You love your dog, and your dog loves you, but your dog also loves filth, possibly as much as they love you. Your canine friend probably has a penchant for burying their snout in fresh turds, or maybe they find heaps of garbage an inviting place to roll around.
There isn’t a definitive answer as to why dogs do this—you can ask a dog why they decided to smother their coat in rancid poop, but sadly, you won’t receive a satisfying answer. However, there’s plenty of scientific evidence to suggest it’s an evolutionary spillover from our domesticated pets’ wild ancestors. And though nature is inevitable, there are things that you, as a dog owner, can do to prevent this from happening.
Why does your dog roll around in smelly stuff?
Your beloved dog is part of a long evolutionary line of wild animals that used poop and other rancid scents to help ward off predators. The fouler they smell, the more foreign and less appealing they become. Or at least, that’s the leading theory: A well-known study in the relatively scant literature on dogs and poop was authored in 1986, finding that wolves, in particular, favored covering themselves in the scents (and therefore feces) of other carnivores such as cougars and black bears, over the poop of herbivores like sheep.
The impetus behind this behavioral quirk, many researchers have surmised, is a desire to avoid becoming prey, rather than as an aid in their own hunt for prey. As Pat Goodmann, a researcher at Wolf Park in Indiana, told the BBC in 2017: “Here at Wolf Park, the wolves are willing to roll in the scent of alien canids and domestic cats. It raises a strong possibility that wild wolves may roll in predator scent too. This would not be a helpful hunting disguise.”
Others surmise the behavior is a communication tool, used to bring information back to the pack about potential predators lurking somewhere nearby, or perhaps a dead carcass that’s good to eat. As the American Kennel Club synthesized Goodmann’s findings:
Rolling in a decaying carcass, or even fresher meat, could be a way for wolves to tell members of the pack, ‘look what I found.’ This behavior could make it easier for wolves to track down an abandoned kill, or just to trade information about their environment.
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Edward Blocker, a retired veterinary technician, tells Lifehacker, “this has been a much debated issue among dog behaviorists for quite some time.” He personally subscribes to the theory it’s, “nothing more than a carryover from an instinctual hunting practice that was and is still used as in the case of feral packs of dogs for centuries. It is as instinctual as a person reaching for a tissue when they feel a sneeze coming on.”
Still, the camouflage theory—that dogs use foul odors to ward off predators—has gained a good deal of support. As the BBC noted, the University of Wisconsin researcher Max Allen deduced in 2016 that certain foxes in Santa Cruz, California, were rubbing themselves in mountain lion urine to avoid attacks from coyotes.
“The foxes cannot really fight back, so they are exploiting the puma scent to get some form of protection. Smelling like a puma might give them time to escape,” he told the publication.
The behavior of some of your dog’s evolutionary cousins might explain why poop, or any other vile substance, wind up on their fur.
How to get your dog to stop rolling in poop
As the saying goes, shit happens, so don’t expect to never have to give your dog an unexpected bath after a walk. But the surest way to lessen the chance of a brush with filth is to develop a really good recall understanding with your dog. Working on a recall—basically, training your dog to come immediately when told—is one of the easiest ways to do this, but bringing toys that might distract your dog from running into the unknown, keeping it on a leash, or both are additional strategies that can help.
When it comes to offering a solution to the dilemma, Blocker discusses the fundamental differences between humans and dogs, and our respective capacities for understanding one another. “As humans, we search for definitive reasons and explanations as to why dogs and other animals do what it is they do,” but usually, he notes, those answers are hard to come by.
If you want to train your dog to avoid filth, he advises:
The most that can be hoped for is to be vigilant in catching them just before they are about to do it and correcting the behavior through proper training with just a simple stern (not angry) “no”, a slight tug on the leash, then diverting their attention elsewhere.
No “lengthy tirades” toward your dog, because dogs simply don’t operate on the same evolutionary plane as humans. “You can no more explain to an animal why they should not do a particular thing... than you can expect them to help you balance your check book,” Blocker says.
But you should probably prepare for the inevitable, which means knowing how to give your dog a good bath—something you should be doing regularly either way. Find the right shampoo, put on some rubber gloves, and get to scrubbing. Owning a dog is, after all, a labor of love; if they want to gleefully coat themselves in other animals’ filth on occasion, it’s a small price to pay for the faithful devotion they show you every day.