggests the dog on their back may have an advantageous position to launch that play attack.
Large dogs sometimes self-handicap or practice "self-takedowns" (as coined by Alexandra Horowitz from the Dog Cognition Lab at Columbia University) by rolling on their backs to give smaller dogs the advantage. This move levels the playing field and keeps play fighting fun for both participants when one has an obvious advantage.
Sometimes in play, when one dog is too rough, another dog will lunge, snap, or even pin another dog to say, "That's too much; back off." The dog on the receiving end of that message may roll over on their back willingly to respond with acceptance to their request to bring it down a notch or that the other dog is not interested in continuing the play session.
Reason #5: Okay, Yes, They Do it For Belly Rubs
Despite all the fun scientific reasons dogs roll onto their backs, sometimes it's as plain and simple as wanting a belly rub from their favorite person. Flopping over in front of you, making eye contact with those adorable, loving eyes, and serving up that tummy is often the most straightforward way a dog can communicate, "I'd really like some rubbins right about now."
The Skinny on the Shimmy: The Bottom Line on Back-Rolling
To sum up, there are many reasons why our pups roll on their backs. From simple scratching to scent detection (or depositing) to playtime strategy, our dogs can say quite a bit with this seemingly simple gesture.
Most of the time, back-rolling is a harmless, fun, and adorable behavior, but if your grooming bill is getting high from washing off the smelly things your pup rolls in, consider working with a dog trainer or behaviorist to teach your pup more desirable behaviors. Positive reinforcement techniques will give your dog alternative behaviors that hopefully involve rolling around in less stinky stuff.
For more answers to life's big "Why do dogs ___?" questions, check out more dog behavior posts on the Native Pet blog.