#6-Dogs rolling in smelly stuff

NMVMA listserve Tip #6

 Jeff Nichol, DVM
Behavior resident in private practice training
Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Centers

Albuquerque and Santa Fe Dogs rolling in dead creatures and other smelly stuff

Question from a colleague:

Hi Jeff,

Everyone in this office wants to know why dogs roll in dead gophers and other decaying proteins. Everyone here believes that dogs get extra happy and experience a huge endorphin release when they manage to smell extra bad. It can’t be “natural”, everyone reasons, since the overpowering “dead smell” should scare off prey that a “wild canine” would be stalking. ….hmmmm….So, why? I’m supposed to explain it.

Thanks for this question.

Dogs who roll in carcasses and the feces of other animals (never their own) are habitual offenders. It is an apparent art form, the ritual beginning with an intense smearing of these olfactory treasures on the side of the face, then the neck, shoulders, and finally the joyous conclusion of the side-to-side roll.

Why? Dogs are certainly predators in their wild environs but most get nearly all of their nutritional needs met by foraging for carrion. They can adjust their scent (to roll or not to roll) based on that day’s shopping itinerary. According to Karen Overall, DVM, DACVB there are multiple theories as to why this behavior occurs. Pick your favorite and educate all clients great and small.

  • Rolling to disguise the dog’s scent
  • A form of political one-upmanship by adding a dog’s own scent to the rotting/odiferous masterpiece
  • To gather information about the identity of the dead creature or the producer of the found feces
  • An attempt to disperse the raunchy scent

You are right that rolling in decomposing tissue and feces seems to be highly enjoyable for some dogs. They will sniff out these vile resources and even dig through snow to uncover them. As difficult as it is to remove the stench from a dog’s coat our clients want this horrible behavior to stop ASAP. The only reliable tool for this job is a leash. There is no amount of reprimands or punishment that will prevent a dog from pursuing this perverse proclivity. Derailing the behavior at the first hint that it may occur is the only effective management.

The disgust and embarrassment expressed by these clients seems directly proportionate to their belief that their dogs are an extension of themselves; that their fuzzy companions are really just little children in furry suits. I feel that way about my dog. She doesn’t roll but that’s only because I got lucky when I picked her out of the litter.

You are welcome to send me questions on particular cases or inquire about behaviors of interest.

All the best,
Jeff Nichol, DVM