Dog behavior and nuances in body language are a life long study, the simple behavior of a dog rolling onto his back can have many implications. In the context of play a dog will quite often roll on his back without any submissive or deference intended. Many dogs happily sleep on their back and still others like rolling over and stretching as they wake up. A nice patch of grass is bound to get a dog on his back for a good scratch and roll. In this article, we will only be covering the submissive roll, alpha roll and strategic roll. Submissive rolls, alpha rolls and a strategic rolls all end with the dog on his back or side but physically and emotionally, they are quite different in look, execution and tactic. First let’s talk about the submissive roll.
The submissive roll is an offered behavior, not a forced one. Puppies that have had a proper amount of social interaction with their dam and other older dogs become very adept at it. Submissive rolling is an act of deference and is meant to convey a non threat to the other being. In a submissive roll the tail is generally tucked, sometimes wagging nervously and the body is tense. This is not an invitation to interact, the correct response is to ignore and or move away from the offering dog. Interacting with a dog in a submissive roll can have many different consequences, one of the most common being urination by the displaying dog. Instead of interacting, try moving away and when the dog moves to follow, ask for a sit. Reward the sit with a treat.
The alpha roll is a human creation. It consists of physically putting the dog on his side or his back and holding him there until he stops struggling. Since the dog is not a willing participant in this interaction, what the human is looking for is basically an absence of behavior. Depending on where you stand on this type of interaction you will either consider it ‘calm submission’ or reaching ‘learned helplessness’. The alpha roll is specifically meant to show the dog that you are the ‘alpha’ in the relationship. Personally I consider it reaching learned helplessness.
The strategic roll is often misunderstood. Some people think it is still a form of submission, some think it is a form of play. The strategic roll is often employed in play; however, it is also a serious defense mechanism. A standing dog has his mouth and possibly his two front paws, but a dog on his back can employ all four sets of claws and his teeth. If you have ever tried to put a leash or collar on a dog that doesn’t want it, you have likely observed and interacted with the strategic roll. Trying to force a dog that is using this defensive mechanism can end in some pretty deep scratches if not some well delivered bites.
In play, both with humans and with other dogs, it is important to realize that when the dog goes into a strategic roll, if the energy between the two continues to escalate, that play can move over to true defense and possible physical damage.