Why does my dog sleep on his back?

Over the week- I will be reprising a few blog posts for your enjoyment.  

This posting gets at least two or three hits a week since it’s was published.


Every dog I ever had slept either all curled up nose to tail, stretched out snout on paws, or laid out on his side,  paws parallel, like an outline of a dog.  I have never had a dog that slept on his back. I mean lying full on his spine with his legs splayed out, and his paws draped in a begging position.  Opie is a very odd fellow, indeed.  Michael says  he looks dead!  When I first saw him sleep like this, I’ll admit that I did look to make certain his chest was rising and falling in a normal manner.  He doesn’t stay in this position, but he stays that way for a good 10-15 minutes of sleep and then moves to a more traditional side sleeping position. 


Why does my dog sleep like this? Is it comfortable? 

 My grandmother had three Pekingese dogs when I was growing up. They lay briefly on their backs for belly rubs, but no more than a minute or two. They didn’t sleep like that.  My poodle Zsa Zsa  was no exception.  Prince I and Prince II — the german shepherds — exposed their bellies only for belly rubs.  No prolonged belly exposures for them!  They all slept in a more normal doggy fashion. 

I’ve been wondering why Opie does this.  I read somewhere that dogs cool themselves  when they lay on their bellies and splay out their feet. The ground is cool, and they can get some immediate relief from the heat.  Has Opie struck upon an alternative method of doggy air conditioning?  Right now, in L.A. the weather  is cool.  We live near the ocean and the breezes are always cool. Don’t hate us! It’s jacket or sweater weather in the morning and early evening.  Maybe Opie likes the ocean breezes on his little doggy tummy.  I wouldn’t be surprised. We’ve been dealing with doggy tummy issues for several days now. Perhaps, he needs a cooled off tummy. 

I did a tiny bit of internet research on this issue.  Looks like the air conditioning theory is sound.  But one other looks promising too.  Dogs, like people, have different phases of sleep.  Just like humans , to reach that deepest REM sleep, dogs and people must be completely relaxed.  When a dog sleeps on his back all of his muscles are relaxed. Nothing is tensed.  The dream state is a sure sign of pure relaxation.  

While Opie slept on his back last night, we all observed him paw the air, sniff some imaginary item, move his little mouth back and forth and even make a tiny “woof!” No doubt about it! He was dreaming! He was completely relaxed.   Evidently, according to the internet dog experts, Opie is not all that unique.  Indeed, his back sleeping is a sure sign of his comfort with the family. He is sleeping with his belly exposed. He doesn’t feel any anxiety.  Researchers say that dogs living in the wild never sleep on their backs because they are always in danger from a predator.  Obviously, Opie knows he’s not prey in this family, but those socks and sandals better watch out! 

Some writers say that this position is also a submission position, that he’s acknowledging his low position in the household.  We love Opie, but he is the low man on the totem pole.  I’ll give Cesar Milan credit from instilling the pack leader mentality into most of the humans in the house. We have to be dominant. We know that. Opie’s a plucky little guy and has already demonstrated that he’ll take over the whole shebang if we let him.  It’s not surprising that he demonstrates this status. However, we are not entirely sold on this submission idea. 

Most of the reading refers to the submission positions as something the dog consciously does.  To show submission a dog might  raises one paw or  flop down and turn his belly up to the dominant humans or dogs around. I saw this behavior last week at the dog park. A tiny little miniature poodlish Chihuahauish sort of dog flipped himself over and allowed a bunch of bigger dogs, Opie included, to sniff his soft underbelly.  I could read the thought bubble over this dog’s head. ” I’m submissive. You guys are the bosses, Please don’t eat me!”  That dog and every other dog I saw demonstrate similar behavior was wide awake.  I don’t think that Opie’s back sleeping is a true submission position. He’s not doing it consciously or in response to us. He’s asleep. The experts may disagree with me. That’s okay. I’m no expert, but it doesn’t seem the same.

When he flops down for a belly rub, he may be acknowledging his low man status in our pack, but I think he may really just want his belly rubbed. I think he’s begging for “lovin'” We supply it! So, who’s dominant now? The dog demanding a belly rub or the humans supplying them?

I tend to believe that Opie has acclimated himself to us. He’s good and comfortable with his belly exposure. He’s safe and happy and relaxed.   It’s so cool to see him resting so peacefully.  We tip toe around him when he’s sleeping like this. His puppy dreams are fun to watch.  No need to disturb him.  After all we should   “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” 



About Opie and Opie's Mom

Snorkie with attitude. My mom writes about me and sometimes she lets me write something too. I was rescued July 11, 2010! I am so happy! I love my family and I hate squirrels. I don't know any cats but the neighborhood cats are fun to bark at. Read Opie's Mom's Blog to find out more about me. View all posts by Opie and Opie's Mom

8 responses to “Why does my dog sleep on his back?

  • sagechronicles

    I like to sleep on my back too, but Toby doesn’t. I don’t do it very often, but when I do it feels good. And you are right, dogs lay on their tummies to cool off. At the dog park, I sometimes lay down on the wet ground to drink out of the water bowl–I get cooled off faster that way. And I put my feet in the water bowl when I’m really hot! Mom thinks I’m funny.


  • Debby and Kirby the Dorkie

    Wow – this is eye opening for me! Kirby used to be submissive – always rolled onto his back with other dogs and slept on his back often. Since he was bitten by a larger dog he always meets dogs face to face but I hadn’t realized he never sleeps on his back anymore until just now! I hope that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel completely safe in his own home!

  • Opie and Opie's Mom

    I doubt Kirby feels unsafe. It could just be that he’s gotten tired of that position. Opie doesn’t back sleep much anymore. He does it occassionally, but now it’s more rare than it was before. I never believed that submission was possible in sleep anyway. It’s more likely that it’s just not so comfortable anymore. My youngest used to sleep on his knees with his bottom stuck up in the air. You can’t imagine how cute that was. He doesn’t do that anymore. He sleeps in a more regular 9 year old boy fashion — sprawled all over the bed with the covers completely destroyed. LOL! I’ll bet Kirby and Opie have just evolved to a new position.

  • Jed

    Hmm, Opie looks like he might have some Wheaten Terrier in him. I don’t know why but they all seem to like sleeping on their backs.

  • Just Ramblin' Pier

    Miss Stella is our first “back sleeper” and it always cracks us up! I think it is probably a little bit of all that you mentioned, relaxed, comfortable, submissive, and air conditioner. She is a newf and staying cool is a top priority for her : )

  • Kristy

    I think Opie is my dog’s long list twin! They look exactly alike.

  • jcottle2012

    I respectfully disagree with the opinions stated. I was a dog trainer both in the military and afterward, a total of 26 years. Dogs are driven by a combination of two components, primal instincts consistent with the species and socialization derived from cues within their environment.

    Dogs sleep directly on their backs when their is a perceived sense of total safety, not the absence of it. In other words their environment, typically the home, has repeatedly demonstrated an area of trust and predictability. All mammals instinctively guard their underbelly because it is vulnerable to attack with such dire consequences. People will even demonstrate this trait if you suddenly jab at their midsection, which typically elicits a guarding instinct. This is why dogs expose their underbelly in a submissive manner, to indicate resignation. The postural exhibition during sleep does not portray submission because doing so is an active socialized stance in the presence of a human or other animal within their circle considered to be dominant by virtue of a variety of cues. This stance is not requisite during onset or actual sleep and therefore, unrelated.

    Further, although it is common knowledge that dogs primarily cool themselves by panting, dogs who lie on their bellies on the tile floor or concrete of a home are doing so in compensation for the absence of ability to dig down to cooler dirt or ground that is instinctual for them in the open environment during tepid weather. Lying on their back, however, is purely associated with the former explanation and nothing to do with cooling themselves.

    • Opie and Opie's Mom

      I don’t think we are in disagreement. We believe Opie slept on back because he felt safe for the most part. He still feels safe although and over the years has turned very demanding regarding belly rubs. He nudges us and has knocked the cell phone out of my hand as if to say. “Hey! Pay attention to me!” Then he flips over . He is horribly spoiled with love.

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