Customer Service: [email protected] +1 (844) 673-7287 • 9am - 5pm EST (M-F)

Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs?

dog smiling while having his tummy rubbed

If you’ve ever been around a dog, you’ve experienced that moment of sheer joy when they flop onto their backs and excitedly invite you to rub that precious belly. But what inspires them to do that, and why do dogs like belly rubs so much?

We want to explore the art and science of the belly rub — why dogs may be into them, how to give a good one, and what you can do if your dog doesn’t seem to be into them (especially if that seems to change all of a sudden). 

Why Belly Rubs?

So, why belly rubs? What is it about them that dogs like so much?

Like most things in our pet’s heads, we’ll never really know because they can’t speak up and answer those questions. Ultimately, what motivates a dog to seek you out for a belly rub will differ from dog to dog, as they each have unique personalities. 

Many dogs who love belly rubs are also driven by physical affection in general (as opposed to food-driven dogs who live for treats). While there are dogs who are equally motivated by both praise and treats, most of them have a strong preference for one or the other. 

Case in point: a 2016 study used an MRI machine to determine a dog’s preferences for either praise or food. Researchers put their canine volunteers into a Y-shaped maze one at a time, with one end of the maze leading to a food reward and the other to their owner, who was excitedly waiting to praise them. 

While it wasn’t a large sample size, most dogs preferred to go right to their owner, which we think says something about the bond between humans and their dogs. But what is it about their bellies that make that physical affection extra exciting for them?

In addition to a dog’s personal motivation style, we also have to consider why they may want to roll onto their backs — not all of them may be positive. Have you ever seen a scared dog roll onto their back to appease a more dominant one? Is there an element of submissiveness at play when they’re trying to get you to rub their belly?

To help answer that question, let’s look at a joint study between researchers in Canada and South Africa, who worked together to see if they could figure out the reasons that dogs take that stance. These researchers recorded 33 dogs, who varied in size and breed, as they interacted with a medium-sized female dog. 

The study results ultimately showed that a dog rolling onto their back wasn’t a submissive response at all — it was either a tactical play response or a way to instigate play and not something associated with fear. While that doesn’t mean some dogs don’t roll over for that reason, the context is much more likely to be associated with a positive, excited feeling.

Another essential element is the trust you’ve developed between yourself and your dog. It’s unlikely that your dog would make themselves physically vulnerable to you — after all, their belly is a soft, tender place — if they didn’t trust you not to hurt them. 

You should be flattered that your dog trusts you that much; it’s truly a beautiful thing. 

Should You Be Rubbing Your Dog’s Belly?

With all that in mind, if you’re looking for an answer to whether you should be rubbing your dog’s belly, we hate to disappoint you — it isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. 

It starts with really knowing your dog’s personality. Think of it this way — are there any humans in your life that don’t like physical affection (like hugs, for example)? You wouldn’t just grab and hug them against their will, would you? 

The same goes for your pet; you don’t want to force your physical affection on them if they’re not the physically affectionate type. Not sure? Let’s discuss how you can figure out whether your dog likes belly rubs and what their reaction to them might mean for their overall health and wellness.

Pay Attention To How Your Dog Reacts to Belly Rubs

If you’ve never noticed how your dog reacts to a potential belly rub, it’s time to start. While there’s nothing wrong with a dog who isn’t into them, a dog who loves them but suddenly shies away from a belly rub could be a potential red flag. 

Consider why a dog might not want to be touched that way, even if it used to be something they sought out — it could be a sign of pain, especially in their stomach, back, or neck. One thing to keep an eye out for is “whale eye,” when your dog opens their eyes so widely that you can see most of the whites of their eyes. 

Whale eye can be a fear and anxiety response that expresses extreme discomfort with a situation and is often a precursor for a bite or other aggressive behavior. If you see your dog start to give you whale eye while rubbing their belly, slowly but immediately stop what you’re doing and give them space. 

Don’t Be Afraid To Consult Your Veterinarian 

If your dog seems extra hesitant to have their stomach (or any other part of their body) rubbed, especially if the change seems to come out of nowhere, we urge you to check with your veterinarian. While it may be nothing or just a simple change of preference, it may also need to be addressed or investigated more thoroughly. 

How To Give a Good Belly Rub

A good belly rub is like a good shoulder massage — you can always play it by ear and just go for it, but if you know how to do it, you can make it an even more enjoyable experience for both you and your dog.

The first step in giving your dog a good belly rub is to wait for them to ask you for one. Never force your dog onto their back so that you can rub their belly; all that is teaching them is that they should be afraid of you (even if they really love belly rubs). 

It should always be a positive experience that bonds you and your dog closer together, so don’t take that for granted. However, if your dog has come to you, flopped down, and looks at you excitedly, you should be okay to proceed. 

Think about how you approach your dog, though. As tempting as it is to dive in, you want to kneel down slowly so you don’t accidentally scare or intimidate them. You’ll also want to stay aware of your eye contact — making direct eye contact with a dog is often seen as more of a dominant stance than an intimate, loving one.

Once you’re on the ground with your dog, start gently. Try using your palms to rub your dog’s belly in small, circular motions with soft pressure, avoiding using your fingernails. You can also try patting their belly — again, using gentle pressure — and see how they respond. 

Stop every few seconds to give your dog a chance to decide whether they want you to go on or to give them an opportunity to get up and walk away. While rubbing, use the time to check your dog over for lumps, bumps, or anything else unusual. 

You may be surprised by how beneficial this can be for catching issues early, allowing you an opportunity to have your dog evaluated before it can become a more serious issue. 

Other Ways To Bond With Your Dog

Just like humans aren’t all into the same things, some dogs just don’t like having their bellies rubbed — and there’s nothing wrong with that. If your dog tends to be more motivated by other rewards than the physical, we have some suggestions for other ways to bond with them. 

These suggestions — including belly rubs — are also things you can use as positive training techniques, so learning your dog’s motivations is huge.

Treats

Dogs who aren’t all that into head pats and belly rubs are often far more excited about treats and food-based rewards. Do you notice that your dog suddenly appears in the kitchen when you’re cooking? Do they sit and beg and stare at you when you’re eating? Use that! 

But you can’t just give your dog anything they ask for — you have to think about the how, where, and what. Giving your dog a piece of steak off your plate while you’re eating dinner may make their day, but it also teaches them that begging works. 

Instead, reserve your treats for times that your dog deserves praise (or, at least, being “neutral”). You’ll also want to make sure you’re treating them with foods that are healthy and safe for them. 

The ASPCA maintains a list of foods you should avoid feeding your dog for various reasons, including that they can be deadly. As a general rule of thumb, avoid things like chocolate (especially dark chocolate), macadamia nuts, onions, foods with bones (like chicken wings), and anything with the sugar substitute xylitol. 

And remember that treats, even healthy ones, shouldn’t make up more than just a small portion of their daily caloric intake. Obesity can be a very serious issue in dogs, increasing the risk of multiple health conditions, so you want to be sure not to contribute to that. 

Verbal Praise

Just because your dog doesn’t fall all over themselves to have their belly rubbed doesn’t mean that they don’t like praise — it just means that you may need to adjust your approach. 

Plenty of dogs respond to alternate forms of praise, like verbal praise. Sometimes a well-placed “good boy” or “good girl” is enough to brighten your dog’s day and show them they’re a valued member of your family. 

Remember, it doesn’t matter all that much what you say to them; it’s more about the tone of voice you use and your body language. 

Play

If your dog’s eyes light up when they see their tennis ball, they may be motivated by physical activity or play. Your dog’s breed can have a lot to do with their enthusiasm for activity — border collies, Belgian Malinois, and other breeds that are used to having “jobs” tend to thrive in environments when they have a lot to do. 

Not getting these dogs enough activity can also lead to behavioral issues, which makes it even more crucial. Using play to motivate and reward your dog is easy. 

Pay attention to how they react to things like their daily walk or a new toy, then use them as positive reinforcement. A daily walk can be about more than just simple exercise (although that is definitely important); it gives you an opportunity to spend alone time with your dog and solidify the bond between you — plus, it’s physically great for both of you!

The Bottom Line

Why do dogs like belly rubs? Although they can’t speak up and tell us, we can use what we’ve learned from science and animal behavior to make some assumptions about why they might be so excited about them. 

But, more than anything, belly rubs allow you to bond with your dog and make sure they stay safe and healthy. After all, we’re our dogs’ number one fans and biggest advocates — any opportunity we have to make their lives better is one that we should embrace wholeheartedly. 

Sources:

15 Signs of Pain in Dogs | AAHA

People Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pets | ASPCA

Awake canine fMRI predicts dogs’ preference for praise vs food | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience | Oxford Academic

Down but not out: Supine postures as facilitators of play in domestic dogs | ScienceDirect

×
GET 10% OFF