English Bulldog waiting for a belly rub

Why Do Dogs Love Belly Rubs?  Tummy Rub Addiction Explained

One of the best parts of owning a dog is bonding with them through touch.

The reasons why we love belly rubs are obvious. Belly rubs seem like the simple go-to way to show your affection. It makes you feel closer to your dog as an owner. It’s endlessly soothing to us as well! Studies have shown the effects of petting a dog as destressing and relaxing for us humans. (1)

But why do dogs like their belly rubbed? In this article, we’ll explore the science behind tummy rubs. Why you should do it, when you should do it and how you should do it.

Bordeaux begging for a belly tummy rub

The Science Behind Why Dogs Love Belly Rubs

The first thing to note is the reason why dogs are comfortable with belly rubs in the first place. Showing you their belly is a signal of trust and companionship. The belly is a very vulnerable body part for any animal. You don’t go flashing your stomach to anyone down a dark alleyway. It’s a signal of vulnerability.

Your dog is showing you that they have complete trust in you. They accept you as an important part of their tribe. They feel open and happy with you (isn’t that sweet!).

Next, the belly rubbing itself. More than anything, belly rubs feel good! This is scientifically backed by studies of mammals with hair follicles.

A study on mice found that a specific neuron fired when the mice were caressing and stroked. It’s called MRGPRB4+”. (2)

“By synthesizing a chemical that also activates MRGPRB4+, the scientists were able to provoke a response in the neurons and observe a reaction. Mice given the neuron-activating chemical were observed to have fewer signs of stress, leading researchers to believe the sensation was both calming and pleasurable.”  -Bailey Johnson for CBS News (3)

When your dog lays back and accepts your tummy tubs, the sensation is comforting and fun to them. It releases all of the feel-good hormones. Think endorphins and oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the “cuddle” hormone which bonds your dog to you even further. There’s a feeling of closeness, kinship and happiness when you rub your dog’s belly.

The bonding aspect also lends itself to the theory that belly rubbing is like allogrooming. Allogrooming is the act of animals cleaning and maintaining the appearance of another member of their species. (4) Though a belly rub isn’t specifically intended for this purpose, it may have been done when your dog was a puppy and being rubbed by their mother.


How to Tell If Your Dog Wants Tummy Rubs

Dogs show many different signs when they want their belly rubbed. It can often be confused for submissive behaviour, so it’s worth knowing how to tell the difference.

If your dog wants a belly rub, they may:

  • Relax the body and lay back
  • Have steady breathing and an open mouth. You may even see their tongue flopping around like a little goofball!
  • Open and welcoming eyes. Not fixed on anything. Perhaps looking around or relaxed gaze on you.
  • Wagging tail. Very relaxed.
  • General playful demeanour with light panting

You’ll also intuitively pick up on their energy. The belly rub energy is a playful, lighthearted one.

If your dog is acting in a frightened, submissive way, you’ll sense something is off. Some tell-tale signs are:

  • Tail frozen or stuck to their belly
  • Very direct gaze or eye contact
  • Low mood
  • Ears back
  • Baring teeth
  • Whimpering or shaking
  • Tense body all over

If your dog is in a submissive mode, this is not an invitation to rub their bellies. You may even find that they bite you if you try. They are scared. A dog may attack you when scared to protect themselves.


How to Give Your Dog A Belly Rub

To give your dog a good belly rub, first know that there is no exact science to it. Your dog wants to feel good and your attention may be enough.

  1. The first thing you want to do is identify if they even want a belly rub. For that, refer to the previous paragraph. Is it truly an invitation for a belly rub or not? Anyone who has tried to rub the belly of a cat who is bearing their stomach knows that this may not be an invitation. 
  2. Next, you want to get on your dog’s level. Don’t attempt to rub them from on high. It’s quite intimidating. Get as low as you can, maybe kneeling or sitting beside them.
  3. Rubbing your dog’s belly differs for everyone. Your technique is your own. But generally, as a rule of thumb, keep your fingernails tucked in. Some dogs like a light scratch with fingernails in a circular motion. Some long-haired breeds hate this as it’s uncomfortable. You may prefer to pat your dog lightly on the stomach. Some dogs are into it, some aren’t. Figure out what is most comfortable for you and your dog. 
  4. If you have never pet a dog on their stomach before, keep your first try very short. Up to 5 seconds is enough. See how they react. While you are rubbing your dog’s belly, try to assess any non-verbal cues that they like it or not. If they like it, they’ll remain relaxed and maybe wiggle under you a little. My dog also paws at me when he’s enjoying belly rubs. If they dislike it, they’ll leave. Simple as. Playtime over!
  5. Repeat and refine as you go. You’ll eventually get to a place where your dog may never want you to stop. So begin at your own risk. You could be sat for hours.

Is It Bad To Give Your Dog Belly Rubs?

Generally, no. There’s no scientific reason why belly rubs could be considered harmful or problematic for your dog. However, there are a couple of potential personal reasons why you may want to refrain from rubbing your dog’s belly. 

If they are injured

If your dog has just had desexing surgery or some kind of injury around that area of the body, it’s best not to touch it. Wait until the wounds have fully healed. You may even want to wait until the fur has started to grow back. Some dogs are more sensitive about being “naked” on their stomach than others. My Flat-Coated Retriever really liked her naked skin being touched once her wounds were fully healed. She is a long-haired breed so the sensation was new for her. However other dogs may find it too intimate.

If in doubt, wait until some of the fur has grown back before touching their belly again. 

If they are pregnant

If you have a pregnant dog, it’s not a good idea to give them a belly rub. Firstly, it’s unlikely that your dog will invite you to. They are in a very territorial, hormonal space. Touching a dog’s pregnant belly may result in mild annoyance or a full-on bite. You don’t want to make your dog feel unnecessarily comfortable.

If they don’t like belly rubs

This may shock you but there are dogs out there that really don’t like belly rubs. It’s like humans who don’t like hugs. It’s a personal preference. And of course, there are levels to this.

Some dogs do like belly rubs but only for a short period of time. Some dogs never feel entirely comfortable with it, but won’t complain if your 5-year-old insists on rubbing their soft tummy. They are entirely unbothered but won’t attack either.

If your dog disliked being belly rubbed - don’t do it! It’s unkind to force them into something they don’t enjoy. Your dog may have other ways they prefer you show affection.

For example, my German Shepherd loved his nose being stroked. He hated belly rubs as it was intimidating to him. But a slow rub on the nose with a gentle finger was very soothing for him.


Key Takeaways: Why Dogs Love Belly Rubs

As you can see, dogs enjoy tummy rubs for a plethora of reasons. Not only does it strengthen your bond, it feels good to both parties involved.

If you have a dog that loves belly rubs and asks for them often, enjoy that relationship! Your dog is displaying profound trust and love for you when they approach you for a cuddle.

If your dog isn’t into them, don’t be offended! It’s (likely) nothing personal. You can show your affection in a range of other ways that work for both of you.

Every relationship between a dog and its owner is unique. A belly rub is just one way we can connect.

References:

  1. Pendry P, Vandagriff JL. Animal Visitation Program (AVP) Reduces Cortisol Levels of University Students: A Randomized Controlled Trial. AERA Open. April 2019. doi:10.1177/2332858419852592
  2. Liu, Q., Vrontou, S., Rice, F. et al. Molecular genetic visualization of a rare subset of unmyelinated sensory neurons that may detect gentle touch. Nat Neurosci 10, 946–948 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1937
  3. Johnson, B. February 1, 2013. “Why do animals love petting?”. CBS News. Retrieved October 19, 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/why-do-animals-love-petting/
  4. Schweinfurth, M.K., Stieger, B. & Taborsky, M. Experimental evidence for reciprocity in allogrooming among wild-type Norway rats. Sci Rep 7, 4010 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-03841-3
Olivia De Santos

Olivia is a professional writer and animal lover. She loves spending time with her Podengo and Flat Coated Retriever, and writing pieces to help people to be better dog owners

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