Dogs are pretty good at telling us they love getting belly rubs, even if they can't say it verbally. They get loose and wiggly, roll around on their backs, and seem to sport giant smiles.
Dr. Samantha Stanley, a veterinarian at GoodVets in Charlotte, North Carolina, says belly rubs can be one way to show your dog that you love them.
But why do dogs like belly rubs, and what does a belly rub feel like to a dog? Stanley offers insight into those questions and more.
Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs?
Research proves the importance of touch in animal wellness, whether it be a belly rub or a scratch behind the ear. A 2011 study found that in as little as three minutes of physical interaction with their humans, dogs experience an increase in happy hormones (oxytocin), a decrease in stress hormones (cortisol), and a change in heart rate. The humans doing the petting experienced similar emotional effects.
The benefits of physical touch aren’t limited to dogs interacting with their pet parents. Another study involving shelter dogs found that just 15 minutes of petting was able to calm pups—potentially improving their chances of adoption.
In other words, belly rubs induce chemical and physiological reactions that make your pup feel good while helping to decrease stress.
What Does a Belly Rub Feel Like to a Dog?
“I wish we could ask them!” Stanley says. But, she says, we can extrapolate what it might feel like based on our own experiences and observations of pups while getting a belly rub.
“Just like someone giving you a massage, belly rubs and other stroking can feel comforting and relaxing,” she says.
And what about the “sweet spot” that always makes your dog kick their legs during a belly rub? You've found a patch of nerve endings that sends signals to your dog's brain and spinal cord, which in turn instructs them to kick their legs. This is called the scratch reflex, and its job is to protect your dog from dangers like crawling bugs and parasites.
Belly rubs induce chemical and physiological reactions that make your pup feel good while helping to decrease stress.
While the scratch reflex doesn't necessarily mean your dog likes being scratched in that particular area, it doesn't necessarily indicate discomfort either. You'll have to distinguish the difference by reading your dog’s body language.
How To Give Your Pup the Best Belly Rub
When a pup rolls on their back, paws in the air, it's natural to want to give them a belly rub. But what's the best way to rub a dog's belly?
There’s no one best belly rub technique.
Stanley says that some dogs like rubbing, while others like more of a patting motion, and some like their belly to be scratched. Smaller dogs generally prefer gentler rubs, but even some large dogs may prefer a less enthusiastic belly scratch.
The sides of the belly are an especially good spot for gentle scratches. “Just avoid the more sensitive nipple area (yes, male dogs have nipples too) and don’t stay in one spot for too long or apply too much pressure,” Stanley recommends. Your pup will tell you when a particular spot feels the best.
Give your pup breaks to ensure they’re still enjoying the attention. If they move away or roll back over, they’ve had their fill. But if they remain on their back with their belly exposed, paw at your hand, or nudge you with their nose—rub on, Stanley says.
Signs Your Dog Doesn’t Want a Belly Rub
Keep in mind that dogs can’t verbalize their feelings. Instead, it’s essential to understand your dog’s cues, such as ear position, gaze, and body positioning. “Any time a dog moves away from you when touching them, it is a great indication they don't want to be touched,” Stanley says.
She says to take the context of the situation into consideration, too. Rolling onto their back can either indicate they want a belly rub or just the opposite: They’re uncomfortable and are showing the most vulnerable part of their body (the belly) to indicate they’re not a threat.
“Did you just come home from work and your excited dog rolls on their back when you bend down to take off your shoes? That dog is inviting some physical attention,” Stanley says.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re about to trim your dog’s nails when your dog sees the clippers and lies on their back. Stanley says your dog might be scared of the nail trimmers rather than inviting touch.
Body language that indicates your dog doesn’t want a belly rub may include:
Moving away or otherwise avoiding touch
Ears pointed back and flat
Tense body position with a closed mouth
Tail tucked between the legs
If your dog seems sensitive to touch in one area or moves away from you when you approach a spot, consult your vet to rule out any injuries or medical causes.
Other Ways to Show Your Dog Affection
If your dog doesn't like belly rubs, there are other places where most dogs enjoy being petted. Stanley says some of the best places to pet your dog include under the chin, on the chest, or near the base of the tail.
Just keep in mind that some dogs may not like physical touch, and it's important to respect those boundaries. “Some dogs prefer food over touch, while others like verbal praise,” Stanley says. Whatever it may be, there’s a way to cater to your dog's love language.
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