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It’s signature dog behavior to roll over and ask for a belly rub. And what owner can resist rewarding their pet with that kind of attention? It’s a wonderful way to bond.

But why do dogs like belly rubs? And is it truly a universal dog behavior, or do some prefer to be petted elsewhere? Read on to learn how to recognize if your dog is really asking for a belly rub, and if so how to give the best belly rub possible.

Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs?

There has yet to be any scientific research on why dogs love belly rubs. Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of How to Speak Dog, believes it’s simply another way of socially connecting with your pet. “For some dogs, a belly rub is simply a variant of being petted. It is a form of social contact. The fur on the belly is usually less dense and softer, so the sense of being touched is less muted.”

Chihuahua having its belly stratched while on a walk.
mettus via Getty Images
Chihuahua having its belly scratched while on a walk.

Some dogs love being petted so much that they even prefer touch to other types of rewards, such as a treat or toy. A research study that examined dogs’ preferences placed them in a Y-shaped maze and watched to see which arm of the Y they chose. The dogs found food at the end of one arm of the Y; at the end of the other arm, they found their owner, ready to praise and pet them. Most of the dogs chose contact with their owner over the food. So don’t underestimate the power of petting and belly rubs.

Do All Dogs Like Belly Rubs?

However, it’s a myth that dogs across the board love belly rubs. Even if they enjoy other forms of pats and cuddles, belly rubs can rub some dogs the wrong way. Dr. Coren explains, “It is certainly not the case that all dogs like belly rubs. More dominant breeds, especially those that have been bred to be guard dogs, are apt to view attempts to rub their bellies as aggression.”

Beagle with its belly up
dimarik via Getty Images

But if your dog rolls on their back, what else could they be asking for? Are you misunderstanding a canine body language cue? Yes. It’s important to understand when your dog is inviting a belly rub and when they’re trying to tell you something else. For example, a scientific study looked at why dogs roll over during play and found that this is a tactical posture, used either to evade a play bite to the neck or to launch a playful attack. So, there is more to the belly-up position than meets the eye.

Why Do Dogs Roll Onto Their Backs?

There are many other reasons why dogs roll onto their backs. Dr. Coren explains, “When the weather is hot, dogs will often roll on their backs to expose their bellies where the fur is thinner, and therefore they can dissipate some heat and cool off. Adult dogs will roll on their back as an invitation for play with puppies and with human toddlers (who still are emitting the pheromones associated with the very young). And dogs roll on their back as a signal for submission when they are afraid or threatened.”

So, if dogs roll on their backs for so many reasons, how do you know if your pet is inviting a belly rub? Look at the rest of their body language. Dr. Coren notes that a frightened or threatened dog will avoid eye contact and hold their mouth closed with maybe only the tip of the tongue visible. The opposite signals show your dog is interested in engaging with you. “If the dog rolls on its back and its mouth is open with its tongue rolling out and its eyes wide open, that is a good sign that this is a friendly and sociable signal.”

How Do You Give Your Dog a Great Belly Rub?

If your dog gives you the right body language, it’s time to offer a belly rub. Keep your hands away from your dog’s head and lightly scratch the upper region of their chest with your fingers or hand. But watch their reaction. If your dog seems relaxed and comfortable, keep going. Many dogs will close their eyes and melt into your touch. But if your pooch stiffens, moves away, or otherwise seems anxious, stop petting and let your dog be.

Dog belly rub Meet the Breeds 2022
©American Kennel Club

If your dog doesn’t want belly rubs, accept that as part of their personality. One of Dr. Coren’s dogs, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever named Ranger, is a very successful therapy dog. The only time he offers to have his belly rubbed is in the presence of children whom he treats very much like puppies. And that’s fine with Dr. Coren, who believes you shouldn’t force belly rubs on your dog or try to teach your pet to enjoy them. It’s important that your dog is comfortable being handled, but belly rubs are a personal preference. He urges people to never forcibly roll a dog onto their back, even if you think it’s playful or for the purpose of a belly rub.

“If your dog doesn’t like and doesn’t offer a chance to give them a belly rub,” says Dr. Coren, “then don’t pursue this activity. You might think that it is pleasurable in the same way that some people think that strawberry ice cream is nice. If your child doesn’t like strawberry ice cream, would you think that it is necessary to teach them to like that flavor of ice cream? The same goes for belly rubs for your dog. There are other things the dog might find more pleasurable, like retrieving a plush toy that you’ve tossed across the room.”

So, the key to giving a great belly rub is ensuring your dog wants one in the first place. Read your pet’s body language cues and appreciate their preferences. And if your dog asks for a belly rub, savor those cuddles for all they’re worth.

Related article: Do Dogs Have Belly Buttons?
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