Why do dogs roll over in "submission?"

To expose themselves, their underside in general, their genitalia in particular.

While “submission” may at first appear to be fundamentally different from “dominance,” in reality they are opposite and yet equal expressions of the same urge to make contact (indirectly, i.e. via sexual contact) with something they are attracted to but, have associated a strong feeling of resistance toward. A state of sexual arousal is the common denominator in both reflexes tracing back to the same physical memory of being stimulated by their mother as infant puppies when they were unable to eliminate on their own. We could say they are presenting themselves to be cleaned.

But on a deeper level what we call submissiveness is actually dogs acting “prey-like.”

Why would a submissive dog act prey-like: what’s the advantage to this behavior? Because in the natural scheme of things, the prey-controls-the-predator by which I mean that the predator can’t act like a predator unless the prey acts like the prey.

When a dog rolls over, tail wagging intensely side-to-side, squirting urine, lip licking, it is “vibrating” like prey and being emotionally attractive gives it leverage, if that is, it can feel how to exploit being the object-of-attraction. (Watch a cat train a dog if one wants to see a master in action.) Once a dog feels its leverage, it then quickly learns to press in and exercise its “control” over its so-called superior. So while we tend to think of the dominant animal as in control over the so-called submissive one, we would be well advised to look again. Who is really in control of whom?

By going belly up and vibrating intensely, and then pressing in on the dominant individual, the “prey-like” individual is taking over the dominant dog’s nervous system. This is exactly how infant puppies enervate and “control” adults. The mother is emotionally attracted to the pup given that it is the pure embodiment of prey energy, but then the infant pup acts like a predator, i.e. it goes toward the mother and squeals when disturbed (prey animals typically die in silence which is why the American Indian revered the deer, as opposed to the bear or mountain lion, as the model in stoicism and courage that warriors should emulate) and so the mother is induced to tend to it in order to keep it calm.

On the other hand if the pup doesn’t generate a predatory nature to inhibit the mother’s urge to make prey on it, it is therefore sickly and the mother will eat it. But in the case of healthy pups, by ingesting the placenta and umbilical cord, and then thereafter the urine and feces, the mother’s attraction to the pup as prey is satisfied and so their relationship will continue to evolve into a deep emotional bond as the pup matures.

And so it goes full circle. As adults the softer natured dogs when they become the object-of-attention in the face of pressure; roll over to expose themselves in order to gain “control.”

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Published August 1, 2009 by Kevin Behan
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16 responses to “Why do dogs roll over in "submission?"”

  1. You talk about the vibration of the prey. I see my dog vibrate most intensely when she is eager to hunt. She stares and quivers and starts to yelp, shivers, shivers when she’s leashed in sight of moving prey.

  2. kbehan says:

    Yes, the predator vibrates also when energized and when output (action) can’t match the input (stimulation). When a predator is emotionally paralyzed in the presence of prey, then you see stalking, pointing, setting, quivering, whining and so on. This is adaptive because then the prey can’t see the approaching predator. When a predator is emotionally paralyzed in the pack, then we see what has been labeled as “dominance.” This is adaptive because it gives the individual being “prey-like” (and mislabeled as submissive) the opportunity to exploit its incapacitation and thereby mitigate aggression.

  3. Angelique says:

    Kevin, So the dog’s ability to be comfortable as prey is also what makes them so socially functional with humans who tend to approach and treat dogs in a very predatory manner (eye contact, hugging, looming over them, grabbing for them, etc). If they are comfortable as prey they can process their energy in a way we interpret as friendly, including rolling over?

    When they don’t have this behavioral prey template to fall back on, they exhibit what we would consider anti-social behaviors?

  4. kbehan says:

    Exactly right. By becoming prey-like, a dog is in counterbalance to our intense human, predator-like energy and the dog can then enjoy emotional leverage over someone attracted to it. If that is the dog can feel its body, its “preyfulness.” On the other hand if an individual can’t feel its body, then it goes by instinct. So a healthy prey animal that stays in its body will “outsmart” or overpower the predator. But if it loses contact, it becomes con-fused and flight takes over making it fair game.
    If a dog can’t “flip polarity” and go from intense predator energy to soft preyful energy, then it will go by instinct or by habit and this is invariably what we would perceive as anti-social.

  5. Donnie Osler says:


    I don’t know if this is related to what you’re talking about in this post, but what does it mean when dogs mount each other? My four year old spayed female has occassionally mounted other dogs. It’s been a while since it happened (before I was turned on to NDT) and I can’t remember if the dog she was doing it to was in a tense state or not (i think at least one of them was). I know one time she did it to a puppy – that ended up giving out a loud squeal. If my understanding of NDT is correct, then this would be another calming behavior to release tension, would it not? If so, who’s? My dog’s or the one she’s mounted?

  6. kbehan says:

    Expressions of sexual energy, such as mounting, occur when emotion that is fundamentally attracted to a preyful essence runs into enough resistance. So when one dog stops moving, which means it is not conducting emotion for the other dog, the other dog experiences resistance. Then it mounts the object of its attraction in order to get the energy moving again. This isn’t cognitive, there’s a deeper emotional dynamic going on inside the “mounter” that I’ll cover in an upcoming post (“Why do dogs mount other dogs, and owners’ legs?”) which inspires it to do this, but that’s the basic linkage. So yes the mounter is trying to release tension, but this isn’t in and of itself calming. Rather, if the two dogs can align with each other by virtue of their bodies becoming sensualized in a complementary pattern, then the system will get moving again and this experience is what’s calming. For example, if the dog being mounted felt an arousal in its neck region, then it would like what’s happening. The reason the puppy squealed was because it was experiencing being mounted through its balance circuitry (vulnerability )without its hunger component (arousal) of consciousness being invoked and thus it was experiencing a physical memory of being hurt. The mounter was knocking the “mountee” out of balance. Whereas if the mountee experienced that same degree of physical pressure through its hunger circuitry, then it would feel good. Tension is when balance outweighs hunger. Sensual is when hunger outweighs balance. Animal consciousness is an emotional rheostat. The key to success is to cultivate our dog’s temperament so that the hunger component will outweigh the balance component even when the dog is energized at 200,000 volts of stimulation.

  7. Christine says:

    Okay, I see this behavior at times between Duncan and Bodie. Today it was Duncan mounting Bodie. Duncan was really trying to “play” with Bodie today. It was wonderful to watch. Duncan was doing his usual chasing Bodie chasing the ball and body-slamming, growling ferociously and then Bodie turns away and/or slows down (is this what you were referring to as the “opposite”?). All the while Duncan is very relaxed and his whole body is supple; he does a “play-bow” to Bodie and when Bodie stops moving, Duncan mounts him. I just stand back and let it all play out as I don’t want to interfere and muddy the waters for them.

  8. Hi Kevin

    Our four year old chocolate lab, female & spayed, has recently a number of times rolled over and laid on her back after having played and rushed around with younger pups. She is submissive to other dogs when she meets them in dog parks, likes to be chased, and enjoys dodging about trying to outsmart the dog who is chasing her. In the case of playing with puppies, she greets them first and everyone gets a chance to sniff each other. Then rushing around in a chase, then rolling over on her back letting puppies climb on her, and the play continues. The rollover does not appear to be a position of comfort, but why would she bare her belly to pups as it never happens while chasing around with older dogs? Best regards/Rolf

  9. kbehan says:

    In both these scenarios we’re dealing with an issue of safety/trust/vulnerability, within the emotional logic of animal consciousness that the prey-controls-the-predator. With the adult dogs your lab doesn’t feel safe enough to go into total vulnerability and flop polarity in order to press her shoulder blades to the ground and thereby relieve the shoulder tension that dogs carry there. Rather, she maintains control by being the object-of-their-attraction, i.e. gravitating to the prey polarity and being the chasee rather than the chaser (“outsmarting” them as you put it). But what she’s doing is relieving her shoulder tension by running at high speed and also being able to maintain her distance until she feels safe enough to make contact. But with the puppies she feels safer (because they are so prey-like) and can indulge herself in becoming fully vulnerable and grounding out the tension she carries in her upper shoulders by rolling on her back as opposed to keeping her distance as she does with the adults. So in the group logic of emotion she becomes even more prey-like in order to attract the predatory focus of the puppies, the predatory aspect of a pup arouses (triggers physical memories of her own litter-play experiences) her rather than sensitizes (triggers physical memories of Mama dog) her as with the adults. Trust this is clear.

  10. Jessie Rudd says:

    Hi. I was hoping you could provide me with some insight. I have a particularly placid and shy puppy that rolls over in submission for everyone she meets, and also does its constantly with me (her name is Muffin). As she is so placid and because I do not know enough about dog body language, I simply don’t know if it is healthy behaviour. I want her to have the best life possible so I’m doing my best to build her confidence with socialisation and tasks. Might be pertinent to mention that I have another, more exuberant puppy and sometimes I worry that she is bullying the shy puppy (Blossom). Perhaps Muffin is picking up on my anxiety in this regard? Any help or guidance would be very appreciated.

  11. Joyce Miller says:

    I had a puppy that did that and I took her to dog training classes. I started with private lessons and a very good teacher. As she got more and more confident in her training, I took her to a small class with the same teacher. By the end of that class (I think it was an eight week class, one class a week), she had gained quite a bit of confidence so I entered the large class for dogs that were pretty well trained, and she was awesome. She didn’t make friends with the other dogs so we kept apart at first. And then, there came a day when she seemed to have overcome her fears and reticence. I have since then done a lot with her, especially using her to teach children how to be safe around dogs. She loves that work and today, she is one very confident eight year old dog who loves to tease our ten year old dog mercilessly! I can take her anywhere, and she is always confident.

    It doesn’t happen over night, but with a good teacher who is willing to help you, you can bring her along slowly but surely. Don’t worry about the rolling over. She will probably outgrow that as she gets more confident, but if she doesn’t, just think of it as her way of telling you she wants some attention. You don’t have to always stop and give her the attention, but if you do, that is fine.

  12. Jessie says:

    Thank you so much for your insight. I do spend allot of time giving Muffin private lessons – I’m not really too stressed about her really learning anything, more just the one on one time as well as boosting her confidence. She is doing so much better and I can only hope she will be a happy and content little dog.

  13. Adam says:

    Can you describe how this article relates to a dog that is resistant to the rollover? Also, what would your training approach be for such a dog, that is incredibly resistant? I was working with this kind of dog recently. The more we tried to induce the rollover using pressure release, food lures, clicker training for giving to the pressure, the more he seemed to be stressed and dig in. It seems related to your recent article about getting under the charge. I feel like this was his charge and just like the police dogs that bit harder when you said “out,” he resisted more when we said “over”

  14. Kevin Behan says:

    My first question would be whether the dog has a soft mouth or not. If you engage him in “mawing” wherein you mock bite him with your hand, strongly enough so that it gets a rise out of him, does he get sharp, or will he grip your arm and hand with his mouth. If a foundation has been laid with “soft to the touch” over the shoulder blades, once he starts to soft mouth then he is 99.99% ready to do a belly rub. So I would be interested if you have done any mawing with him.

  15. Adam says:

    We’re not working with him anymore, but we hadn’t tried that approach. So you’re saying if he responds more playfully to being mawed, he’s ready for the rollover?

  16. Kevin Behan says:

    Right, that would be the positive way in. If he’s sharp, and can’t cultivated without the handler being bitten, then that needs to be worked out through a balance challenge so that mawing becomes possible.

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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