dog submission
Dogs rolling on their back is not a sign of submission, scientists say billrdio/Flickr

Dogs rolling over during play is not a sign of submission, as has long been believed, but is instead a combat manoeuvre used before launching an attack.

That is according to a study published in the journal Behavioural Processes, which examined how and why dogs use the rolling move during play.

According to a report in Scientific American, the researchers looked at data on dog play from two different scenarios – one in staged play sessions where a medium-sized female dog was put with 33 other play partners of various size, and 20 videos of two dogs playing together.

Traditionally, a dog rolling onto its back when with another dog was thought to signify submission or a bid to prevent aggression.

However, the latest study found that rolling over was associated with interactive and combative nature play, with rolls often preceding an attack or a defensive nip.

"Most rollovers were defensive and none of the 248 rollovers was submissive," the study said. Researchers found that lying on the back was not a passive position and was used to block or launch an attack.

"Assuming that a dog rolling onto his back during play is akin to saying, you 'came on too strong' or, 'OK, you won this round' seems like a mistranslation," the Scientific American report said.

"In some contexts, rolling onto the back is certainly associated with fear, or defusing or preventing aggression, but this new study reminds that 'rolling over,' like many behaviours, does not have a single, universal meaning."

The study concluded: "In dog play, rolling over is a combat tactic, not an act or signal of submission. Rolling over allows a dog to deliver or avoid bites to the neck."