You're on a walk and all of the sudden you smell something awful. Before you can say anything, your dog stops, drops and rolls. Sound familiar? This aspect of dog behavior is very common and can be pretty frustrating to dog owners. So why do dogs seem to love rolling around in smelly things?
Dogs' sense of smell
In order to understand the confusing dog behavior of rolling in stinky stuff, it's important to think about a dog's sense of smell. A dog's nose is 10,000 to 100,000 times as sensitive as our own! Dogs have approximately 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose, compared to people who have only approximately six million. In addition, scientists have found that the portion of a dog's brain that interprets and understands what they smell is 40 times greater than that of people! It's not an exaggeration to say that dogs see and understand the world through their nose and explore their environment through scent.
Why do dogs roll in stinky things?
If dogs smell so well, why do they roll in things that smell so gross? Dogs understand scent both better and differently than we do.
Covering up perfumes:
If your dog has a habit of rolling in stinky things, they probably get a lot of baths. Most dog shampoos are designed to smell like things that people find pleasing, but those scents can be unpleasant or overpowering to our dogs. After a bath, much to the dismay of their owners, many dogs go immediately out into the yard and want to roll in dirt, mud, and stinky things all over again. For some dogs this is an attempt to rid themselves of the scent of shampoo they find unpleasant.
Rolling in stinky things comes naturally to dogs because it is a behavior they have most likely inherited from their distant relatives. Wild dogs are known to roll in stinky things in order to cover their own scent to help them disguise themselves from prey as well as predators. Disguising themselves with something stinky, even sometimes another animal's poop might sound weird to us, but it works to keep their real identity secret. Although most of our dogs aren't out hunting prey or being hunted, rolling in stinky things is a natural behavior many continue to do to this day.
Most of us are familiar with the idea that dogs might use urine to mark but that isn't the only way that they can deposit their scent as means of communication. By scratching and rolling dogs are able to deposit their scent allowing them to communicate with other dogs that they have been here. This is another reasons dogs may roll when out on walks, sometimes in stinky things. In addition to depositing their own scent, our dogs may actually be trying to take the stinky places they find with them as a form of communication. In a behavior known as scent rolling. Wolves will roll into stinky things to communicate about the exciting things they found to other members of their pack. It's believed that our dogs may be doing the same thing. Wild dogs have a tendency to try to share odor, with whole packs rubbing or rolling in the same scents so if you have multiple dogs watch out they may follow each other to stinky stuff and roll together.
Stopping the behavior
If you need your dog to not roll in something stinky, like with many other aspects of dog training, the key is to set your dog up for success by preventing the unwanted behavior. Whenever possible, keep your yard cleaned and regularly scoop any poop that you find to prevent your dog from rolling in it. When outside with your dog, follow leash laws so your dog is near you instead of running off to look for stinky things to roll in.
In addition, as much as possible, when you are walking your dog, keep your eyes off your phone and on your dog so you can (ideally) keep an eye out for stinky things and encourage your dog to walk the other way. Instead of scolding your dog or pulling them away from stinky stuff, use treats or toys to make yourself more exciting than whatever is stinky and encourage your dog to turn towards you. Praise and treat your dog as together you maneuver around or away from whatever stinky had first got your dog's attention. It can be helpful to carry bath wipes with you in a bag just in case your dog finds stinky stuff before you notice. Pet wipes can help clean your pup up until you can get home to the bath
Unfortunately, we can't just ask our dogs why they like to roll in smelling things. Dogs experience the world through their sense of smell. Dogs may roll in stinky stuff in order to try to cover up smells we like but they don't, such as shampoo. Rolling in stinky things is also a natural behavior that dogs have likely inherited from their wild ancestors. Wild dogs may roll in stinky things in order to cover their own scent to allow them to sneak up on predators, or even to communicate with their pack mates about exciting things they have found. If you have a dog who likes rolling in stinky things to prevent the need for a bath it's best to be proactive to prevent your dog from getting access to stinky stuff.