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Trainer’s Corner: Happy Dog or Stressed Dog?

When a dog rolls over onto his back, it is common for people in his presence to think it is a solicitation for a belly rub…but that is not always the case. 

Sure, when my Dawson jumps onto my lap at night and then rolls over with a loose, floppy body, he is absolutely wanting a nice long tummy massage from me. I know that by his relaxed muscles that are limp in my touch. 

However, I see many dogs roll over in other contexts as a means of communicating a need for space. Usually when I point that out to people, they are surprised. They had been seeing it as a want for attention and closeness. 

When there is that kind of miscommunication, it can be a source of increased stress for the dog that is already trying to let others know it is uncomfortable. This is a reason why I always teach kids how to identify what a dog is trying to say, because if they (or adults) are doing something to cause a dog to feel uneasy in a situation, it is less likely to choose to engage in that situation in the future. It may even lead to it needing to escalate its communication behaviors to something much more negative…like a low growl, snarl, lunge, or bite. 

How do you know the difference between a solicitation for a belly rub and a need for distance? 

There are two big indicators: the dog’s body language and the environment. 

Look at the dog. Some signs that may indicate stress and discomfort in a dog include: stiff muscles and a tense face, ears that are held back, a closed and tight mouth, eyes either locked onto something or eyes intentionally averted (avoidance behavior), or a low growl. 

Look at the environment: Did the dog roll over during a certain activity? Maybe when someone loomed over it or came too close. Or maybe a group of young people surrounded it or its sibling dogs were just taken out of the room. That could be a sign that something is causing the dog stress. 

If I am with a dog that I suspect has rolled over due to stress, I give that dog space, encourage it to get up and then evaluate what needs to change to help the dog feel comfortable. 

These are a few examples of times when I have seen a dog roll over, indicating a need for space instead of scratching.

A dog was with me in a classroom to talk with kids. When the dog was brought close to the children, his tail went down and he began moving more slowly. He rolled over on his belly when one of the kids came up to practice petting him. I encouraged him to get up and had his owner walk him away. Then I taught the kids how to practice asking him to do hand targeting—a behavior he knows well. I had one child step away from the other kids and hold out her hand for him to touch with his nose, this time the dog’s tail was held neutral and wagging. His muscles were loose. He was walking on a loose leash next to her. And, guess what? He even solicited a pet from the little girl who practiced that with him. 

I have seen a dog roll over on his belly with stiff muscles when an owner tries to attach a harness or leash to him. Again, I’d encourage the dog to get up and work with the owner in teaching the dog to feel better about having the harness or leash attached. NOTE that if the reason for that reaction has to do with something the dog is frightened of outside, then that needs to be addressed too. 

When a dog rolls over during training, I encourage the dog to get up and then think about what changes could be made to instead see the dog have loose muscles, give attention to the lesson, and even loosely wag his tail. 

Do you ever see your dog roll over when you are in the middle of an activity or when there is something going on in the environment that could cause your dog to feel stressed? It could be your dog’s way of indicating he needs space and/or a change. 



Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com
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