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Belly Rub or Back Off?

I've seen a lot of cases over the years where a dog appeared to be asking for a belly rub, then growled, snapped, or bit. What's up with that? As happens so often, the cause is faulty translation on our part.

Dogs can roll on their backs when they want us to pet them, but they can also do it as a sign to stop what we're doing and give them more space. The differences between an inguinal display and a solicitation for pets are subtle, but once you learn to spot them, you'll become a better translator.

Reaction or Solicitation?

The first thing to look for is what happened right before the dog rolled over. Did the person reach for them, bend over them, grab their collar, or some other form of invasive handling? Then it is likely a signal to Back Off.

Not sure? You can test it by standing up and taking a step back. Does the dog immediately get up and maybe shake their whole body? If yes, it was a Back Off signal. Do they move closer to you and nudge your hand? Then it may have been a Belly Rub solicitation.

A solicitation looks like just that. The dog approaches the person with a loose body, moves in close and flops over with that "come hither" look. If the person doesn't respond, the dog may try other means of starting an interaction.

Do They Move Closer or Farther Away?

When the dog starts to roll, which direction do they move. If they are rolling away from you, that's a pretty clear sign. Remember this simple rhyme:

Dogs who want a pet don't play hard to get.

If a dog wants you to pet them, they make it easier, not harder. If they turn away, lean away, or roll away, they're letting you know they need more space.

Loose and Open or Tight and Closed?

Dogs that are feeling comfortable and enjoying the interaction have loose bodies, soft eyes, and relaxed ears and tail. Their mouths may be open and "smiling" and their tongues may hang out of their mouth.

Dogs that are anxious and only tolerating what we're doing are more tense, with other signs of stress, like ears pinned back, tail close to their body, and a closed, tight mouth.

Belly Rub: Loose and open with relaxed ears, mouth, and body

Back Off: Tense and closed, with low ears, closed mouth, and tucked tail. Also rolling away from person.

Back Off: Rolling away and partially closed body, tense mouth, ears back.

Back Off: Rolling away. Closed body and mouth. Low tail.
Not Clear: Rolling closer, but partially closed body. Would need to see more before reaching to pet.
Back Off. Rolling away. Mouth closed. Closed body.
L: Belly Rub! Open body, mouth, flat on back, leaning toward person. R: Back Off. Rolling away, closed body.

Belly Rub: Loose and relaxed, flat on back, solicitation instead of reaction.
Belly Rub: Relaxed, flat on back, legs splayed, leaning into person.
Back Off: Closed body and mouth, ears pinned back, mouth tense and closed.

Back Off: Rolling away, closed body and mouth, ears pinned back, head low, mouth tense and closed.


If it's not obvious the dog is soliciting a belly rub, for your sake and theirs, don't test to see what happens. A lot of face bites happen that way.

Instead, take a step back, kneel down or sit in a chair, and turn your body slightly sideways to the dog. Dogs who want to be pet will quickly respond to that invitation and come closer. Next, do the consent test:

With your arm close to your body (not extended toward the dog), open your hand, palm up. If the dog moves into it, give them a few small pets on the cheek or chest for 3 seconds, then pause. What happens? If they move closer, lean into you, and/or nudge your hand, they are giving you consent. Keep going!

If they stay where they are or move away, they would probably prefer another type of interaction like training or toy play. Or they may be happy to just hang out without the pressure of an activity.


In order for us to rub a dog's belly, we have to in some way bend or loom over them and reach toward them while they are in a vulnerable position. This can be a problem for sensitive dogs whether they are standing, sitting, or lying on their backs. So, my bet is that the problem is not touching their belly, but the invasive position we take to do so. But only the dog really knows!


Behavior is fluid. Just because a dog enjoyed a belly rub once doesn't mean they will every time and in every situation. Their tolerance can be affected by factors including how they're feeling (pain and discomfort change behavior), their familiarity and comfort level with the person doing the petting, where they are and what's happening around them, and more.


Plenty of dogs tolerate us rubbing their belly after they've given a Back Off signal. But that doesn't mean they like it. And what they're learning is the Back Off signal doesn't work, so they may need to be more clear in their communication next time. Depending on the dog, that could include an escalation to growling, snapping, or biting.

If they just seem "fine" with the interaction, that's not the same as loving it.

F.I.N.E. - Fido. Is. Not. Ecstatic.

Tolerance can change from intolerance over a long period of time, or within moments.


Dogs can't tell us what they're feeling in words, so we have to learn what they're saying with their body language and behavior. Learning how to read signs of stress and other signals is the first step in preventing serious problems.


Serenity Canine Behavior

Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.

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