Table of Contents
- This post contains affiliate links. Read more here.
- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Ever notice how your dog immediately rolls on their back when you walk into the backyard? Or maybe you see dogs roll on their backs every time you come to say hi. Dogs roll on their backs for many reasons, from relieving an itch to inviting play. In most cases, this is a very normal behavior.
However, there are also certain signs to watch out for. If your dog is rolling onto their back compulsively, there could be an allergy and skin infection going on. Context matters. Where and when your dog rolls onto their back can tell you a lot about how your dog is feeling and what they need or want in the moment.
Your Dog Is Itchy
Like us, dogs get itches on those hard-to-reach areas of their backs. A good roll on the ground can feel satisfying and help them hit the perfect spot.
Different surfaces can also feel great, depending on how deep of an itch your dog has. “Sometimes [different textures] give them an extra sensation during that itching to help relieve it,” says Nicole Ellis, CPDT-KA, a certified professional dog trainer. Grass, dirt, bushes, and carpets all provide unique sensations for your dog.
But, be wary of scratching that doesn’t stop. Excessive rolling and scratching that can’t be interrupted or done compulsively could be a sign of medical issues. Definitely take your dog to the vet if you notice any open wounds as a result of this behavior.
“It is a good idea to go to your vet and make sure something’s medically not going on,” says Ellis, “because it could be a sign of worms or something else.”
What to do if my dog has allergies
Seasonal allergies are a common reason for itching, and you can tackle these symptoms with dog allergy shampoo. You may also notice other symptoms such as ear scratching, scooting, or paw-licking. Some home remedies may help stop allergies but talk to your vet first. For serious cases, your vet may need to prescribe medications to help stop your dog from compulsive itching.
Your Dog Is Leaving—Or Hiding Their Scent
There are two related reasons why your dog may be rolling around on their back, especially if it’s their first time somewhere. “Dogs often will roll on their backs in new areas to put either their scent on that area or, to get that smelly item from that area onto them to disguise their own scent,” says Ellis.
Don’t know which behavior your dog is displaying? Observing this behavior over time may give you some more information. It’s not uncommon for marking and urinating to accompany a good back roll, or for a good back roll to occur because your dog likes the scent of something else.
“Dogs receive so much information through dog urine and smelling it,” says Ellis. She adds that by smelling another dog’s urine, your dog can tell if the other dog is:
- male or female
- altered or not
- in heat or not
Your Dog Is Showing They Are Not a Threat
One of the most common instances of back rolling may be when your dog meets a new dog. Sometimes described as “submissive,” this behavior is often to show other dogs or people that they are not a threat.
“That’s often [a dog] kind of saying, ‘I’m not gonna pounce on you. I’m not gonna do anything.’ And by rolling on their back, they’re kind of exposing their most vulnerable parts,” says Ellis. “And they’re saying, ‘There’s nothing to worry about here,’ and they’re showing respect and trust.”
Be sure to observe if your dog urinates while submissive back rolling. If so, Ellis explains that it could be a sign that your dog is feeling fear or anxiety when meeting another dog.
Due to the vulnerable nature of back rolling, it’s important not to force your dog to roll on their back and pin them in that position. Also known as the “alpha roll”, this adverse technique may cause a negative association with being on their back and increase your dog’s fear when they are in this position.
Instead, advocate for other dogs to stay away and gently remove your dog from those interactions.
Your Dog Is Greeting You
Similar to greeting a dog, our pups also may roll over when saying “hello” to us. “For example, it’s not a behavior we often see when we walk into a vet’s office with our dogs. Instead, they’re going to crouch down low and protect their belly and privates,” says Ellis.
To know whether your dog is providing a happy greeting instead of an anxious one, look for these signs:
- tail wags
- butt wiggles
- relaxed eyes and ears
These are also signs that your dog’s back rolling is coming from a positive place. “They’re so excited to see us that they’re showing us their most vulnerable parts,” says Ellis, who notes that this reaction also indicates the level of comfort your dog has with you.
Your Dog Is Happy and Feeling Playful
When a dog is in a good mood, they may roll on their backs as if to say, “Hi, rub my belly and play with me, please!”
According to Ellis, dogs rolling on their back while playing can feel good because the dog can stretch and feel comfortable. As with the above, it is also a sign of trust with their playmate and an expression of wanting to have fun together.
What to Know About Petting a Dog Who Is on Their Back
Pay attention to your dog’s body language when determining whether or not they’re inviting you to pet them while rolling on their back.
Ellis says a general rule, when your dog comes up and rolls near you, is to give them one or two pets, then stop. Ask yourself: “Are they initiating you to do more? Moving their paws, trying to get you to pet them more? Or are they kind of squirming away? And I always let the animal decide at that point and communicate to me, is this what they want?” says Ellis.
Another scenario in which it’s best to leave your dog be? When they’re rolled on their back and sleeping. You don’t want to surprise your dog while they’re unaware.
Why Dogs Roll on Their Back Depends on the Context
A dog rolling on its back is often a positive sign that shows trust and a willingness to play and get comfortable. But it’s essential to pay attention to your dog’s rolling. Is the scratching or rolling behavior excessive? Are they exhibiting other signs of stress or fear, like urinating? If so, it’s probably time to talk to your vet or dog behaviorist.
So how can you tell the difference between an itch and a happy roll? You might even learn how to better communicate with your dog after discovering how to read dog behavior. Ellis says it’s important to consider a dog’s whole body language and recommends Doggie Language by Lili Chin, which has cartoons that break down a dog’s body language in a fun and visually accessible way.
Remember these body language cues
When your dog rolls on their back, Ellis suggests watching their body’s movements from nose to tail. For example, these are signs that you may need to step away or remove your dog from the situation:
- stiffening in the face, jaw, or body
- yawning or licking their lips out of context
- avoiding eye contact with you or another dog
Dogs looking away from another dog may signal that that dog makes them uncomfortable.
Remember, even though our dogs can’t talk to us with words, they are still always communicating with their expressions, behaviors, and movements.
“Knowing our dogs and being able to see these things and pay attention, you’ll learn a lot more about them,” says Ellis, “and be able to avoid potentially dangerous situations.” And more easily recognize signs of happiness, too!