Why Do Dogs Love Belly Rubs?

Dogs love belly rubs for the simple fact that they feel good, but did you know that when dogs roll over to expose their bellies they aren't always asking for one? Dogs who roll on their backs may sometimes do so out of fear so it's important to carefully watch the dog's body language and the context in which the rolling-over-the-back behavior occurs.

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Puppies are initially nudged by mother dog to be rolled over and licked

Reminiscent of Puppy Hood 

Watch the interactions between mother dog and her puppies, and sooner than later, you'll recognize a common pattern. Puppies roll over their backs to have mother dog lick them.

This routine is repeated quite often after meal time. While it may seem like mother dog is simply cleaning up her puppies, there's much more going on. Puppies are unable to eliminate on their own when they are very young so mother dog must stimulate them. She does that by licking their behinds and consuming their waste.

While this may seem repulsive, it's after all, quite an evolutionary astute strategy considering that, by doing so, mother dog prevents waste from accumulating which risks attracting germs, parasites and predators. 

So back to the puppies rolling over their backs, this actually turns out being a learned behavior. When the puppies are very small, mother dog nudges them with her nose to turn them over their backs after nursing them. Nudge, after nudge, the pups learn about this routine, to the point where they will roll on their backs voluntarily in order to be cleaned up. This behavior is referred to as "inguinal presentation."

Rolling over is therefore a behavior that dogs learn from a very young age. It is often seen in puppies and tends to persist into adulthood in many dogs and can be used as a sign of submission and deference.

"A dog rolling over his back is doing much more than simply revealing his belly; this is the same posture dogs use to allow their mothers to clean their genitals."~Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog, What Dogs See, Smell and Know."

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Dog bellies have less fur and thin skin. The area is also rich in nerve endings

A Sensitive Area 

Just like dogs love having their ears rubbed, dogs love belly rubs because the belly is a highly sensitive area. It doesn't take rocket science to understand why the belly ranks high as a universal pleasure zone for dogs. 

First of all, the skin on a dog's belly is much thinner than other areas of the body. On top of that, there is not much fur covering the area. With thinner skin and lack of fur, your dog's belly is therefore much more sensitive to touch compared to other areas.

Not to mention the fact that a dog's chest area and belly area are places where the dog cannot easily reach if they sense an itch. To makeup for the deficiency, Mother Nature has made the skin in this area rich in nerve endings and has equipped dogs with a special scratch reflex, which explains why dogs tend to kick their leg when pet.  

The Power of Touch 

Touch between a dog owner and his dog can exert therapeutic benefits for both parties. It has been shown by research that when dog owners interact with their dogs, a bonding hormone known for stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust is released in both species. This hormone goes by the name of oxytocin, but it is commonly referred to as the "love hormone."

Dogs who enjoy belly rubs typically manifest their appreciation through their body language. Dogs who are typically enjoying the interaction tend to look limp like a noodle, (but that's not always the case), explains veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lisa Radosta.  

The body language is typically loose, relaxed and the dog appears to be asking for a belly rub. When you pet your dog's belly, the dog looks happy about it and relaxed, and when you stop, your dog may look at you or even nudge at you in hopes of you continuing. 

Exceptions to the Rule 

Not all dogs love belly rubs, so it's important to point this out. For some dogs, the belly area is an "off limits" territory. This can be especially true for some dog breeds that tend to be on the aloof, reserved side.

 It's important to respect a dog's desire to not be pet in this area if your dog has shown in the past to be sensitive or unpredictable upon being touched in this area. When in doubt, it is best to err on the side of caution. 

"In general, it is best to assume that a dog who offers the inguinal presentation signal doesn’t want you to rub him, but instead wants you to leave him alone," warns Dr. Radosta. And of course, never pet or rub the belly of an unknown dog, unless the owner says it's something fine to do. 

Also, consider context. Some dogs may enjoy belly rubs when they are next to you and feel relaxed. As mentioned, these dogs voluntarily flop over relaxed and demonstrate their appreciation with a satisfied look on their faces. However, these same dogs may dislike being touched when they are sleeping or perhaps focused on something such as an outdoor noise.  

The type of belly rub given may also play a role on a dog's perception of it. Some dogs tolerate gentle little strokes, while others enjoy being rubbed more vigorously as if you were toweling them after a bath. 

 Dogs Don't Always Want Belly Rubs

Finally, it's important to point out that not all dogs who roll over on their backs are asking for a belly rub. Rolling over the back can be carried out of discomfort or fear in certain situations. In this case, the dog isn't asking specifically for a belly rub, but is rather saying something along the lines of "please, let's stop this interaction, it is making me nervous" or perhaps "I feel helpless and surrender, just please don't hurt me."

Typically, these dogs have their tails tucked under and their ears are pulled back so to keep these body parts out of danger. Their lips may also be pulled back and the head may be turned away to avoid direct eye contact. Dogs may exhibit this body language when they are the vet's office or when you are planning to clip their nails or do something they are not comfortable with. 

Forcing a belly rub in a dog presenting the belly in such context may lead to growling, snapping or even biting, considering that this dog's "please leave me alone" request has gone to deaf ears. 

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Many dogs enjoy being rubbed in the chest area considering it's a place they can't scratch very easily

Now That You Know...

So your dog loves belly rubs? Well, there's an art for that too. If you want to oblige to your dog's request for a belly rub, follow these tips from Maryjean Ballner, a New York State Licensed Massage Therapist and author of the book:"Dog Massage: A Whiskers-to-Tail Guide to Your Dog's Ultimate Petting Experience."

  • Start off from the chest area and then work your way towards the tummy area. 
  • Just as in people, consider that dogs benefit from a warm-up period so avoid starting directly from the lower belly area. 
  • Start with slow speed and light pressure, and make sure to be in a gentle and relaxed mood.
  • If your dog is not fond of belly rubs, use caution and skip them altogether! 
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