Dogs Love Rolling in Stinky Stuff

dog rolling in grass
Why, for the love of Pete, do dogs roll around in decaying, stinky, vile, rotting awfulness? Paola Cravino Photography/Getty Images

My setter-mix, McBeal, had a particular fetish. When she was still with me, my property was covered in trees. Every fall, as trees are wont to do, the leaves fell to the ground. Mix in some rain and various organic matter, such as rotting weeds, flowers, and all types of wild animal poops and pees, and soon a toxic witch's brew of some of the most vile-smelling stuff this side of a rotten egg would waft through the air.

McBeal, who at the time had mighty-long fur, always meandered down to that section of the woods, fell on her back and rolled in the muck. More than once I ran toward her shouting, "No! No! McBeal! Stop it!" She'd pop up covered in smelly slime. "Why do you do that?" I'd cried plaintively, expecting an answer. I only got a tail wag. Her sister, Sophie, did not follow her lead, thank goodness.


These days the trees are gone, replaced by a lawn, a rock garden and wildflowers. Yet, my chocolate lab, Loretta, has taken to doing the same thing. This time there's no devilish morass to roll around in — thousands of hard-earned dollars have seen to that. It seems Loretta likes to squirm in decaying grass clippings sprinkled with Milk-Dud-looking deer feces. The first few times I shouted my popular reframe: "NO! NO! Loretta! Stop it! Why do you do that?"

She's been doing this for a while, more so since we got a new puppy. Finally, I gave up trying to corral her in. When I asked my vet about Loretta's rolling ways, he just shrugged his shoulders and laughed.

If I had to guess, all of us who have dogs have been down this road before. But why? Why for the love of Pete, or Mike, or whomever, do dogs roll around in decaying, stinky, vile, rotting awfulness? Frankly, my vet was right in shrugging his shoulders. No one knows!


Theories Abound

Oh sure, there are theories. Some suspect it's a holdover from evolution (isn't everything?). One suggests that dogs try to mask their own scent to hide from predators. I'll be honest, there is a fox that hangs around my property, but she's more afraid of Loretta than Loretta is of her. There's a rabbit who crisscrosses the property, too, but it's so small that one of my cats could have it for lunch. So frankly, I'm not sure that theory holds for Loretta.

Another theory suggests, that dogs, like wolves, roll because they smell something that to them is sweet. Wolves exhibit this behavior so everyone else in the pack knows what it has just found. A wolf will plop down in a decaying carcass, get all good and mucked up, and return as if to say, "C'mon guys, you're not going to believe what I found." I've never seen Loretta tell anyone else, including the new puppy, that she found some sweet-smelling animal droppings.


Interestingly, Canadian researchers in 1986 studied scent-rubbing in two groups of captive wolves. The researchers cooked up a range of different smells. Some were from herbivores; others from carnivores. The dogs could also smell food, and some manufactured aromas including perfume and motor oil. The researchers observed that the wolves liked the manufactured scents better than any of the others. A few liked the smell of cougar and bear feces, while only one wolf liked salted pork. None liked the tuna oil.

Scents for Defense

Others say that scent-rolling — that's what they call it — is a defense trait. In the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Ethology, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison wrote they spied on some gray foxes with remote cameras in Santa Cruz, California. For four years the cameras clicked on and off. They found that gray foxes rubbed their jowls on puma scrapes, a form of scent marking with which the big cats use to communicate with other pumas. The upshot was that the foxes were, perhaps, covering themselves in puma scent as a way to keep predators away.

"There are many hypotheses out there from environmental camouflage ... to seeking a group odor (often all members of a family unit will roll in the scent), to an exploratory behavior," Simon Gadbois, an expert in canid behavior and scent processing at Dalhousie, University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says in an email. Yet, at the end of the day, he adds, no one really knows.


So, we're back to where we started. I'm kinda thinking Loretta is just having fun, which Gadbois says, is a possibility. "If you watch wolves, coyotes or dogs doing it, it seems pretty obvious to me that they love it," he says. "Try to stop them! Sometimes animals do things for no other reasons than 'it's fun.' We just have to be open to that idea."

Oh, well! It's time to take the dogs out again. The grass is wet. I suspect that Loretta's nose will find something alluring to roll around in. Have at it, sweetheart. You need a bath anyway.