Why Do Dogs Like Belly Rubs?

It feels good. It shows trust. And they just can’t do it themselves.

A dog rolled over on its back on green grass, being petted by a smiling young woman
Maybe dogs like belly rubs because that's one spot they can't reach. BartekSzewczyk / Getty Images

One of the best parts of having a dog is petting your dog. You both get joy from sharing the bond of all that attention. And when your pet rolls over on its back, dogs sure do seem to like belly rubs.

Researchers and dog behaviorists have several theories about why dogs like having their bellies scratched. It feels good. It shows they trust you. And they just can’t do it themselves.

It’s a Spot They Can’t Reach

When dogs roll over on their backs, they could be asking for a belly rub or they could be doing it as a sign of submission. The trick is knowing the difference, according to certified dog trainer and behaviorist Susie Aga of Atlanta Dog Trainer.

“A dog that wants a belly rub just kind of flops over, the legs go straight out, and its whole body stretches,” she says. “Sometimes there’s this slow, kind of swanky tail wag and they’ll elicit the petting by pawing at you or lifting your hand with their nose.”

Aga thinks dogs like belly rubs because it’s a spot they can’t reach.

“They can’t rub their own belly,” she says. “They can lick their paws and clean their ears, but that belly rub is something they can’t do themselves. It's comforting and it feels good.”

Petting Feels Good

The act of being touched or petted feels good to a dog. Just like people like to be touched by those they love, animals crave physical contact from members of their pack. In a 2013 study published in the journal Nature, researchers studied how mice experienced pleasant sensations when their fur was stroked. 

In previous studies, scientists had identified a neuron called MRGPRB4+, which is linked specifically to hair follicles. In this more recent study, they found that the neurons didn’t respond to unpleasant stimuli like pokes, but they were activated by massage-like stroking. Animals with hair and fur have similar neurons. (Humans have them in the hair-covered portions of the body, too.) So it’s believed that dogs, people, and other animals with fur and hair enjoy the same response when stroked.

Even as far back as 1968, research published in Conditional Reflex found that petting a dog can lower its heart rate.

The benefits of belly rubs aren't one-sided. Numerous studies have shown that pets are good for human health. A 2019 study published in AERA Open showed that just 10 minutes of petting a dog or cat can lower cortisol levels in college students, providing stress relief. A 2019 study published in BMC Public Health found that having a dog can make you feel less lonely. Researchers theorized that cuddling your pet could put you in a better mood in the short term, but just having a dog might make you more likely to meet people.

Submissive Behavior vs. Wanting a Belly Rub

Dogs also expose their bellies as a sign of submission, making themselves vulnerable to show that they’re not a threat.

In a submissive dog, you might notice the ears are back, their eyes are squinty or very wide open and averted from your gaze. They might be yawning or have their lips pulled back in a submissive grin. They could be urinating on themselves a little and are typically tense overall, says Aga of Atlanta Dog Trainer.

If you see any of those signs, leave the dog alone. You'll only stress them out more.

What Science Says About Submission and Playfulness

Dog raising paw to surrender in wrestling competion with another dog
Dogs often show their bellies when they play. alexei_tm / Getty Images

In his 1952 book "King Solomon's Ring," Nobel Prize-winning zoologist and ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote about when dogs and wolves fight. He said that at the moment that a dog or wolf rolls over and offers its neck as a sign of submission, then its opponent will withdraw. The other animal won’t continue the attack as long as the submissive dog “maintains his attitude of humility.”

In a 2015 study published in the journal Behavioral Processes, researchers from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta and the University of South Africa took an in-depth look at rolling over when other dogs are around. In the first part of the study, they observed while a medium-sized female dog had play sessions with 33 other dogs of various sizes and breeds. For the second part of the study, they examined videos of dogs playing together.

Researchers concluded that none of the rollovers were signs of submission, but were used primarily as either offensive or defensive tactical maneuvers during play. All the dogs used in the study were friendly and used to playing, so their rollovers were used to block playful bites and tackles or to get into better positions to wrestle or instigate play.

What If My Dog Doesn’t Like Belly Rubs?

Always let the dog make the decision about a belly rub. If they come close to you and flip over, relaxed, that means they are ready for some petting.

Baring their bellies is definitely a sign of trust, but don’t be hurt if your dog doesn’t want a rub, Aga says. Just like people, they have their preference for what they like and don’t like.

“It’s not that they don’t trust you. Some dogs just don’t enjoy it. It’s just they’re personality and how comfortable they are.”

Instead, find that spot they really love — maybe behind the ears or at the base of the tail — and watch everyone’s stress levels drop.