Dogs communicate a whole lot through body language, and inguinal presentation is something that pops up every now and then during dog-to-dog and dog-to-human interactions. The inguinal area is located by the dog's groin, it's basically the lower portion of the abdomen, the area that people most commonly refer to as the dog's "belly." Because this area holds important vital organs, exposing it has several special meanings to dogs, therefore, it's interesting discovering what messages inguinal presentations in dogs may convey. We must remember though that the meaning of ‘exposing the belly,’ like many other dog behaviors, vary based on context and therefore does not have a single, universal meaning.
A Look Back
Inguinal presentation occurs when a dog rolls over its back and presents the inguinal area. It's a behavior that is reminiscent of the early days when puppies were just days old and unable to relieve themselves on their own.
Along with providing warmth and milk, mother dog's responsibility also entailed licking the helpless pups' nether regions so to stimulate them to potty. This requires the collaboration of the pups, who have to remain passive and provide inguinal presentation without putting a struggle. This behavior then persists past this time and becomes part of a puppy's behavior repertoire.
According to Michael Fox, in the book "Understanding Your Dog" by six weeks of age, most puppies exhibit several species-specific behaviors such as face licking greetings, inguinal presentation and anal and genital investigation.
Puppies who are kept in the litter with their siblings and mom up until 8 weeks basically learn the ABC's of communication and valuable lifelong lessons about being a dog.
"I am Just a Puppy!"
A puppy may engage in inguinal presentation when he's in the presence of other older dogs. The puppy will rollover and expose the inguinal area and may urinate too.
Ian Dunbar, in an article on Dog Star Daily, claims that the puppy must be saying something in the lines of: "Yo! Sniff this urine. See, I'm just a young puppy and don't know any better. Please don't harm me. I didn't mean to jump on your tail and bite your ears. He! He! He!"
The distinct smell of the pup's urine along with the puppy's size, vocalizations and over all infantile looks, inform other dogs that he's just a puppy and therefore should not be considered a threat.
This acknowledgment often evokes tolerant behaviors from the adult dogs in the social group. All it takes is for the adult dogs to take a sniff and then they walk away.
A similar interaction may happen at times with humans. When humans engage in behaviors that a puppy may perceive as bold or intimidating such as reaching for the pup, or even looming over to pet him, the puppy may manifest deference or fear by flipping over on his back and exposing his belly.
A trickle of urine may accompany the inguinal presentation, as a further way for the puppy to prove that yes, he's just a puppy! This is often referred to as "submissive urination." How should dog owners react? They should acknowledge the pup's message and plan to appear less assertive in future interactions.
"For submissive and fearful urination, it is important that the owner and all visitors interact with the pet in a less assertive or threatening manner. All training should be reward based and physical restraint or physical punishment must entirely be avoided." ~ VCA Animal Hospitals by Debra Horwitz, & Gary Landsberg.
"I Respect You"
Most puppies outgrow submissive urination as they become more confident and attain better urine control; however inguinal presentation tends to persists into adulthood in dogs, especially when they encounter other dogs.
It's not unusual to see an adult dog in an interaction with another dog flip over his back on the ground exposing the vulnerable belly, back legs spread out and head to the side. This presentation often elicits investigation from the other dog which should give a quick sniff and get the message.
The same behavior may be carried out in the presence of humans. The dog rolls over, lifting the leg to expose his inguinal area. According to Ian Dunbar, dogs in this context may be saying something along the lines of: "I am a lowly worm. I respect you and I would like to be friends."
"I am Uncomfortable"
In interactions with humans, dogs may flip on their backs and expose their bellies when they are uncomfortable or even fearful. In this case, the dog is trying to engage in an appeasing gesture, meant to say: "Please let's stop this interaction, it's making me nervous!"
In this case, the dog keeps the ears flattened and the tail is tucked close to the body so that these body parts are kept out of danger. The lips may also be pulled back and the head may be turned away to avoid direct eye contact.
It's important to accept this dog's request for more space and these dogs should not be touched. Failure to respect this request may lead to a dog who may resort to biting because his "I am uncomfortable, please stop" message has gone to deaf ears.
"I am Relaxed"
Not all inguinal presentations necessarily mean that the dog is acting out of fear or they want us to stop the interaction. In some cases, the dog is actually relaxed and rolls over his back in a happy, contented way.
These dogs actually have learned that when they expose their belly, they're more likely to get a belly rub, so they'll happily flip over in hopes of getting one. In this case, the dogs are often, but not always, limp as a noodle as they await the pleasure of a massage, explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta.
Some dogs typically go belly up at your feet when you come home from work and would love a little slice of attention after being lonely for part of the day. A sign that they are enjoying the interaction is that, the moment you stop rubbing their belly, they'll paw at you, look at you or move closer to you, in hopes that you'll continue the interaction. If you are not familiar with the dog or not sure what the dog is trying to say, it's best to play it safe and walk away.
"In general, it is best to assume that a dog who offers the inguinal presentation signal doesn’t want you to rub him, but instead wants you to leave him alone. When in doubt, it is best to walk away." Dr. Lisa Radosta
"I am Playing"
Dog play often involves lots of role reversals. Dogs take turns being on top, then on the bottom, being the ones chasing and then being the ones being chased. It's not unusual therefore to see some dogs flip over and present their belly when they are playing with a playmate they know well. Why do they do that?
Many have assumed for many years that exposing the belly in this case, was the canine version of raising a white flag or to appease a contender who has gotten too rough, but an interesting study conducted by Kerri Norman and colleagues at the University of Lethbridge and University of South Africa, reveals an interesting twist.
Out of 248 rollovers observed during play, the researcher found that none of them occurred as a submissive response to aggressive behavior by another dog; rather, the rolling over was apparently a combat tactic, basically, a way to block playful bites and launch attacks on their play mates!
"Most rollovers were either defensive (evading a nape bite) or offensive (launching an attack). None could be categorized as submissive."~Kerri Norman et al.
"I Feel Secure"
In a previous article, we looked at different dog sleeping positions and discovered some interesting findings and possible interpretations behind those curious sleeping postures. In what we called "the dead cockroach" position, dogs sleep belly up exposing the inguinal area to the air.
This is one of a dog's favorite summer sleeping positions as dogs have less fur on their bellies, and therefore, exposing it to the air is an effective way to cool down.
We also found out that this sleeping position is one that's often seen in dogs who feel secure in their environments, as, in the case of a threat, they would have to flip themselves over the other side in order to get up quickly back on their toes.
- Understanding Your Dog, by Michael Fox, Dogwise Publishing (May 25, 2015)
- Behavior of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canids, by Michael Fox, Publisher: Dogwise Classics Edition: 1971
- VCA Animal Hospital, Submissive, Excitement, and Conflict Urination, retrieved from the web on April 20th, 2016
- Dog Star Daily, Dog Communication, retrieved from the web on April 20th, 2016
- Florida Veterinary Service, Inguinal Presentation, by Dr. Lisa Radosta, retrieved from the web on April 20th, 2016