When a dog rolls over and exposes its belly, what is the first thing you tend to do?
What if the dog exposing its belly is your own dog cuddling with you on the couch?
Now, what if the dog is your friend’s dog you have just met in their home a few minutes ago?
Ok, now what if this is a rescue dog living in a shelter?
If your answer to each of these questions is different, then bravo! You are on your way to understanding the variability of behavior and the drastic importance of CONTEXT in understanding what a dog is trying to tell you.
If your answer to all these questions is “rub its belly!”- that is actually a very common answer!
Unfortunately, it is often the exact opposite of what you should do in response to this particular behavior.
Dogs, and canines in general, roll over onto their backs starting from a very young age.
Between two or more canines, this behavior is a clear message that the rolling dog is not a threat, feels worried by the interaction, and would like some space from the other dog. A well-socialized dog observing this behavior should walk away in response. This is an especially common behavior observed in puppies, who know they are vulnerable to injury from adult dogs.
The confusion often arises when this behavior is displayed to people, particularly since puppies are so adorable, and their bellies are soooo soft! Many dogs actually learn to enjoy this behavior from certain people they know well, which can complicate things- and is also why if your dog exposes their belly during a relaxed cuddle session, they very well might be asking for those yummy tummy rubs!
In general though, rolling over and exposing the belly is a defensive behavior, indicating the dog or puppy is NOT comfortable with whatever interaction is occurring. Belly exposure in this way is a step in the Canine Ladder of Aggression- which culminates in a bite.
It is best to leave these dogs alone and give them SPACE.
Teach your children to move away if a dog rolls over.
Many dog bites, especially to the face, have occurred due to a misreading of this behavior.
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