One of the most joyous parts of owning a pet is cuddling. Many of our dogs seem to love having their bellies rubbed. They happily flop on their backs, tongue lolling and tail wagging as they await tummy scratches. But why? What's so great about having your belly rubbed to a dog?
Submissive Behavior vs. Wanting a Belly Rub
Dogs expose their bellies to us for two main reasons: as a submissive display, and as a request for a belly rub. It's important to know what your dog is telling you before you go in for petting!
Dogs adopting a submissive display (also called an appeasement display) are trying to diffuse social tension by showing that they're not a threat. Petting a dog who's showing submissive or appeasing behaviors can make the dog more nervous, because now you're touching him in very vulnerable parts of his body!
Dogs who actually want a belly rub will generally show the following body language signals:
- Overall: loose, wiggly body postures
- Mouth: relaxed, open mouth—you might see their tongue flopping around
- Eyes: Open or squinty, bright and not necessarily staring at anything
- Tail: relaxed, wagging tail
- Vocalizations: quiet ha-ha sound as they "laugh," or a light panting sound, or silent
In contrast, a dog who is showing submissive or appeasing behavior will look like this:
- Overall: tense, low body postures—they may crouch, freeze, or tense up
- Mouth: lips pulled far back in a "fear grimace" or lips and mouth closed, may see lots of lip-licking and tongue-flicking
- Eyes: wide open and staring into the distance, or showing the whites of their eyes as they look at you, without turning their head, or eyes will be squinty and tense
- Tail: may be still or wagging, but will have tension in the base of the tail and the tail may be tucked
- Vocalizations: quiet or soft whining
Most people find it easiest to watch the dog's tail and mouth—but keep in mind that a wagging tail doesn't equal a happy dog. A tucked, stiff, fast tail wag is not the same as a full-body, loose tail wag!
Why Do Dogs Love Belly Rubs?
It's hard to say exactly why dogs love belly rubs—we can't ask our pets! Since dogs can't easily scratch their own tummies, they're more likely to rely on humans for help.
Many dogs also enjoy rolling in carpet or grass to really itch their backs. Anecdotally, it seems that many dogs seem to enjoy getting a belly rub while they also scratch their backs. They can reach their own shoulders, necks, and face with their hind feet. But they really don't have a good way to scratch their own tummies!
Think of how nice it feels to have someone rub your back or scratch an itch that you can't reach. No wonder dogs love getting a helping hand with their belly rubs!
How to Give a Great Belly Rub to a Dog
Not all dogs love belly rubs. Most dogs don't always want a belly rub, either. If your dog doesn't love belly rubs or doesn't want one right now, it's no big deal. Some dogs just aren't into it, or maybe your dog just isn't in the mood.
Many dogs really only enjoy belly rubs in the morning when serotonin levels are highest, or when they're really relaxed.
You can help your dog love belly rubs even more by learning how to give a good belly rub. Here are the basic steps to giving an excellent belly rub, which are modified from the pat-pet-pause protocol for petting dogs:
Watch to see if your dog is actually asking for a belly rub. Check the body language listed above.
If your dog doesn't seem to want a belly rub right now, don't push it. The best way to teach your dog to trust you and love belly rubs is to respect him when he says "No, thank you."
Kneel down. Keep your body language loose and relaxed at first.
Rub the belly! Try open-palmed, fingernails-in, circular, or even patting motions.
After 3 to 5 seconds, stop petting.
See what your dog does next. If he paws at you, stays put, or otherwise shows that he'd like more petting, go back in for more! If he gets up and leaves, belly rubs are over.
Try changing up what sort of petting you use and see what different results you get. You might be surprised to find a new type of belly rub that your dog loves even more.
The most important thing is to respect your dog's wishes and pet him the way he'd like to be petted. If you listen to your dog's body language, you will actually make your dog love belly rubs even more than he already does!