By Arden Moore, a certified dog and cat behaviorist with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Arden is an author, radio host, and writer for Pets Best, a dog insurance and cat insurance agency.
When it comes to communicating, canine “talk” is always clear and consistent whether they are communicating with people or other dogs. They “speak” by using postures, tail positions, tail movements, eyes and expressions.
One of the most common canine postures a dog displays is to flop on his back with all four legs hoisted up and swaying in the air. It is vital to consider the circumstances as well as to check the whole body first to really deduce the silent message being conveyed by a dog going belly up.
Here are the five main reasons dogs expose their bellies:
1) To garner love and attention from you. Happy dogs who go belly up at your feet when you return home may be doing their best to let you know that they adore you. The entire body is relaxed.
2) To seek assistance to scratch a hard-to-reach itch. Dogs are very flexible, but they lack opposable thumbs and may count on you to scratch an itch for them. This is a sign of trust in you.
3.) To convey a sense of feeling secure in his surroundings. Confident adult dogs in their own homes roll on their backs and get into a relaxed posture when taking naps – usually on the sofa or your bed.
4.) To catch a cool breeze on hot days. Although dogs attempt to regulate their body temperature by panting, some may park themselves next to circulating fans or air conditioner vents on hot days to catch the cool breeze on their bellies where there tends to be less hair in an attempt to cool down.
5.) To show respect to a higher-ranking dog or a person. Hierarchy is important in the canine world. A lesser-ranking dog may drop, plop upside down and avoid making any eye contact with a dog who is deemed to rank higher. By purposely exposing his vulnerable underbelly, this dog is communicating to the dominant dog that he comes in peace and has no intention of challenging his authority. Resist petting the bellies of a fearful dog as this action may unintentionally trigger a fear-bite response. Instead, speak to the fearful dog in an upbeat tone and reward him with a healthy treat or praise when he pops into the safer “sit” position.
One caution: Beware of dogs who make direct, hard stares and display tense bodies when exposing their bellies. Some cunning canines use this belly-up posture to lure a person or another dog closer to demonstrate dominance by growling or snapping or worse, biting. These are not relaxed dogs waiting for TLC. They are setting a trap. These dogs need to be reschooled in the basic cues of “sit,” “stay,” “watch me” and “down” to demote their status below that of you. Consider enrolling in an obedience class taught by a professional dog trainer certified in positive reinforcement training techniques.
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