By: Dr. Juli, DVM @itsDrJuli
Like humans, dogs have unique ways of communicating with their favorite human or four-legged siblings. Most pet parents are familiar with the classic dog behaviors, like drooling at the sight (or scent) of a steak, barking up a tree for the pesky squirrel, and whining or staring at the door when a potty break is required. Learning to speak "dog" is a seamless process for most seasoned pet owners. However, some dog behaviors, like rolling on their back, may have multiple meanings, depending on your pup's temperament, health, and general preferences.
A good belly rub is a common way pet owners show their pup love, but sometimes, praising your dog with a treat or walk may be better. Follow this guide to learn when your dog is giving you the green light for a belly rub and when to refrain from touching your pup's stomach.
Why Do Dogs Love Belly Rubs?
For many people, the mere thought of someone rubbing our stomach can be cringe-worthy and uncomfortable, but for our pets, rolling over and asking for pats or scratches on their abdomen is a classic dog behavior that we pet parents are happy to oblige. So, why do our canine companions like to have their bellies rubbed?
While limited scientific research exists to explain why dogs love belly rubs, there is plenty of anecdotal and behavioral evidence behind this beloved behavior.
Common reasons your dog may love belly rubs include:
- The fur on your dog's belly is less dense and, therefore, more sensitive to the touch.
- The feel-good hormones oxytocin and endorphins are released.
- Tummy rubs are soothing and relaxing.
- Your dog enjoys social contact, which allows them to bond with you.
- Your dog trusts you and shows affection by presenting their belly for a rub.
- It mimics their natural social grooming instinct.
When TO Rub Your Pup’s Belly
Recognizing that your pup wants a belly rub or that they accept this form of touch will ensure you do not compromise your dog's trust. Regular belly rubs are also an excellent way for dog owners to examine their dog's body for any injuries, skin diseases, hitchhiking pests, masses, or tumors, especially in older pups. Never forcibly roll your dog over for a belly rub because this will compromise your bond, cause anxiety, or break your dog's trust.
Signs your dog wants a tummy rub include:
- Laying on their back close to you
- Leaning on you, cuddling, or lying on your lap
- Relaxed or wagging tail while on their back
- Overall relaxed body
- Wide open eyes, with occasional direct eye contact
- Open mouth with a flapping tongue
- Pawing at you while on their back or nuzzling your hand to rub them
Note that tail wagging can sometimes be a sign of aggression. Pay close attention to your dog's body language to ensure they're wagging their tail in a happy, inviting manner.
When NOT to Rub Your Pup’s Belly
Generally, rolling on the back is a sign of submission or showing that they are not a threat (by assuming a vulnerable position), a typical behavior in nervous or anxious dogs. However, some dogs may present their belly or roll on their back for reasons other than wanting a belly rub. Rolling belly-up may not always be a submissive behavior. Some dog breeds, like German shepherds, Chow chows, and Rottweilers, may feel threatened or too vulnerable to accept a belly rub. Forcibly rubbing your anxious dog's belly could result in you being bitten, in addition to causing your pup additional stress.
Never rub your dog's belly if they are showing any anxiety signs, which may include:
- Tail between the legs
- Tense body posture
- Growling or attempting to bite when approached
- Lip licking
- Mouth close
- Squinting eyes and avoiding any eye contact
- Ears back or flattened
Additionally, if your dog generally loves belly rubs, then suddenly resists, flinches, or avoids you rubbing their belly, this could indicate that your pup is experiencing pain. Bring your dog for a veterinary examination if they show sudden behavior changes to rule out a possible medical problem, illness, injury, or behavioral disorder.
How to Give the Perfect Belly Rub
When attempting to give your pup a belly rub, closely monitor their response. If they provide a warning or are not relaxed, immediately stop all attempts to rub their belly and allow them to retreat to a place where they feel comfortable and safe. To find out if your dog likes belly rubs, follow this method:
- Step 1 – Wait for your pup to approach and present their belly. Never attempt to roll your dog on their back or invade their space. Waiting for your puppy to come to you will build trust and strengthen your bond. Attempting a belly rub is probably okay if your dog is lying on you or already cuddling.
- Step 2 – Crouch or sit at your dog's level, staying relaxed. Dogs often mimic the energy of their people, so the more comfortable you are, the more comfortable your pup will likely be.
- Step 3 – Gently rub or scratch your dog's upper chest area for a few seconds to gauge their comfort level, then stop.
- Step 4 – Monitor your pup's response. If they do not get up and move away, this is a good indication you can continue to rub their underside. Sometimes, your dog may paw at you to indicate they want the belly rubs to continue.
It's common for dogs to involuntarily kick their rear legs when rubbed or scratched in a particular spot, often on their lower belly. This scratch reflex is a normal dog response caused by stimulation of nerve bundles beneath the skin and usually is not a sign of discomfort. If your pup does not show additional signs of distress when the scratch reflex is triggered, it should be okay to continue the belly rub.
In some cases, this response can indicate allergies or other skin discomforts. Bring your dog for a vet exam if they are regularly scratching or appears to have an amplified scratch reflex. Allergy supplements and Omega Oil are great ways to support your pup's skin and coat if they suffer from allergies or the occasional itch.
Other Ways to Show Your Dog Affection
Showing your dog affection is imperative to bonding and building trust with your four-legged companion. For pups who do not care for belly rubs, try these other ways:
- Take your dog to their favorite park, or try a new walking route with plenty of sniff breaks.
- Give your dog a treat, like Native Pet Yak Chews, or make them a special pupsicle.
- Provide your pup with lots of praise and reassuring words.
- Try gently petting or scratching other body areas, like their head, neck, or back.
Most importantly, as long as you are listening to your dog’s body language and responding appropriately, you can rest assured your pup knows just how much you love them - belly rubs or no belly rubs.
For more information and tips on your dog's health, check out the Native Pet blog.