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Dog lying on back waiting for belly rubs

The essentials

  • Dogs roll on their backs for a lot of reasons — They’re not always looking for a belly rub, though. Sometimes, they may be trying to cool off, or they may be trying to diffuse the tension in an intimidating situation.
  • Not all dogs like belly rubs — Some dogs don’t like belly rubs, or they are very selective about them. In some cases, they may only allow certain people, like children, to rub their bellies.
  • Part of the canine-human bond — For many dogs, belly rubs are part of the love and loyalty they have for their owners.

Many pet owners find themselves asking “why do dogs like belly rubs?” Dog experts aren’t sure if Fido’s love for a good belly rub is just another way to connect with their owners or if it feels better due to the thinner fur and closer contact. But, regardless of why your dog likes belly rubs, it’s a great way to connect with your pet!

Decoding why dogs like belly rubs

Dogs enjoy belly rubs for a few different reasons. From scratching an itch to releasing feel-good hormones, getting belly rubs from their favorite person or people is a big deal to most pet dogs.

The science behind dogs’ love for belly rubs

To have a better idea of why dogs like belly rubs, it helps to understand canine anatomy. Most dog breeds have thinner fur on their stomach, which means this area is more sensitive to touch. Petting your dog overall releases oxytocin — the love hormone — and the same applies when you rub or lightly scratch their stomach.

Another positive reaction to this is the scratch reflex. Many owners already know what this is and use it to gauge how much their dog is enjoying some one-on-one belly rub time. This reflex occurs when a cluster of nerves located in their saddle region (stomach, sides, flank, and back) is stimulated with scratches. One or both hind legs may start kicking, while other body parts might also twitch.

This natural reaction helps protect them from irritants and lets pet owners know they have a happy dog.

Once a dog shows they are happy with belly rubs, it is an indication they have developed trust with their pet owner. One circumstance where it could be considered negative, is in some situations it may contribute to separation anxiety. Some dogs may solely depend on the owner to relieve their anxiety and belly rubs are one way it could be accomplished.

Dr. Dwight Alleyne

Social significance of belly rubs for dogs

Generally speaking, dog behaviorists believe that if a dog exposes their stomach and chest to their owners, it’s a sign of how completely at ease they are in their owner’s presence. The strong canine-human bond stretches back thousands of years and is built on loyalty and respect. This is evidenced by how dogs enjoy belly rubs and numerous other ways dogs show us how much they love us. And, it isn’t isolated to domesticated dogs, either. As pack animals, wolves can form strong enough bonds with their human handlers and enjoy belly rubs, too.

Not all dogs roll onto their back for belly rubs, though. It’s important to be aware of dog body language and make sure that a dog isn’t intimidated, rather than asking for a good rub or scratching.

The do’s and don’ts of belly rubs for dogs 

Regardless of if you’re a new dog owner or you’ve had your dog for years, it’s important to know what you should — and more importantly, what you shouldn’t — do when giving your dog belly rubs.

The do’s

Wait for your dog to initiate — Dogs that want belly rubs will roll over near you. Once they do, get to their level for a round of belly rubs.

Go in short spurts — Particularly for new dog owners, rub in circular motions for short 15 second spurts, pausing to make sure your dog is enjoying the tummy rubs.

Stay in the chest and stomach area — Keep your hands and fingers away from your dog’s head, focusing on the chest and stomach.

Watch your dog’s body language — Watch for closed eyes and a relaxed posture. If your dog seems anxious or stiffens up, stop.

The don’ts

Try to give unsolicited rubs — Don’t automatically try to give a new dog belly rubs before building a relationship with the dog.

Force your dog to roll onto their back — Forcing your dog into belly rubs can be upsetting and anxiety-inducing for your pup, so let it happen naturally.

Keep going when it’s time to stop — If your dog has had enough and begins to show signs of upset or tries to get up, let it happen.

Scratch or rub too hard — Be careful not to apply too much pressure to your dog’s stomach and chest to avoid injury.

Benefits of belly rubs for dogs 

In addition to simply helping your dog be a happier pup, there are other benefits to giving your dog a good belly rub.

  • Emotional well-being. For many dogs, belly rubs are a way to bond with their owner. Studies show that spending quality time with your dog releases oxytocin, the hormone strongly linked with love and affection.
  • Health advantages. Scratching and rubbing your dog’s tummy is an excellent way to check for a belly rash on your dog, in addition to looking for signs of fleas or other issues your dog may be dealing with.
  • Relieving gas. Dogs get gas pockets just as their owners do. Owners can help relieve gas pockets with a gentle massage.

Common misconceptions about belly rubs  

Many people assume that if a dog rolls onto their back, it’s a sign they want a belly rub. But, as we mentioned above, in some cases this is a sign of submission and an intimidated dog. It’s important to be aware of these signs — signals like ears back or a tail that’s tucked in — and to take a step back or kneel down so that your dog can relax.

Additionally, dog breeds bred to be guard dogs can sometimes interpret going in for belly rubs as aggression. Because of this, it’s important to be aware of your dog’s personality, know their body language, and pay close attention as you’re having quality time with them to be sure it’s a positive interaction.

Regardless of why dogs like belly rubs, it’s important to remember that just because a dog rolls on their back doesn’t mean they want belly rubs. When they do roll over, pay attention to their body language to be sure that both you and your pup are having a great time bonding.

Frequently asked questions  

Why does my dog go crazy when I rub his belly?

Dogs have a reaction called the scratch reflex, which happens when the nerves in their saddle region are stimulated. This is an involuntary reflex, much like our “knee-jerk reaction” during physical exams.

Why does my dog stare at me when I rub his belly?

Dogs stare at their owners for a variety of reasons. They may want more vigorous pets, or, depending on what other body language your dog’s staring is paired with, they may want you to stop or rub somewhere else.

Why does my dog always show me her belly?

Dogs have two reasons to show their owners their bellies: as a sign of trust and affection, or intimidation and submission. In both cases, it’s important to know what kind of relationship you have with your dog, and how to read their body language.

Where do dogs like to be petted the most?

Most dogs enjoy being pet with gentle strokes on their shoulders, chest, and the base of their tail. Every dog is unique, however, and it’s important to find out if your dog enjoys this, ear rubbing, belly rubs, and the other various ways to show affection to your canine best friend.