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Dogs roll on their backs all the time. And it’s adorable. But why do they do it?

You might think your dog is rolling on their back to ask for a belly rub, but the behavior is far more complicated than that. A large part of dog communication is done through body language, and rolling on the back is a complicated signal that can mean many things—or sometimes nothing at all. Read on to learn why your dog is rolling on their back and when it could be cause for concern.

Your Dog Wants a Belly Rub

Although it’s a myth that belly rubs are universally adored, many dogs love having their stomachs scratched. And rolling on their back is a great way for your dog to show you what they want. But before you assume rolling on their back is an invitation, look at the rest of your dog’s body.

© 2014 Mary Swift Photography

If their mouth is hanging open, their tongue is lolling out, and their eyes are open and relaxed, chances are they want nothing more than a good belly rub. Just to be sure, give a few gentle scratches, then reassess. If your dog is at ease, keep going. But if they stiffen or look uncomfortable, you’ve misread the signs.

Your Dog Wants to Play

Dogs will also roll onto their backs as an invitation to play, particularly when they are interacting with smaller dogs or puppies. It’s a friendly posture that invites the other dog to jump in and roughhouse—a type of self-handicapping.

Your dog might also invite play with you in the same manner. Look for a loose, wiggly body and an open mouth. You might also see play bows beforehand that indicate everything that follows is all in good fun.

Your Dog Is Gaining a (Playful) Tactical Advantage

Just because a dog rolls on their back during play doesn’t mean they’re waving the white flag. Although it’s often considered a submissive gesture, rolling on the back gives a dog a tactical advantage during a wrestling session. A scientific study that looked at dogs rolling on their backs, specifically during play, found that the rollers used the posture to launch their own playful attacks or to escape a play bite to the neck.

Golden Retriever laying on its back playing with a ball.
LightFieldStudios/Getty Images Plus

Your Dog Is Showing They Mean No Harm

Dogs also roll on their backs to show they come in peace. You might see your dog greet you this way when they are excited to see you. The posture would be accompanied by a loose, squirmy body and an open mouth.

Your dog might also adopt this posture if you raise your voice at them. They are asking you to calm down by telling you they mean no harm—even if they did destroy your pillow.

Your Dog Is Expressing Fear or Anxiety

If a happy greeting is the positive end of the emotional scale, dogs at the other end roll on their backs, too. When dogs are scared or anxious, they use that position to diffuse or prevent aggression. For example, a dog who has not had enough socialization might become overwhelmed around a bunch of strange dogs and roll on their back to keep the others at bay.

A nervous dog will be stiff and tense or trembling, and they might urinate while they lie on their back. These are all signs your dog is uncomfortable with the current situation. Consider it a cry for help and remove them from the environment as quickly as you can. Then, you can begin a training program to help your dog feel more comfortable with that situation in the future. That might mean building your dog’s confidence or using desensitization and counterconditioning to change your dog’s emotional response.

Your Dog Is Itchy

A far simpler explanation for your dog rolling on their back is to scratch an itch. A dog’s paws simply can’t reach behind them, so rolling on grass or the carpet is a great way to deal with irritated skin.

But be sure your dog isn’t scratching too much. If your pet seems to be rolling around all the time, look at their skin for signs of rash or inflammation. Excessive itching can also be caused by external parasites like fleas. If left unchecked, excessive itching can lead to painful hot spots. Bring your dog to the vet for an examination to determine the underlying cause of the rolling and itching.

Your Dog Is Hot

Dogs also roll on their backs to help regulate their temperature when they’re too hot. Although dogs sweat from their paw pads, they mostly pant to cool down. But because a dog’s belly has less fur than the rest of their body, exposing it to the breeze on a steamy day can help keep them at a comfortable temperature.

Your Dog Wants to Roll in Stinky Stuff

Dogs love to roll in stinky things like dead animal carcasses, and a good back roll is a great way to get covered in the stench. Nobody is exactly sure why dogs want to coat themselves in strong scents, but there are several theories. It may be a predatory strategy left over from their wolf ancestors. By disguising their own scent from potential prey, wolves can increase their hunting success.

However, dogs may also do this to take the smell back to their pack members, a “look what I found” behavior. And finally, dogs might roll in stinky stuff just because they like the smell and want to carry it around on themselves, like canine cologne.

How to Know Why Your Dog Is Rolling on Their Back

As you can see, many of the reasons dogs roll on their backs are situation-specific. But context isn’t the whole story. Read your dog’s body language as well. If they are loose and wiggly, have an open mouth, or their eyes and ears are relaxed, the back rolling is likely associated with a happy emotion. If your dog is stiff, trembling, looking away, or has pinned back ears, the back rolling is likely associated with fear. And although a tucked tail is a sure sign of anxiety, a wagging tail could mean many things. You have to read the entire body language package and learn to understand your dog. Then you will have far greater insight into all the reasons your pet rolls on their back.
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