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I once had a foster dog named Hank who rolled in anything he could get his fur on. Stinky garbage in the alley, a mystery puddle in the street, something dead on the beach…the worst was the time he went in on a fresh pile of you-know-what deposited by my dog Ralph. What could possess a dog to roll in that?!
If you have a dog that rolls in stinky things, you know how baffling it can be. Read on to learn theories as to why dogs roll on smelly stuff (and what you can do to stop the stink).
Table of Contents
Theory One: Scent Cover-Up
One theory about why dogs roll in smelly things is that it’s an instinctual hold-over from back when they hunted for food. The idea is that wild dogs may have rolled in heavily-scented stuff to mask their scent so they could sneak up on prey.
For example, a wolf hunting antelope might roll in antelope dung. An antelope would run away if they smelled a wild dog among them, but they wouldn’t think twice about a familiar poop smell.
It’s a documented fact that wolves sometimes roll in animal carcasses or animal dung to cover up their scent, so this theory is based in some truth. However, leading animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell thinks it’s a bit of a reach. First, most prey animals are highly visual, depending more on their eyes than their noses to alert them to predators.
Second, this theory doesn’t explain why dogs roll in stinky stuff that isn’t related to hunting. It’s unlikely rolling in dead fish on the beach would help your dog catch any kind of prey!
Theory Two: Scent Messages
Another theory: dogs roll in stinky stuff as a means of communication. Again, back before dogs were domesticated, they traveled in packs. Some people believe that rolling in something stinky was a way of “telling” their pack mates where they’d been and what they’d seen (and smelled).
Wolves have been observed “sharing” scents in this manner. McConnell relates the story of a wolf researcher who experimented with various scents in a wolf enclosure. When a wolf rolled in something stinky, other wolves followed the scent back to its origin after smelling it on the fur of the roller.
The “scents as communication” theory isn’t unprecedented in the animal kingdom. In fact, bees carry information about food sources back to their hive! So why not dogs? It’s possible that scent-rolling is a way of gathering information to share with other dogs.
However, domesticated dogs don’t tend to travel in packs, so this isn’t the only explanation.
Theory Three: Scent Show-Off
Beyond communicating the location of stinky things, dogs might roll in strong smells simply to show off their strong smell! As McConnell points out, “behavioral ecology reminds us that much of animal behavior is related to coping with limited resources, from food to mates to good nesting sites.” A strong, appealing scent is an advertisement of resources.
You can compare it to why some people wear designer clothes or fancy perfume. It makes a strong impression on people you meet, showing them that you have access to particular resources. Smell might function in a similar way for dogs.
Unfortunately, dogs prefer stuff that smells, well, bad. But keep in mind, their perception of “bad” is different from ours. Dogs choose dirty, rotten, stinky smells because those are the smells that appeal to their doggy natures.
Theory Four: Stinky Stuff is Fun!
Regardless of its evolutionary, instinctual origin, the simple truth is that dogs just love smells! Maybe they’re hard-wired to share information via smell; maybe something in their DNA is coded to cover up their scent with the scent of potential prey. Or maybe, just maybe, dogs simply enjoy strong smells.
Think about how important smell is to your dog. They jam their noses into the most scent-filled areas possible and can sniff out tasty morsels under several layers of clothes. Dogs have 300 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses.
By comparison, humans only have just 5 million olfactory receptor cells, making your dog’s sense of smell 60 times more powerful than your own! If you could smell that well, wouldn’t you want to surround yourself with the smells you like best?
Click here to learn more about the incredible dog nose. We also recommend this book by well-known researcher Alexandra Horowitz, which is both a fun and informative read for dog lovers.
How to Fight the Stink
If your dog rolls in smelly stuff, you’re probably familiar with good bathing practices. But here are some extra tips to take the stink off your dog:
- Use an odor-neutralizing shampoo like Nature’s Miracle Odor Control Shampoo or a natural scented choice like Buddy Wash—which smells amazing, I can say from experience
- For skunk or other extra-stinky smells, try this powerful DIY dog shampoo: mix 1 quart 3% hydrogen peroxide with 1/4 cup baking soda and 1 teaspoon liquid soap. Massage into wet fur, avoiding their eyes! This is for extreme smell cases only; do not use as a regular shampoo.
- If your dog likes to roll in poop, always pick up poop in the yard ASAP. You can even use scented poop bags like the Earth-Rated lavender ones (I love them) for less poo smell in your life.
Whether it’s for function or just for fun, dogs are going to roll in smelly stuff. The important thing is to remember that it’s completely normal behavior. The best solution to your dog rolling in smelly stuff is to avoid smelly stuff as much as possible.
But as a dog person, you have to accept that sometimes, bad smells are gonna happen. Thank goodness you have a sense of humor!