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Why do dogs roll in stinky things? 

Golden retriever dog rolling in grass

Does this sound familiar? You’ve brushed or bathed your pup until they’re ready for Westminster; then the minute you let them outdoors, they beeline toward a pile of scat or animal carcass and begin to happily roll all over it.  

As much as this unsavory pastime may offend your sense of smell and threaten your carpet, it’s a very common canine behavior experienced by almost all dog owners. It seems that rolling in poop, dead animals, and stinky things in general is just ‘a dog thing.’ In fact, cues to its origins lie in the fact that this behavior is also normal among foxes and wolves. Let’s explore the potential reasons behind the habit, how to discourage your dog from rolling, and what to do the next time your dog goes belly-up in a pile of stink.  

Contents:

Why do dogs roll in stinky things? 

Remember, dogs have a far superior sense of smell to humans. The canine olfactory sense is anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 more acute than ours, and dogs have roughly 40-50 times more smell-sensitive receptors in their noses than a human, allowing them to receive and process smell in a far more nuanced, layered, and intricate way. Our own sensibilities of what smells good and bad don’t always seem to translate, which might go some way to explaining why our dogs react so differently to a rotten smell.  

Dog evolutionists and behaviorists have managed to decipher many of the curious behaviors of our domesticated pets. However, when it comes to rolling in odiferous materials for fun, there’s no hard and fast explanation — just a handful of theories.  

Camouflage 

Common wisdom suggests many of our dog’s behaviors stem from the evolutionary traits inherited from canine ancestors. When it comes to rolling in stink, a popular theory suggests this is a leftover habit from when our domesticated canine companions were wild and had to hunt for food. In order to disguise its own scent and get closer to its prey, a wild dog might roll in the scat of another animal or animal carcass, thereby gaining a tactical advantage.  

On the other hand, some scientists argue that most prey animals are more alert to movement and sound — or that if those animals possessed such a keen sense of smell, poop would not sufficiently mask the odor of a canine predator.  

Communication 

Given a dog’s exceptionally sophisticated sense of smell, some theorize that rolling in pungent materials is a way to communicate information about their travels through the environment with other dogs. Wolves have been observed rolling and bringing the scent back to the pack, who sometimes trace the scent back to its source. The behavior might be a way for the wolf pack to learn more about its prey and its habits in order to inform hunting strategy—or simply to learn more about the pack’s surrounding territory. According to research in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, novelty also plays a role in canine scent rubbing. Wolves were drawn to roll in unusual or unfamiliar smells and return them to the pack at a higher rate, including perfume and motor oil. So, when a dog catches a whiff of something unusual, they might feel more inclined to roll and share the intrigue with its pack.   

On the other side of the coin, scientists have suggested that scent-rolling could be an effort to leave the dog’s own scent behind, either as a means of territorial marking or as a message about who has already visited the stench—like a kind of disgusting visitor logbook. 

Boredom 

Dr. Alexander Horowitz of Barnard College notes the link between nose and brain, explaining that novel and pungent sense picked up by the olfactory lobe in the brain also lights up the brain’s motor cortex like a kind of contact high that compels them to get up close and personal with the stench source. Horowitz notes there is no ‘noxious scent’ sensor in a dog’s brain, meaning they aren’t repulsed by foul smells like we are. Therefore, much like chewing or digging, scent rolling may be a way for a dog to find stimulation and excitement and beat back boredom, as well as to incite attention from you and other fell canines.  

Is it normal?  

Unfortunately, the answer is yes! Rolling in foul-smelling objects is regrettably an entirely normal and natural canine habit.  

How to stop a dog from rolling in stinky things 

Whatever reason dogs have for rolling in stinky things, it’s a habit that is hardwired into the canine brain. Can you stop a dog from rolling in poop and other stinky things altogether? The answer is, probably not! It’s a natural instinct that probably can’t be trained out of your dog. 

If your dog is an avid scent roller, your best bet is to prevent rolling before it can occur. If your yard has a lot of animal visitors who drop scat, you can try picking it all up before you let your dog outside. If there’s an area on your daily walks where you know an animal carcass exists, try to get your dog on a leash before they can begin to investigate. Most dogs seem to favor rubbing their neck and scruff, so learn to spot the signs of a stop-drop-and-roll before it happens. The leash and an excellent recall response are the best weapons against recurring scent rolling. 

Dog bathing 

Once the damage is done, you probably want to get your dog clean before they go back inside the house. Most dogs are fine with monthly baths, but if your dog is a regular poop roller, you may need to lather up more often.  

Be prepared with the right tools for the job to avoid a wet, half-soaped dog wandering through your home.  

  • Towels 
  • Shampoo 
  • Conditioner 
  • Brushes 
  • Treats 

Wash, Rinse, Treat 

  1. Get your dog fully saturated, being sure to avoid getting water inside their ears 
  1. Apply the shampoo to their coat and rub it into the fur, taking extra care around the face and eyes; you may want to use a washcloth. After a rolling session, you may want to double shampoo to ensure a thorough cleanse. 
  1. If you’re using a conditioner, apply it now. 
  1. Rise deeply. Leftover soap can irritate a dog’s skin or stomach if they lick themselves to remove it. 
  1. Dry your dog from head to toe! This is a crucial step to keeping your dog happy and healthy, as moisture can cause irritation and hot spots. 
  1. Reward good behavior with treats to foster positive associations around bath time. 
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