Scent Rolling: Why Do Dogs Like to Roll in Smelly Scents?

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By Dr Sophia Yin

Have you ever wondered, after a long walk at the beach, why your otherwise perfect dog likes to roll in dead fish? And more importantly how you can discourage the behavior? 

Virtually everyone who owns a dog is familiar with this smelly habit. Whether it's a bath in cow manure, a plunge into the nearest road kill, or a leisurely massage in a long gone fish at the beach, dogs wear foul scents the way people wear perfume. Do they just like the smell? Is it an olfactory disguise their ancestors used when hunting prey downwind? 

While most dog aficionados, including myself, haven't a clue, when a reader posed this question to me, a number of years ago, I did what any good scientist would do. I looked to see if anyone had done any research on the topic. The answer lay closer to home than I thought, because it turns out, someone I actually knew had considered the same question, only it was in wolves, not domestic dogs. That person was Pat Goodmann, research associate and curator of Wolf Park in Indiana. Pat spent several years studying the phenomenon, called scent rolling, in the wolves at their semi-natural wolf reserve. 

Why Do Wolves Scent Roll?

“Scent rolling is probably a way for wolves to bring information back to the pack, ” said Goodmann. “When a wolf encounters a novel odor, it first sniffs and then rolls in it, getting the scent on its body, especially around the face and neck. Upon its return, the pack greets it and during the greeting investigates the scent thoroughly. At Wolf Park, we've observed several instances where one or more pack members has then followed the scent directly back to its origin.” 

This scent smearing ritual isn't limited to stinky odors. In her studies, Goodmann placed different odors in the wolf enclosures and found that wolves roll in sweet-smelling scents too. Besides rolling in ode-to-cat, elk, mouse, and hog, they also rolled in mint extract, Chanel No. 5, Halt! dog repellant, fish sandwich with tartar sauce, fly repellent, and Old Spice. So the scents aren't necessarily foul, nor are they ones that wolves necessarily like. Goodmann stated, “some of the Wolf Park wolves object when handlers put fly repellent on their ear tips but these same wolves often scent roll readily in fly repellents manufactured to be sprayed onto horses, provided the scents are sprayed on the ground and left for the wolves to discover.” 

How to Prevent Dogs from Rolling in Foul Scents?

While this foul form of fragrant communication may be fine for wolves, it's not so fun when it's Rover sharing the news. What can you do to discourage this odiferous behavior? According to Goodmann, it's a hard habit to break. Even if presented with an odor over and over, wolves continue to roll in it. The same goes for dogs. 

Since your chance of finding a mint patch next to every dead fish is smaller than slim, the solution lies in your keen vision and ability as a trainer. Keep your eyes open for things that excite your dog's nose and before Rover's rolling in ecstasy call him back to your side. Then keep him engaged in fun games and rewards around you so that he forgets the potential stinky fun elsewhere. While the training time for a good recall makes this solution sound tedious, the time saved on needless baths makes the effort easily worthwhile. 

How do you prevent your dog from rolling in foul scents?  Tell us here!

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20 responses to “Scent Rolling: Why Do Dogs Like to Roll in Smelly Scents?

  1. Thanks for answering a question I’ve always had. I find most “official” explanations for dog quirky dog behavior a little hard to believe, so reading something actually backed by science is refreshing. I’d love it if you’d tackle some more…
    Like..
    Eating horse manure (and hooves)
    Holding one front foot off the ground when puzzled or anxious
    Getting “stuck” (my JRT Lucy stops in her tracks and can’t be called from the spot – usually I have to pick her up, or at least walk with her to get her going again)
    I will stop now, but I’ve got more…
    Thanks for a great blog!
    Gina

  2. My male JRT is 8 1/2 yrs old…very active, etc….but Id like to know *why* he is constantly making time to “hump” pillows, etc when he’s been neutered since he was a puppy !!! zit is obvious that he is sexually aroused when he does this….so I dont buy the explanation that its just about “domination”…that might make sense if he were doing it to another dog…but obviously its not about that for him if the “object of his affections” is an inanimate object ! he seems to do it out of boredom…or when he is anxious abt something.esp since he any explanation of how this could be?–if he’s been neutered??? esp since he was just a little pup?

  3. Hi Ben,

    My JRT does the exact same thing with her ball!! I’d love to know why but she seems very content when she’s doing it!! 😄😄😄

  4. I live on 10 acres , my dog goes swimming 2,3,4… times / day I have no chance of stopping him rolling in obnoxious smelling mysteries , are there any training methods to at least minimise the stinkout ??? any clues would be greatly appreciated , the dog in question is a desexed male staffy 4 yo . Thanks for your help Gibbo

  5. My dog keeps rolling in something in my back garden and I cannot find the source of the scent, but it is the worst smell I have ever encountered. It makes me feel sick to be near him. Despite trying all manner of shampoos, white vinegar, dog freshening sprays, etc, I cannot get rid of this scent without sending him to the groomer for a professional shampoo. He is a Belgian Shepherd Rhodesian Ridgeback cross, so big dog with very big smell. It puts me off him because I can’t get close to him and he is stinking out my house!!! The explanation seems to make sense for a wild dog, but in a domestic situation it seems so dumb! Gross.

      1. Its guarantee its fox poo! Its awful and sticky with the most horrendous weird smell. Very distinctive! We call it L’eau de Fox in my house! The water comes out yellow when rinsing it off. I normally find my own shampoo and conditioner get rid of it after 2 washes..i use loreal elvive incase you are wondering… I am in England, not too sure where you are from…i know L’oreal is not for use on dogs but mine have always been ok with it and they are 5 years old now.i have a miniture poodle and two chorkies (chihuahua x yorkshire terrier.) Hope this helps you all

    1. I’m having the same problem as Susie. My dog comes out of our woodsy section of our yard smelling putrid. I have to wash her immediately in Dawn and then a lavender shampoo. I can’t figure out what it is she is rolling in. Do you have any idea?

      1. I had the same problem, I put my kelpie outside and watched him a while. I found him rolling in certain spots if the yard. To my discovery the putrid smell was comming from a small dead baby bird that must have fallen from our trees. Anyway if you find the source, then give the patch or area a hose over it should be sorted. Good luck

  6. My 3 year old cockapoo will roll in sardines from a can. The first couple times she ate it, but the last few times she’ll take it and then drop it on the ground and “scent roll.” Then I clean up the shards of fish and feed them to the cat. Not too gross, but puzzling until now. THX!

  7. Hi, my 2 year old Yorkshire terrier does the same thing. it drives me crazy especially when I just bathed her and I take her out into the backyard, she start sniffing around then she rolls all over it. I go nuts because then when I bring her inside the house she smells horrible and I can’t get her to stop doing that.

  8. Thanks for this article! When I googled the question, there are terrible answers (“it’s because their head itches and allergies”) .. & I knew there was something other than her marking the area, it looked more like she was trying to get the scent on her, which is what is explained here. Cool stuff thanks! Oh and mine is a chihuahua and she does all the things her ancestor wolves do like hiding bones in the house and if she’s ever sick (couple times this happened) she hides in the oddest of places in the home.

  9. Since all dogs scent roll, I believe they do it for basic survival as a pure instinct. Dogs that have to hunt for food would choose small animals like a ferret. They do not want the mice SNF moles and gophers

  10. My 4 year old golden will rub on certain people, almost trying to get in their laps. I believe it’s the smell they like, some people are sweaty , some are older or their clothes are outside wirkimg clothes. He rubs his head big time.
    Any suggestions on how to curtail this behavior would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

  11. My white westie has just come in grey .
    We have just put bluestone rolls all along the back yard fence .
    She has rolled in them .
    Why would she do this ?

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