Does your dog really want a tummy rub?

Does your dog REALLY want a tummy rub?

Our puppy class attendees are asked to give 5 body language observations as part of their homework, and every month we get numerous owners saying ‘lies/rolls over for a tummy rub’.

The common misconception that dogs rolling over want a tummy rub is sadly a contributing factor to dog bites, unaware dog owners not understanding or being able to read dog body language effectively.
We should all learn what our dogs are silently telling us, and it is common belief amongst dog behaviour professionals that increasing awareness of canine body language is a key to preventing dog bites.

So, today I’m going to tell you the difference between a tummy rub and a tap out.

The other terminology for a tap out is a ‘submissive roll’ but as that gives a nod towards the whole dominance/submission debate many tend to veer towards ‘tap out’ or ‘appeasement behaviour’, including myself.
A tap out is a sign the dog is uncomfortable, overwhelmed or surrendering. You will see dogs doing it to humans and dogs and it basically is a move that exposes the vulnerable boneless part of the body (the belly) and the genitals.

It is a DISTANCE INCREASING behaviour that says ‘please don’t hurt me’, one of total surrender.
This means that in some instances, when this behaviour does not work (it is ignored by the person or dog, who continues to invade their space) the dog doing the tap-out may escalate their behaviour and snap or bite in a bid to get more distance between them and the individual.


-Dog is often active pre tap out
-Dog rolls over in response to being approached, touched or approaches an individual and rolls over. (More on why they choose to approach and then tap-out later).
-Ears usually pinned/pulled back
-Tail often curls over genitals or the dog urinates (fear/flight response)
– Tension in the forelegs, rigid legs from contracted muscles (stress hormones gearing the body up for action, ie the fight or flight response)
-Head often angles to the side and whites of eyes show, or they may be narrowed or doing heavy blinking
-Usually tension in the muzzle, mouth is closed and very likely the dog is doing tongue flicks.
-Body is often partially or fully angled to the side
-The back leg often peddles when contact is made, often making contact and trying to push the individual/hand away with the peddling leg
-Often in response to unfamiliar dogs/people, but this isn’t a rule. Many dogs tap out every day to the approach of their carers.

In this position a dog is vulnerable, and likely feels vulnerable too. IE they are NOT relaxed.

Dogs can get caught up in a tap out habit when greeting other people or dogs, meaning they choose to approach someone and roll over regardless of what the other individual is doing.
This is because the dog in question is social and therefor wants to interact so continues to approach dogs and people, but when they get up close they are overwhelmed or concerned by the other individual’s actions based on previous experiences.

These previous experiences may be being stroked too excitedly, roughly or abruptly by a human or being told off by a dog who didn’t appreciate an excited or speedy approach and greet (or quite simply wanted to be left alone).
Despite these experiences the dog may still want to get to know people and dogs, but they pre-empt a negative outcome and roll over in an attempt to pacify what might happen.
(It’s worth noting that not all dogs approaching an individual do so to be social, but we wont go into that here)

So, with that in mind, as a rule I NEVER stroke a dog when they roll over in front of me, regardless of whether I approached them or they approached me.
If they roll over in response to me touching them I stop, disengage (stand up, move back) and let them sort themselves out and face the right way up. If they return for attention and are standing I will reinforce confident social behaviour with gentle, calm attention of some kind (usually a soft vocal acknowledgment or gentle eye contact post-tap out).

It’s important to recognise that tap outs show the dog is in an insecure state, therefor I want to encourage dogs to be confident- not insecure.
I want them to know they can trust me to not hurt them by me listening and responding by giving distance when they ask for it.

If you tickle a dog’s belly while they are tapping-out, you are potentially reinforcing this behaviour and making it more likely for them to do it again, or at worst punish the behaviour and risk your dog escalating their behaviour in similar contexts in the future.

Sadly, other dogs may treat dogs that tap out in front of them as easy targets and bully them, leaving them open to more bad experiences that will reinforce the tap-out behaviour and make it occur more often or more intensely. And so a vicious cycle begins.
Or, the tap-out dog escalates their behaviour (by snapping at the dog) or starts to ask for distance from further away (and thus you end up with a reactive dog).
My own dogs often appear rather flustered or even agitated by dogs who rush up to them and tap-out, because it’s just not a respectable greeting behaviour. As a greeting behaviour it is totally out of context from it’s original purpose- to diffuse conflict or pacify a threat.

So, how the bloomin’ heck should you know when to stroke that god damn silky smooth (or hairy!) belly?!?

My observations are that dogs may want their belly rubbed when they are already in a state of relaxation. They will likely be next to you on the sofa or on the floor, and then roll over and stretch out, often when you’ve been busy doing something else.

-Their tail will likely not cover their genitals
-They will likely look you at you, in the case of my dogs- right in the eye!
-The facial muscles will be relaxed, the muzzle will be loose and will often drop down (if dog is upside down) to reveal a little of the canine tooth and front teeth
-Legs will be floppy/loose, akimbo or stretched out
-Dog will likely be flat on their on back, totally upside down
-Body contorted into positions your never would think are possible

**NB When dogs roll over during play, as a displacement behaviour or arousal release this is usually accompanied by goofy body movements, as featured in the one of the pictures attached (you’ll have to guess which one!)

Fitting the above criteria is likely to be a dog that is relaxed and open to you stroking them on the belly. That said, it is always sensible to do the consent test.

Stroke the dog on the chest area, stop after 2-3 seconds, wait for the dogs response…..continued behaviour/staying with you means you can try again or disengagement (looking away, rolling back over, moving away) means ‘please stop’.

If your dog frequently rolls over in response to people or other dogs being within close proximity it is advisable to employ the help of a qualified, force free professional who can guide you on strategies you can put in place to increase their confidence.

To be on the safe side, get in the habit of leaving a dog’s belly alone unless they are uber relaxed next to you and have chosen to roll over rather randomly. And when that happens, make sure you give them the chance to sort themselves out by doing the consent test.
Don’t assume they want their belly rubbed as it’s very possible they don’t.


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