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Why Dogs Roll in Disgusting Things: Unraveling the Mystery from a Veterinary Perspective

Dog Rolling
Dog Rolling

Have you ever had your dog come running up to you after a joyful romp in the grass, only to find out they reek of something awful like roadkill? While it’s undoubtedly gross, many dogs seem to take great delight in rolling around on dead animals or other foul-smelling objects. As a dog owner, it’s essential to understand the reasons behind this behavior, what you can do to prevent it, and how to address it if it happens.

Theories Behind Why Dogs Roll in Disgusting Things

To Mask Their Own Scent

One popular theory is that dogs roll in strong scents like dead animals to mask their own scent, a behavior inherited from their wolf ancestors. This instinct would help them sneak up on their prey more easily. Whether or not your dog consciously understands why they are doing this is still a mystery. They could simply be acting out ingrained instincts without a specific intent to hunt.

Real-World Example: A study conducted by Dr. Stanley Coren, a canine behaviorist, observed that wild wolves often rolled in carrion or other strong-smelling substances before hunting. This behavior is believed to mask their scent, making it harder for prey to detect them. Domestic dogs may exhibit similar behaviors as an echo of their wild ancestry, even if they are not hunting for survival.

Showing Off to Other Dogs

Another theory suggests that dogs roll in strong scents to show off to other dogs. It’s a way of signaling that they have found something significant, like prey. This behavior could stem from their pack-hunting ancestors, where finding food was a communal activity.

Real-World Example: Dr. Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist, notes that dogs in multi-dog households often display behaviors aimed at communicating with each other. For example, a dog that rolls in something smelly might immediately seek out its canine companions to share the discovery, reinforcing social bonds and hierarchies within the pack.

Leaving Their Own Scent

Dogs also use scent to mark their territory. By rolling on a dead animal, a dog might be leaving its scent to signal ownership of the carcass. This behavior is similar to how they mark their territory with urine or feces.

Real-World Example: Dr. John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist, explains that scent marking is a fundamental communication method for dogs. A study he conducted showed that dogs often urinate on objects not just to mark territory but also to leave a part of their identity behind. Rolling in strong scents could be an extension of this behavior, mixing their scent with another to create a unique identifier.

They Love the Smell

Sometimes, dogs are simply attracted to scents that humans find repulsive. Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, and the more intense the odor, the more interesting it may be to them.

Real-World Example: A German Shepherd named Max frequently rolled in horse manure during walks. His owner, frustrated and curious, consulted a veterinary behaviorist. They discovered that Max’s behavior was driven by the intense and varied scents in the manure, which provided a sensory stimulation he found irresistible.

How to Prevent Your Dog from Rolling on Dead Animals

Leash Training

Keeping your dog on a leash or a shorter leash during walks can prevent them from finding and rolling in dead animals, poop, or garbage. This control allows you to intervene quickly if your dog shows interest in something unsavory.

Professional Tip: Dr. Emily Weiss, a veterinary behaviorist, recommends using a retractable leash with a locking mechanism. This allows pet owners to give their dogs some freedom to explore but also quickly regain control when necessary.

Fence in Your Yard

A fenced yard allows your dog to roam freely without the risk of encountering roadkill or other gross objects. Regularly inspect your yard for any potential dangers, including dead animals, poisonous plants, or other hazards. Clean up poop immediately to prevent your dog from being tempted to roll in it.

Professional Tip: Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center in New York City, suggests using a combination of physical barriers and environmental management. Installing motion-activated sprinklers can help keep stray animals away from your yard, reducing the risk of finding dead animals.

Work on Recall

A strong recall command can be invaluable in preventing your dog from rolling in something gross. Use positive reinforcement training (PRT) to teach your dog to come back to you when called, even when they are distracted.

Professional Tip: Dr. Sophia Yin, a renowned veterinary behaviorist, emphasizes the importance of consistency in recall training. She advises practicing in various environments and gradually increasing distractions to ensure your dog reliably responds to your call.

How to Get the Dead Animal Smell Out of Your Dog’s Fur

If your dog does manage to roll in something foul, the most immediate and important step is to bathe them thoroughly.

Bathing Tips:

  1. Hose Off First: Before bringing your dog inside, try to hose them off outside to remove as much of the debris and odor as possible.

  2. Use Dawn Dish Soap: Dawn dish soap is effective at cutting through grease and strong odors. Apply a generous amount and lather thoroughly.

  3. Dog-Safe Shampoos: Follow up with a dog-safe shampoo like Burt’s Bees Oatmeal Shampoo, Buddy Wash Original Lavender & Mint Dog Shampoo & Conditioner, or Zesty Paws Itch Soother Dog Shampoo.

Real-World Example: A Labrador named Bella loved to roll in fish carcasses near her owner’s lakeside cabin. After consulting with a veterinarian, Bella’s owner started keeping a supply of specialized dog shampoo and a portable dog shower at the cabin, making it easier to clean Bella immediately after her adventures.

Frequency of Baths: While it may take a few washes to fully remove the scent, frequent bathing can harm your dog’s skin and coat by stripping natural oils. Use baking soda as a dry shampoo between baths to help absorb odors. Sprinkle it on your dog’s fur, let it sit for five minutes, and then brush it out.


Understanding why dogs roll in disgusting things can help pet owners manage this behavior more effectively. Whether driven by ancient instincts, social signaling, or simply a love of strong smells, this behavior is a natural part of being a dog. Preventing your dog from rolling in foul-smelling objects involves a combination of training, environmental management, and quick action when it happens. By following these tips and consulting with veterinary professionals, you can keep your dog clean, happy, and healthy.

For more comprehensive advice on pet behavior and health, visit Partnering with your veterinarian and understanding your dog's unique behaviors will help you navigate any challenges and ensure a fulfilling life for your furry friend.


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