Why do dogs roll in poop and other smelly stuff?

Anyone who has spent a Summer in New York City can understand why most urban dwellers anxiously await the coveted invitation to visit a friend in the country for a weekend. While the drive out of the city is sure to be a test of mental stamina for even the most experienced city driver, the destination brings with it the peace and quiet that is so highly sought after and scarce in the lives of most city folk. I recently spent one such weekend at a friend’s beautiful cabin in upstate New York.

Things started off as any dog loving city escapee would hope for. My dogs and I were welcomed with open arms and a dog biscuit or two and our host assured me that the dogs could run freely and safely in the fenced in yard. She even gave the A-OK for the dogs to lounge on the furniture! I pulled my dogs aside for a puppy pow-wow and explained that they must be on their absolute best behavior as a repeat invitation to this rural heaven was on the line.

Saturday started off swimmingly, both literally and figuratively. After breakfast we all headed down the road to a neighbor’s property for a dip in their pond. While we floated on rafts the dogs bounced around the edge of the pond in a futile attempt to catch a frog or an insect. It was the start of a superbly lovely, lazy holiday. After a couple of hours we headed back to the house for a picnic lunch. Once finished, we lay about reading and talking as the dogs investigated the yard. Then it happened.

I watched my little dog Nora trot across the yard and then noticed that her tail was wagging with more than typical intensity as she kept her nose glued to one spot on the ground. In my countryside induced foggy state of mind, I couldn’t seem to get the words “Nora, come” out of my mouth before she plopped herself on the ground and began to vigorously roll about. “Aww, that’s so cute,” my friend said. “She’s rolling in the grass.” I quickly assessed the pros and cons of honesty in a moment like this. Should I reveal the fact that odds were Nora would walk away from this little roll-fest smelling of something far more pungent that sweet grass? Or should I get a hold of ‘Little Miss Roll in the Poo’ and try to ever so subtly take her to some hidden spot to clean her off before my friend could suspect a thing.

In the moments I took to decide, Nora bounded back to us and right up to my friend whose face squeezed into a look of smell induced pain. “Ugh, what is that smell!” she screamed as Nora wagged her tail in what seemed to be a state of prideful euphoria. I could all but see the little thought bubble over her head: Look at the smell I found, look at how well I coated myself in it!

The jig was up. My dog had rolled in poop and now her couch snuggling days at my friend’s house were clearly numbered. My friend suggested I take Nora back to the pond for a dip, but I thought it better to figure out a way to more thoroughly rid her of the smell she had so enthusiastically coated herself in. After a thorough bath we came back to the group refreshed and hopefully redeemed only to find that the topic of conversation had remained poo-rolling centered. Everyone wanted to know why a dog would want to do something as yucky as coating themselves in such an unpleasant smell.

I explained that while some suggest dogs roll in feces or decomposing carcasses as a way to disguise their own scent (so that their prey are less likely to be alerted to their presence), it is unlikely that this would do the trick to the extent that it would mask the odor from their plentiful scent glands. It is more likely that this is a behavior that was useful when our dog’s ancestors had to hunt for their own food as a way to carry the scent back to the pack. This way the group could more easily follow the scent trail back to this discovery. It might also be a way of trying to mark the feces or carcass with their own scent (I imagine most pet parents would prefer their dogs opt for the more traditional urine marking). While our pet dogs no longer need to hunt, some have retained the propensity for this behavior and this could be in due in part to a dog simply enjoy rolling about in smelly stuff. Ultimately, while it doesn’t seem there is currently any concrete science behind the cause of this behavior, clearly what smells bad to people is a rose by another name to some dogs.

Regardless of why it happens it is pretty yucky and certainly one of the less pleasurable aspects of sharing your life with a dog. But, as unpleasant as it may be to have your otherwise lovely canine companion romp about smelling like goose, deer, or other animal feces, it is best not to scold them for this behavior as doing so may cause damage to the canine/human bond. Instead, focus on supervision, management and training as the keys to anti-poo rolling success. My weekend was still very relaxing, but I made sure to keep an even closer eye on Nora and to have a couple of treats on hand at all times when outside so I could reward her for coming when called away from any potential rolling hazards. As a result, we had a lovely weekend in the country which included lots of snuggle time on the couch with a pup who smelled delicious.

About Andrea Arden

Andrea can be seen on Animal Planet's shows Dogs 101, Cats 101, Pets 101, America's Cutest Dog and America's Cutest Cat. She is the author of numerous best-selling books on animal behavior and training. Andrea is thrilled to be a part of Pets for Patriots' efforts to help its members successfully adopt and share their lives with shelter pets! Read more...