Reading dogs 7: Rolling over

What does it mean when two dogs are playing and one rolls over onto her back? While this seems to be a simple question, easily answered by observing dogs’ behaviour, it’s good to question our assumptions about what we see.

History of interpretation

When dogs interact, what is going on between them? In the 1940s, Rudolph Schenkel studied a group of 10 captive, mostly male wolves, in the Zoological Garden in Basel, Switzerland. He published his findings in 1947, declaring that that these wolves formed a pack, led by a male “alpha” dog who had won the contest for dominance over the group, and a female “bitch.” Together, this pair defended their social position by controlling and repressing competition from the other wolves.1)Schenkel, Rudolph. “Expression Studies on Wolves.” 1 Jan. 1947. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <http://www.davemech.org/schenkel/ExpressionstudiesP.1-10.pdf>. Schenkel claimed that the wolf behaviour he described also applied to domestic dogs.

Following Schenkel, researchers studied other groups of captive wolves with similar results, culminating in L. David Mech’s 1970 book, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.2)Mech, L. David. The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. American Museum of Natural History, 1973. Print.

A new understanding

Recognizing that the wolves he had studied had been forced to live together in confinement, in the late 1980s, Mech began to study wild wolves on Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. He observed that wild wolves’ behaviour was radically different from the captive wolves’. When he published his findings in 1999, Mech completely rejected the notion of “alpha” wolves dominating subordinates who continually vie for superiority.3)Mech, L. David. “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs.” Canadian Journal of Zoology: 1196-203. Print. He reported that wolf packs are actually family groups formed by a male and female pair who meet, court, mate and raise cubs together. The cubs remain with the family, grow to maturity and participate in raising younger siblings, including hunting for food to bring to the den, until they are about three years old when they leave to form packs of their own.

Interpretations of domestic dog behaviour based on the alpha wolf theory crumbled when wolf packs were recognized as stable families. No reputable animal behaviourists promote the alpha theory today.

Although ethologists no longer consider dogs to be tame wolves continually struggling to achieve or maintain social status, questions persist about how hierarchical relationships function and influence dogs’ behaviour.

Rolling over

When a dog rolls over onto her back while playing with another dog, the traditional interpretation is that this is a sign of submission or even fear: the dog is appeasing her playmate. In effect, she is saying, “I give up! I’m not going to fight with you anymore now.”4)Schenkel, Rudolph. “Submission: Its Features and Function in the Wolf and Dog.” Integrative and Comparative Biology, 1 Jan. 1967. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <http://icb.oxfordjournals.org/content/7/2/319>.

Kerri Norman and her team of researchers at the University of Lethbridge and the University of South Africa wanted to know “whether rolling over during play served as a signal of submission or whether it was a combat maneuver adopted as part of an ongoing play sequence.” In their recently-published study, for which they videotaped dogs at play and compared those tapes with videos  they found on YouTube, they conclude that rolling over is not submissive activity because smaller dogs are neither more likely to roll over than larger dogs nor are they likely to remain on their backs for very long when they do roll over. They decided that rolling over was either defensive (the dogs were protecting the backs of their necks) or offensive (the dogs were preparing to launch an attack).5)Norman, Kerri, Sergio Pellis, Louise Barrett, and S. Peter Henzi. “Down but Not Out: Supine Postures as Facilitators of Play in Domestic Dogs.” Behavioral Processes, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037663571400196X>.

But is that what really happens? Consider this video, made by my friend Patty Aguirre of her two golden retrievers, a neutered male and a neutered female, playing together.6)The photo at the top of the page was also taken by Patty. It shows her female golden retriever, Rani, who was 10 weeks old at the time, playing with a friend, Chana, who was then 12 weeks old.

 

Self-handicapping and other options

Dogs of different sizes, breeds and ages are able to play together safely and peacefully because the larger, older or more experienced dogs frequently engage in self-handicapping: they assume a position such as lying on their backs or refrain from using their full strength while playing with smaller, less experienced dogs and puppies.7)Burghardt, Gordon M. The Genesis of Animal Play Testing the Limits. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2005. Print.

Dogs’ play also includes signals, such as play bows, and role-reversals that keep exciting play from getting out of hand.

What if it’s just play?

I find it curious that we continue to look for signs of hierarchy, dominance and submission in describing dog behaviour. Of course, some dogs play better than others. Some dogs are bullies. Some dogs are shy. Some behave in ways that are confusing or untrustworthy. But what if, on the whole, dogs aren’t continually preoccupied with figuring out who is the most powerful, dangerous or harmful? What if their concepts of order and hierarchy are simple and reflect mutual understanding? Could it be that dogs don’t actually give a lot of thought to being defensive or offensive, but instead move as they do because, unlike many modern human beings, dogs are attuned to their physical bodies and simply enjoy moving? Suppose dogs interact with one another, or at least with dogs they know, for the joy of it?8)For an excellent discussion of dogs and play, see Kaufer, Mechtild. Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise, 2013. Print.

References   [ + ]

1. Schenkel, Rudolph. “Expression Studies on Wolves.” 1 Jan. 1947. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <http://www.davemech.org/schenkel/ExpressionstudiesP.1-10.pdf>.
2. Mech, L. David. The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. American Museum of Natural History, 1973. Print.
3. Mech, L. David. “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs.” Canadian Journal of Zoology: 1196-203. Print.
4. Schenkel, Rudolph. “Submission: Its Features and Function in the Wolf and Dog.” Integrative and Comparative Biology, 1 Jan. 1967. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <http://icb.oxfordjournals.org/content/7/2/319>.
5. Norman, Kerri, Sergio Pellis, Louise Barrett, and S. Peter Henzi. “Down but Not Out: Supine Postures as Facilitators of Play in Domestic Dogs.” Behavioral Processes, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S037663571400196X>.
6. The photo at the top of the page was also taken by Patty. It shows her female golden retriever, Rani, who was 10 weeks old at the time, playing with a friend, Chana, who was then 12 weeks old.
7. Burghardt, Gordon M. The Genesis of Animal Play Testing the Limits. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2005. Print.
8. For an excellent discussion of dogs and play, see Kaufer, Mechtild. Canine Play Behavior: The Science of Dogs at Play. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise, 2013. Print.