Why Do Dogs Lie on Their Backs?

Dogs lie on their backs for several reasons so it's important to pay close attention to a dog's body language and the context in which the behavior occurs. Differentiating these reasons is important if you want to understand what your canine companion is trying to communicate. So pay close attention to your four-legged companion and try to put yourself into your dog's "shoes."

A Sense of Safety

It takes a certain level of confidence for dogs to lie on their backs. This makes sense if we think about it. 

A dog's whole belly area is a vulnerable location. It stores all the dog's digestive organs, including the stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. Just a bit further, is the chest area which contains life-sustaining organs such as the dog's lungs and heart. And then, the vulnerable neck area is revealed, exposing the jugular vein.  

On top of this, the skin over the belly area is particularly thin and there is not much fur covering the area. This is likely because the belly area is rarely exposed to the sun. The area is also sensitive, being quite rich in nerve endings. 

When a dog exposes his softest and most vulnerable body part to the world and appears relaxed and happy, he is likely demonstrating that he feels peaceful and quite safe in his environment. 

A Climate Control System 

Just like your mattresses have a summer and winter side, dogs adopt certain sleeping positions that are based on how cold or hot they feel. 

As the dog days of summer approach, your dog will therefore seek out ways to cool down. Panting is surely the most recognized method by dog owners, but there are another creative ways dogs adopt to get relief from raising temperatures. 

Laying over cool surfaces like tiles or a humid towel sure work great, but let's face it: lying  belly-up like a dead cockroach beats them all when it comes to canine creativity. 

What dogs are trying to do in this case is exposing their bellies towards the breeze. It's plain and simple an astute climate control method. But wait, there's more to it! By exposing the bottom of the paws to the air as well dogs achieve a bonus cooling effect considering that that's where a dog's sweat glands are located!

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Some dogs just love to bathe in the sun

Basking in the Sun 

While dogs curl up in the winter to warm up and stretch out to cool off, there is a another category of dogs who bring the belly-up position to a whole different level. 

Some dogs just love to expose their bellies to the pleasant, restorative sensation of the sun. Whether your dog is soaking sun rays filtering through a window or is basting in full sun when outdoors, you can literally witness a blissful look on their faces. 

While a little sun and vitamin D is good for dogs, dog owners should consider that dogs don't understand sun burns, so limiting their sun exposure is helpful to prevent potential sun damage to the skin.  

Relieving an Itch

What does your dog do exactly when lying on his back? If he rolls on his back and starts wiggling his body from one side to the other and groans happily, most likely he is relieving an itch. A dog's back area is not easy for them to reach, so they try what they can to stop the itching.

Many times, dogs who do this will roll their backs on a textured surface like a carpet, but as many dog owners can attest, many dogs love to roll their backs on their toys, using them as back scratchers.  

Asking For a Belly Rub

Does your dog flop over and go belly up when lying next to you with a pleading look on his face? Chances are, your dog is asking for a belly rub. 

Many dogs love belly rubs because they feel good and the belly area is a place where they cannot easily reach themselves. Supplied by a rich network of nerve endings, the belly area is also very sensitive to touch. 

Watch your dog's body language when he rolls over. Typically, dogs who are enjoying the interaction tend to look limp like a noodle, (but that's not always the case), explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta. However, not all dogs who go belly up are actually asking for a belly rub, so caution is needed. 

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An Appeasement Gesture 

Not all flopped-up belly positions are created equally; as mentioned, there are belly flops and belly flops and some don't mean the dog wants a belly rub. Use caution: some dogs may even go on the defensive if they are touched. 

For example, dogs sometimes go belly up and lie on their backs when they are fearful or feeling somewhat threatened. It's their way of raising a white flag. Dog behavior professional categorize this behavior as an "appeasement gesture."

A dog who goes belly up in presence of other dogs or people is trying to show how helpless they are. Inguinal presentation in dogs is therefore their way of saying something along the lines of "Please don't hurt me, I mean no harm."

Typically, these dogs display a tense body language with their tails tucked under, their ears pulled back and the head may be turned away to avoid direct eye contact. You may see this happen when the dog is at the vet's office or when the dog knows something they are not comfortable with is about to happen. 

Puppies are notorious for going belly up and even squirting a few droplets of urine, to emphasize their innocence. It's as if these puppies were saying: "Yo! Sniff this urine. See, I'm just a young puppy and don't know any better. Please don't harm me," points out Ian Dunbar in an article for Dog Start Daily. 

Did you know? For some time, it was believed that dogs who lie on their backs during play were trying to defuse a situation and prevent aggression, but at a closer insight, a study revealed that dogs who lie on their backs during play used this position to block playful bites and launch attacks on their partner.

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This puppy is trying to defuse a situation. It's as if saying "I'm just a puppy, please be gentle with me."

Now That You Know...

As seen a dog may be lying on his back for various reasons. These tips are therefore based on the underlying reason why your dog is flopping over in the first place. 

  • If your dog is lying on his back and sleeping, let him be. As the saying goes: let sleeping dogs lie. Startling a dog who is sleeping or half asleep may upset him to the point of sometimes even biting or threatening to bite. Best to err on the side of caution and let your dog catch his restorative Zzzs in peace. 
  • Is your dog panting and his sides are heaving? Most likely, your dog is hot. Help him choose cool surfaces such as the tiled areas in kitchens and bathrooms. Outdoors, you can hose down a shady area for him to enjoy. And don't forget that now there are also cooling vests and cooling beds for dogs as well as refreshing bandannas. 
  • For dogs who spend lots of time basking in the sun, sunscreen can be helpful. Avoid sunscreen for humans containing zinc oxide or parabens. Nowadays, there are safer sunscreen made exclusively for dogs.
  • Is your dog asking for a belly rub? Turns out, there's also an art to that. If your want to make your dog's day, follow these tips from Maryjean Ballner, a Licensed Massage Therapist and author of the book: Dog Massage: A Whiskers-to-Tail Guide to Your Dog's Ultimate Petting Experience. Start off from the chest area and then work your way towards the tummy area as dogs benefit from a warm-up period too. Provide a gentle touch. If your dog is not fond of belly rubs, use caution and skip them altogether. 
  • If your dog is going belly-up and has a tense body, pay attention to what is happening. Most likely your dog is telling you that something is worrying him. Maybe he's dreading that nail trim or bath or he isn't comfortable with your tone of voice. Respect his desire of being left alone if feasible, but plan on making the activity he's anticipating with concern, less frightening. A desensitization and counterconditioning program may be needed. Consult with a dog behavior professional using gentle dog behavior modification techniques for guidance. 
  • With excessively submissive dogs, avoid direct eye contact and looming over them. Instead, crouch at their level, and if you decide to pet them, avoid reaching over the head area, but rather pet them on the chest.  Distracting these dogs with a treat can help too and so does working on enhancing their self-esteem through gentle training methods and dog confidence boosting exercises. 

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