Dog with dirt all over his face.

Why Do Dogs Roll In Smelly Things?

Written By Vedrana Nikolic | Canine Coach, B.A Ethnology & Anthropology, M.A Semiotics.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 23rd January 2024

It’s a nice day to spend outside with your loyal canine companion.

And without anyone in sight, you think it’s a great idea to let your well-trained good boy or girl off the leash. But after a recall, you quickly notice that a foul stench accompanies your pooch.

Whether it’s a carcass, poo - who cares. It’s repulsive, but your dog seems to enjoy the new “cologne.”

Why do dogs roll in smelly things?

Well, dogs can’t tell us, but scientists have a couple of theories about such behaviour.


Common Things Dogs Like To Roll In

Before we get into theories, let’s see first what potential smell sources our dogs seem to like so much.

Carcass

Why do dogs roll in dead things? This is one of the most common and worst type of smelly thing dogs like rolling into. The stench of a rotting animal is powerful, especially if it's been around for a couple of days.

Poop

Squishy, smelly and organic? What’s there not to love, a dog might think. Of course, the stronger the stench, the better, so they find it particularly exciting to roll into carnivore poo. The protein in a carnivores diet makes the stool much smellier.

Dirt

You might be wondering why dogs roll in dirt when there are many smellier things around? But the answer is pretty simple. The soil we walk on contains decomposed animal remains, which gives it a unique, organic smell that dogs find attractive.

Grass

Finally, we can’t forget grass. Compared to the other three, this one smells good. After all, we can agree that freshly mowed grass has an appealing scent. And to answer why dogs roll in grass, we can only assume it is because they also enjoy the smell.

Dirty dog face.

Why Do Dogs Roll In Smelly Things?

It's clear dogs don't share our disgust with the smell they roll in. But as to why they choose to smell so foul, scientists can't seem to agree on a single theory. There are several possible reasons for this behaviour, and they all make sense.

Masking Their Own Scent

One theory that many animal behaviourists agree on is that rolling in smelly things is an instinctive behaviour inherited from their wild ancestors. Rolling in carcasses and droppings is not just a "dog thing". Their cousins, wolves, do it too, and one possible reason is masking their scent (1).

You see, wolves are hunters. But their favourites on the menu are fast runners: deer, moose, foxes, rabbits, etc. As opportunists, wolves take their time to plan strategy and ambush their prey. And one thing that can blow their cover is their natural smell.

For instance, an elk won't find anything suspicious about smelling deer poo in the approximate vicinity. On the other hand, smelling a wolf is a clear signal to get out of there as quickly as possible. So, to avoid being noticed by the prey too soon, wolves roll in droppings and carcasses of other, typically herbivore animals.

side from a few squirrels and pigeons, your pooch probably isn't preying on animals in free time. So this theory suggests that the reason for rolling in smelly stuff is simply instinctive.

Bringing Back Information To The Pack

Interestingly, not all research on wolf behaviour agrees with the theory that scent rolling is used to disguise.

Instead, they think that dogs roll in foul things to communicate with their pack. You see, wolves aren't just hunters but also scavengers. So basically, they're saying, "look what I've come across" by showing up with their new scent to the pack members.

“If there is an elk carcass and a pack member travelling alone discovers it, he will scent roll on the elk carcass and then bring the scent of “food” back to his pack.” - Skie Bender, Education Outreach Specialist from Wolf Haven International

Dogs prefer a scavenging lifestyle way more than a hunting one (3). Your couch potato pooch might not exhibit either behaviour, given that the food bowl is always neatly filled with kibble. But since they were domesticated many thousand years ago, dogs have switched to this more lay-back approach to getting food.

Given that our pooches do many instinctive things that are absolutely unnecessary for their modern lifestyle (like burying bones and turning around before lying down), rolling in dirty stuff could also be one of those instincts.

Marking Their Territory

This is a somewhat controversial theory among animal behaviourists, but it's definitely worth mentioning.

As we already established, dogs are scavengers, in instances they find something delicious outdoors, they might not be able to resist the urge to claim it as theirs. Sure, there’s a bowl filled with super-premium kibble at home, but this smelling pigeon carcass might be too good to pass. So they rub their backs against that juicy carcass they want to claim.

The idea behind marking makes a lot of sense, but this exact approach is something many animal behaviourists are on the fence about it. As you know, dogs tend to mark territory by peeing. It's common for them to do the same with food (4). So, why should a smelly carcass be any different?

Getting Rid Of Artificial Smells

As you know, dog hygiene products, like shampoos and conditioners, typically have added scents to make their fur more appealing to our noses. However, while we might enjoy our pooches smelling like roses, dogs aren't thrilled by that smell.

And given that their sense of smell is between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than ours, you can only imagine how bugged they might be by it (5).

Dogs might try to get rid of the smell by covering it up with another of their own preference. And sure, their choice of smell might be questionable, but we can probably all agree that poo and carcass are still more natural to them than lavender, coconut, or other scents dog shampoos typically have.

They’re Simply Having Fun

Who knows, maybe we're overthinking things. There's also a good possibility that our canine companions like rolling in smelly things because it's fun. After all, a glance at your dog's face can tell you they're having a blast doing that. The same can't be said for either of you when you get home and try to eliminate that smell. But hey, at least your dog was living in the moment.

Dog that's been playing in the dirt.

How To Keep Your Pooch From Rolling Into Smelly Stuff

Why do dogs roll in dirt and poo? That’s a question we could contemplate for days. But regardless of the reason, the outcome is always the same. You’re coming home with a stinky dog.

We shouldn't be angry with our canine companions for doing that now. After all, we are responsible for letting that happen while they're simply doing dog stuff.

But that’s not to say we can’t stop such behaviour.

So if there’s a good possibility of encountering nasty things your dog can roll into, it’s best to stay on a lead. Of course, you can never be sure what you might come across, but some places are more “risky.” Beach, for example, is one of those places, as you can find dead fish and algae washed up ashore.

If your dog is off the lead, the best method is simply a good recall (6). This means you should have an eye on your dog walking around and enjoying the surroundings. And as soon as you notice your dog sniffing something potentially good for rolling in, a well-trained recall is the only thing that can stop the disaster.

You should remember that dogs rolling in poop from other animals is not just gross but potentially unhealthy. That's especially true with wild animals, which can be infected with diseases or parasites. So while you might be killing all the fun by preventing your dog from rolling in the poop, you're also avoiding possible infestations.


Final Thoughts

So what's up with dogs rolling in all sorts of nasty stuff? We might never know for sure. While all of these theories make sense, they're just theories.

But we do know that we definitely don't share their enthusiasm for stinky discoveries. Proper training is your best bet to avoid coming home from a walk with a smelly dog.

References

  1. Coren, S. July 29, 2009. “Why do dogs roll in garbage, manure, or other smelly stuff?” Psychology Today. Retrieved February 26, 2023. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/canine-corner/200907/why-do-dogs-roll-in-garbage-manure-or-other-smelly-stuff
  2. Bender, S.  January 7, 2015. “Why do wolves (and dogs) roll on stinky stuff?” Environmental Nature Center. Retrieved February 26, 2023. https://encenter.org/wolves/
  3. Sarkar, R., Sau, S. and Bhadra, A., 2019. Scavengers can be choosers: A study on food preference in free-ranging dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 216, pp.38-44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2019.04.012
  4. Langley, L. January 7, 2018. “Why Dogs Pee in Their Bowls and Other Pet Behaviors Explained” National Geographic. Retrieved February 26, 2023. https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/2018/01/why-dogs-pee-in-their-bowls-and-other-pet-behaviors-explained
  5. Llera, R; Buzhardt, L. “How Dogs Use Smell to Perceive the World” VCA Animal Hospitals. Retrieved February 26, 2023. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/how-dogs-use-smell-to-perceive-the-world
  6. Burke, A. February 22, 2018. “Why Do Dogs Roll in Smelly Stuff?” American Kennel Club. Retrieved February 26, 2023. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/why-dogs-roll-smelly-stuff/

Vedrana Nikolic


Vedrana Nikolić is Gentle Dog Trainers Canine Coach, Professional Writer, Anthropologist & dog lover.

With a Masters Degree in Semiotics & Bachelors Degree in Anthropology, studying the communication between animals and humans, Vedrana is able to use her expertise to analyse and review dog products and write informative posts on canine behaviour and training.

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