“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Those words were written over 2,000 years ago by Sun Tzu in “The Art of War.” Like most veterinarians, I was taught that whenever dogs rolled over, they were being submissive. At least four behavioral researchers disagree. Based on a study published in the journal “Behavioral Processes,” our dogs may have been following Sun Tzu’s advice when it comes to rolling over. What may be caninedom’s greatest secret is out: Rolling over is the new ninja.
Most of you have heard that a dog rolling over on its back is indicating they give up. Many have witnessed two dogs meeting for the first time and one of the two instantly drops to the ground, belly up. These are commonly thought of as submissive postures or signals. Leave it to modern researchers to question this age-old wisdom and threaten to turn the canine behavioral world upside down. After analyzing countless hours of videos, the researchers concluded that rolling over was actually a very slick combat tactic. I’m serious. And I agree. I think.
The scientists secretly filmed domestic doggie dyads engaged in play. I’ll save you a trip to the dictionary and remind you that a dyad is a group of two. (In defense of defining dyads, I adore alliteration.) The researchers wanted to scientifically establish if the rollover move was a submissive signal or a combative tactic. They observed a few interesting findings:
- The size differential between dogs did not influence rollover frequency. In other words, big dog, little dog interactions had the same frequency of rollovers as big:big or little:little.
- Smaller dogs weren’t found to rollover more frequently.
- Smaller dogs didn’t stay in a rollover position longer than bigger dogs.
So what causes a rollover according to this study?
Rollovers occurred more frequently the longer two dogs played together in this study. This led the scientists to speculate that rollovers were a part of a more complex play process or simply a sneaky skirmish stratagem (alliteration again…sorry). On super slo-mo review, most rollovers were a way to avoid bites to the neck or a wiley attack launch. That’s my view, based on observing my dog, Harry.
I recently captured the underhand rollover ninja attack move on video. My terrier, Harry, was playing with his much-larger buddy, Hans the Boxer. At around the 30-second mark you’ll spot exactly what I’m guessing those scientists picked up on:
- Harry acts “broken” and collapses on his side.
- Poor Hans looks down on his little buddy, fearing the worst.
- As soon as Hans relaxes, Harry springs up and delivers a nip! I was so proud.
The next time you see a dog rollover, remain vigilant. You're in the presence of a Doggie Ninja.