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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33 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…
    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!

    1. My BooBoo lifts his paw while we’re eating. Since it’s one of the tricks I taught him using food reward, I thought he was trying to get us to give him a snack? Good questions. Thanks for asking 🙂

  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 there, good article, do you think that is what this rolling behaviour is about as well?

    Here is a video our our dog with her toys.

  4. 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!! ???

  5. 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

    1. Thank you for contacting us at CattleDog Publishing. You might find some tips in this blog article on teaching dogs to not chase chickens For further work on behavior issues, you can find a local animal behaviorist through AVSABONLINE or IAABC

  6. 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

        1. The other day my dog was rolling in one spot. I did alittle investigating, he was rolling around on a dead worm. Well today he was out rolling in another ares. I found the spot. It was just a little spot of mud so I thought. The smell was disgusting. I never smelled anything like it. Why can’t she roll in pleasant smelling things? He never does. But he finds the nastiest odors!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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

  12. 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 ?

  13. my dog is 2 years old and just rolled in a spot where her own poop was. i bathed her and she still continues to try to do it. she has never done this before. is there something i can put on that one spot she keeps going to to make her stop?

  14. My dog would gently pick up my ex’s dirty shirts with his front teeth and arrange it so he could rub his head and neck on the stinky armpits. It was so adorable! I assumed it was some sort of instinct to get the alpha males scent on him, like a form of subservience. Any thoughts on that? Or did he just like the smell?

  15. My dog watches for me to clean my eye glasses with the pre moistened alcohol wipes. He goes nuts when he sees me getting one. Then after I’m done he takes it, drops it on the floor and rolls his head and upper body on it. It’s hilarious to watch. He’s a little Yorkie mix.

  16. My 7 month old border collie pit mix kept rolling in one particular spot of the yard. At first I had no idea why he did it, but every time we went outside he rolled around the same exact spot. My husband looked under the grass and it was a dead rodent.. EEK!! I was horrified, but he seemed to love it. Had to bathe him right away

  17. This answers a question that I never really know the answer to. Definitely opens my eyes about my furry friend.

  18. The late Dr. Klinghammer used to demonstrate this publicly at Wolf Park. He’d call for someone in the audience to supply perfume spray, though he had his own in case nobody volunteered any; I think the idea was to show that it didn’t have to be anything the wolves were familiar with. Then he’d enter the cage and howl to gather them (sooo cute). Once he had a bunch of wolves around, he’d spray a spot on the ground, and eventually one wolf would roll on it, then stand back up, and the other wolves would stick their noses into that wolf’s back. Dr. Klinghammer explained that there was nothing necessarily hedonic about it, because they’d even do this for substances irritating to them, as evidenced by their sneezing. AI was tempted to come back with a packet of hot Chinese mustard, but that’d be mean to the wolves!

    Of course in a setting like that, there’s always the likelihood that the animals learn the routine, and that it becomes as much an act, a learned behavior, as an instinct, even if there was no apparent reinforcement. Dr. Klinghammer was obviously the boss wolf of their pack, and they would’ve had a desire to please him with a performance just as domestic dogs would. There are always tradeoffs in experimental models between fidelity and feasibility. To make working with them practicable, the wolves at Wolf Park were all handled by people at the same age one would do so in weaning domestic puppies; Dr. Klinghammer demonstrated with one wolf in the cage who’d missed that critical time by just a few days on the late side, and who therefore kept a characteristic distance away from Dr. Klinghmmer when he entered the cage.

    It reminds me of a YouTube showing the adorable behavior of an owl in encountering other birds of different sizes. Surely after enough repetitions of that in public demonstrations, the stimulus and instinctive response to “threat” would be extinguished or at least strongly diminished, but the animal’s behaviior would be reinforced as a performance.

  19. My chihuahua terrier mix does this. He had a bath Thursday and today (Saturday) he rolled in the grass in a new subdivision and picked up a strong scent that smells like urine, pollen, & flowers. Disgusting.

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