Why Do Dogs Sleep on Their Backs with Their Legs in the Air?

Why Do Dogs Sleep on Their Backs

Sometimes you have to wonder what is going on in your dog’s head. This occurred to me just this week when I saw one of our Frenchies lying on his back with his legs in the air. I had to laugh, but it made me wonder what this strange sleeping position could mean.

As luck will have it, the way a dog sleeps can give us some clues to their thoughts. It tells us about their personalities and their sense of belonging, as well as the state of their physical and mental health.

I don’t want you worry, so before reading further, let me get one thing straight. Dogs that sleep on their backs with their legs in the air are healthy and confident enough to place themselves in a vulnerable position.

Dogs will also sleep on their back with their legs in the air when they are hot. By sleeping with their paws up, it cools them down.

This is because the fur on their stomachs in shorter than elsewhere on their bodies, so they expose their midsection to the elements in an effort to cool down.

There are other sleeping positions that dogs routinely adopt, that are equally as telling.

Why dogs fall asleep on their backs, legs in the air

Generally, dogs who routinely fall asleep on their backs are calm and trusting, yet independent. They tend to be young, healthy, and supple. It requires a contortionist to recover from this position.

Sleeping on their back is not comfortable for older dogs with joint problems, as it will put added pressure on their backs. It does, however, take weight off their limbs. This position is not advisable for overweight dogs or those with inherent breathing problems, such as pugs or Boston Terriers.

You are more likely to see your dog sleeping on his back in warm months. It is generally a summer position, as dogs lie like this to regulate their body temperature when they overheat in their bed or kennel.

In the absence of a cool surface to lie on, dogs will adopt this pose on their back, feet in the air. They might also prop themselves up against a cool wall to achieve additional comfort.

Dogs tend to lose some of their cognitive abilities when their bodies overheat. Mine will lie in the sun long after they start panting. They will then get groggy so will need prompting to move. If you suspect they are getting too hot, relocate them to a cooler spot, turn a fan on them and offer them iced water.

Although it looks uncomfortable, it is almost always a good idea to let sleeping dogs lie. Dogs can fall into a deep sleep while lying on their backs – they might need this rest.

However, except for puppies, dogs will find it difficult falling asleep in this position if their tummies are full. Dogs with this kind of temperament will lie on their sides, after eating.

There are various versions of this pose, some of which I found on this amazing graphic.

sleeping positions
Dogs will sleep on their backs, legs in the air… but also these positions (Drawtism Art on Facebook)

Dead cockroach position

Dogs who sleep in this position are extremely confident in their surroundings. There are no perceived threats, and everyone around them is trustworthy, and safe from harm. They seemingly have no worries. It is an ‘Hakuna Matata’ moment.

This is not a guard dog position. The vital organs are exposed making the dog vulnerable to any predator. It is also difficult to get onto their feet in a hurry.

Belly Up Position

This is similar to the ‘dead cockroach’ but the aim is to cool down. It is a dog’s version of heat exchange. The fur on a dog’s stomach is usually much shorter than fur elsewhere. A breeze across the belly acts like an air conditioner.

Dogs also sweat through their paws. In this position, all four paws are in the air and evaporation can take place. This pose is sometimes seen when a dog sleeps on top of the covers, between two humans.

The Sistine Chapel

This is a rather sprawling, and altogether more dramatic pose, usually carried out to good effect by gangly, long-legged, younger dogs.

The dog will stretch its front limbs out, like a son reaching for his father. It is usually a sudden gesture, made to get cool quickly. The dog will stay in that position for as long as it can be sustained.

We have a large dog who sleeps in the bed with us, and does this under the bed covers, usually on the coldest of nights.

She gets hot, rolls over onto her back and stretches her front legs, to ditch the duvet. What feels like cold, Arctic air comes rushing in and wakes everybody up!

Handy Hint: Does your dog grind his teeth when sleeping?

The Luge Position

Puppies can fall fast asleep at the drop of a hat. They tend not to have a care in the world, and all their muscles relax at once. ‘Belly up’ is as good a position as any. They do it because they can and are usually too fat and full to roll over.

When puppies fall asleep ‘belly up’ and on their backs with their legs in the air, it is called the Luge position, a posture required to hurtle down an icy chute, feet first on a toboggan, at warp speed.

They are probably filled to the brim with mother’s milk and are incapable of moving. With their small head and legs, they look more like upturned turtles, and are quite as helpless.

It seems to be a comfortable and natural position for them to fall asleep in. They are extremely supple, and pliable at this stage. If you tug at one of their limbs, it will spring back as if elasticised.

Handy Hint: Here’s why puppies breathe fast and deep when sleeping.

We have all seen social media photos of newly acquired puppies passed out on their backs on their owners’ laps. Some unscrupulous humans even take the opportunity to dress up the occasion with props, suggesting a wild night out was had.

Other common sleep positions

Below are few more ways in which dogs nap or sleep, and what you can glean from them.

Snowball, Donut or Fuzzy Bagel Position

Almost the opposite of the gay abandon of the ‘dead cockroach’ position is the Donut or Fuzzy Bagel position. For dogs who sleep outside, in the dead of winter, it could also be termed the Snowball position.

The dog will be wound up in a tight ball, with its tail covering its nose.

It looks like a snug and cosy position but suggests that the dog is struggling with one or other hardship. It may be that it is cold, or that it feels insecure. If you adopt an older dog, it could sleep like this until it feels as if it belongs.

Strays sleep like this. Their noses are pointed to the wind and their ears are alert to any sounds. It is easy to raise their heads, without moving their bodies, to process any perceived threat. All their vital organs are protected.

Superman pose

This is the inverse of the ‘luge’ position. The dog is splayed on the floor, with its limbs stretched out on all sides, like a bear rug. Add a cape and they look like superman’s dog. Corgi pups are fond of sleeping like this.

It is not a nigh-time position. It is used when napping. Ears and nose are alert, and the dog can recover from this position easily. It can go from zero to a hero doing zoomies in a flash.

On a more practical level, your dog may be lying like this on a cool or warm surface to regulate its temperature. I discovered a leaking hot pipe once because my dogs insisted on lying on what I thought were cold tiles.

Handy Hint: This sleeping position is also called “splooting”, which is another topic altogether!

The Burrito or Loaf position

This is a variation on the ‘Superman’ position but for more rotund dogs with shorter limbs, like pugs and French Bulldogs, or rounded Labradors. The dog needs to be the right colour and shape to achieve this position.

Sphinx or Lion pose

This is a resting, semi-alert stance, usually adopted by energetic breeds that need to quickly recharge their batteries. The dog lies on its stomach and rests its head on its paws, alert to all possibilities of an adventure. It is probably not tired but bored and waiting for something better to do.

Dogs plop down into this position and can jump up just as quickly. Jack Russells are likely candidates for the ‘lion’ pose.

Older dogs may adopt this position when sleeping at your feet. They feel they are being loyal and protective.

If your dog sleeps in this position at night, with its chin and neck resting on something, check to see if it has difficulty breathing. It may be an indicator of an underlying heart condition.

The pancake position

Dogs that sleep on their sides have similar temperaments to those who sleep on their backs. Their organs are exposed but not to the full extent of the ‘belly up’ position. They are neither hot nor cold but may be full.

In this position, dogs are capable of falling into a deep sleep. In the REM or dreaming phase of the sleep cycle, their legs may move as if they were running. Do not disturb them unless they sound distressed.

Book ends

Some dogs like to lie close to humans or other dogs, on their sides but back-to-back. It is much like the ‘pancake’ position, but for two. They are relaxed, lying on their sides with their organs exposed. They get as close as possible but still retain their independence.

Conclusion

Don’t be worried if you see your sleeping on his back with his legs in the air. It’s perfectly normal, and simply means he’s content, comfortable, in a deep sleep, or trying to cool down.

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Marc Aaron

I write about the things I've learned about owning a dog, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips I've picked up along the way.

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