Why do dogs like having their bellies rubbed? The obvious answer is that a belly rub feels good. But, as with so many things, it’s not entirely that simple.
A dog’s personal space is important. Humans have a number of options when it comes to protecting their personal space, whether verbal or non-verbal, but when a dog's personal space is invaded, and they aren't enjoying the attention, they can tend to show a certain amount of threatening behaviour. Often, it’ll be a low growl or a show of teeth and we need to heed these signs and allow the dog some space.
If you approach a dog – any dog, including your own – from the front, it can be interpreted as threatening by the dog, so it’s always better to approach a dog from the side.
If your dog rolls over onto its back, it could be a sign of submission, or it’s a sign of trust. The two are similar but not exactly the same. Submission can be more like surrender, and the dog will usually display signs of tension and fear. If you think that rolling over is a sign your dog wants a belly rub, be gentle because you’re approaching a very vulnerable part of the body.
Why do dogs enjoy a belly rub? A belly rub that’s not too hard, or too ticklish, can send signals to the pleasure centre of their brain. The rhythmic stroking and the gentle attention you give rewards their submissiveness.
Dogs love belly rubs simply because they feel good. It helps them to relax, and you’ll often find that, when you stop, they’ll want some more, please! Of course, they love the time and attention but there are many ways of giving them that, so we suggest you keep those tummy rubs manageably short.
If your pooch kicks his legs while you’re rubbing their tum, it might well mean that belly rubbing is not his best treat. Tummy rubbing activates nerves that send messages to the spinal cord - and so when the legs start to kick it’s because he’s trying to get rid of what he’s interpreting as an irritant. There isn’t only one way of doing a tummy rub. Perhaps experiment with a flat palm, or flat fingers, as well as using fingertips.
A word of caution. Rubbing a dog's belly can be sexually stimulating, particularly in males, as it imitates the feeling of mounting a dog, and exerting dominance, as in mating. It’s best to stay away from the genital area in both male and female dogs.
In short, dogs usually enjoy a tummy rub, because it can be so pleasurable and soothing - but be sure that they are in a calm and relaxed state.
Read more about why play is good for you and good for your dog.