Why Do Dogs Like Their Belly Rubbed?
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Few moments are as tender as when our dog rolls on their back and exposes their belly to us. When it is a clear invite to pet them on their tummy, it can provide a real moment of connection between us and our animal. They may even kick their legs in the air in excitement. Is it simply this excitement which explains why dogs love belly rubs? Is there something else which explains this phenomenon?
At AnimalWised, we ask why do dogs like their belly rubbed? We also look into whether lying on their back always means they want a tummy rub or whether something else may be behind this gesture.
Why is my dog showing its belly?
You have probably observed your dog roll over on their back in various situations. It could be they fall down beside you on the couch with their belly up, giving you better tummy access. In this moment it seems pretty clear they want to be petted on their stomach. We may also see the dog making a similar motion outside, this time rubbing themselves in the grass or dirt.
While we might expect our own dog to want to be petted when showing their belly, does the same apply to a dog we don't know? Are they always inviting us to rub their bellies?
Dogs will expose their belly to us for several reasons. The motion is often a sign of trust, but can also be a token of submission. In some cases, this can be due to a sense of fear. Lying on their back exposes the most vulnerable part of their body. This vulnerability can be a positive or negative sign, depending on the context. To know more specifics, consult our article on why my dog is showing their belly.
If we walk down the street and we see a dog roll over and expose their belly, it is best to walk away slowly. This is because it is likely consider you a threat since they don't know you. Going over to them might cause them to become even more afraid. We should look for other signs of appeasement such as tucking their tail between their legs, turning their head away or licking their muzzle.
If you notice your dog is nervous in new situations or with strangers and they show their stomach, it is better not to rub their belly. Doing so can negatively reinforce their feelings of anxiety. We should explain to strangers that they don't want their belly scratched and ask the politely not to if they attempt it. Wait until the dog feels comfortable and approaches with their ears and tail raised.
Belly rubs give dogs security
Now we know that dogs show their bellies as a sign of submission and/or respect, we need to think about what the action of rubbing their belly provides. Essentially, we want to know why dogs like belly rubs.
Those of us who have experienced it know that rubbing a dog's tummy can provide a very tender moment. Such tenderness is felt by us, but the dog will find it equally reassuring. The act provides them with a feeling of security which bonds them closer to their guardian.
The reason for this sense of security can be traced to their youth. As puppies, dogs will lay on top of their siblings, sleeping together in serene peace. Next to their mother and littermates, they feel safe and loved. Laying on their back is a sign of a happy dog. Allowing us to rub their belly means they are also secure in their relationship with us, something they need to be happy in the domestic environment.
Rubbing their belly is only one of the many ways we can show our dog we love them. If you are unsure, check out our article on the signs which mean your dog loves you.
What does your dog feel when you pet them?
Dogs do not always interpret petting as signs of affection. Not only does it matter who is petting them, but where they are being petted is very important. As we have stated, accepting belly rubs implies a closeness, but petting in other areas can affect them in different ways. This is related to their wild ancestry, so it also helps to look at how dogs interact with other dogs:
Petting on the head
This is a very delicate area, so it is not advisable to stroke the head of an unfamiliar dog. The reason is that it could be interpreted as a threat. When guardians pet dogs on their head, it is usually a sign the dog is happy and satisfied with their behavior.
Petting on the back
When a dog places a paw on the back of another, it is likely a sign of kinship. It commonly happens when dogs are at play. It often is a kind request to be more dominant during the play. This is why petting the back is usually accepted as a kind gesture meaning ‘we are friends’.
Petting on the side
When dogs are comfortable with one of their own, they rub side to side. It is taken as a friendly greeting. Therefore, if you pet your dog on the side, it will interpret it as a gesture of trust and friendship.
Petting on the neck
If a dog lets you pet them on the neck, it is a sign they are more than just tolerant of you. They consider you to be a close friend and they have the utmost confidence in you. They feel protected and loved, reminiscent of the way their mother would make them feel when they were a puppy.
For anyone having trouble getting close to a dog, our article on how to gain the trust of a dog might be helpful in building a stronger bond with your dog.
Are dogs ticklish?
If we were to be petted on the belly the way we do it to our dog, many of us wouldn't be able to stand it. It's not because it is un enjoyable, but because it tickles. Tickling can come in different forms, but mainly there is light pleasant tickling or the kind which actually puts pressure on the area.
In humans, tickling emits laughing and involuntary spasms. Dogs do not laugh in the same way as humans, but it doesn't mean they don't emit sounds of pleasure or show body language signs they are happy. When rubbing their belly, we often see the dog kick their legs in the air, shake excitedly and even smile with their mouth.
For this reason, if we want to know whether a dog is ticklish, we need to apply our own definition. If feeling ticklish means enjoying being ticked, especially on the belly, then it seems quite likely they are.
How to rub a dog's belly
Before you reach out and try to rub a dog's belly, we need to know whether they are exposing their stomach to you out of friendship or fear. If they are an unfamiliar dog or a dog you know is in an unfamiliar situation, then we need to exercise caution. We should ideally wait for a calmer moment to pet them. We should also wait until they come over to us so they can have more confidence. If we rush to rub their belly, they may feel cornered.
Wherever and whenever you pet a dog, always be considerate and affectionate. Make them feel comfortable, start with less delicate areas and don't give any implication you will hurt them. Although we may only be playing, too many dog guardians think it is OK to be rough their their dog and even use violent movements. Even if we are being affectionate, the dog can interpret our actions as aggression and cause considerable confusion.
All dogs are individuals with their own characters and preferences. Some simply won't enjoy having their belly rubbed, especially if they have experienced trauma in this area in the past. Your dog is a living being with the right to be treated with respect. Moreover, since we are their family, they deserve your love and affection.
The best way to rub a dog's belly is provide them with love and respect. This way they will build trust with you and invite rubs on their belly when they feel ready.
If you want to read similar articles to Why Do Dogs Like Their Belly Rubbed?, we recommend you visit our Basic education category.
- Turid Rugaas. (2005). The language of dogs: Signs of calm . KNS Editions.