We know that dogs’ noses are a miracle of evolution: their sense of smell is a super-power. Given that smell is so important then, why do dogs roll on dead animals that stink?
My Whippet Misty often rolls in things she shouldn’t. Sometimes it’s something inoffensive like dandelions (she goes nuts for them for some reason). Other times it’s poop (fox and badger poop mostly)… this is far less pleasant than dandelions.
Misty goes particularly gaga about dead animals… usually worms, bugs or mice. However, on one especially unpleasant occasion she rolled on a dead squirrel.
What is it about dead animals that seems to drive dogs crazy? Surely there are nicer things to roll on?
It seems there are many reasons why dogs roll on dead animals. Some of the reasons might surprise you and others likely make sense.
In today’s post I’m going to explore why dogs roll on dead animals and what benefit it possibly provides them. I’ll also look at some ways you can deter this behaviour and advise on cleaning your dog if it decides to ignore you, and roll on something stinky!
Table of Contents
- Why Do Dogs Roll on Dead Animals?
- Ancestral Behaviours
- Masking Their Scent
- Territorial Marking
- Attention Seeking
- How to Prevent Your Dog From Rolling on Dead Animals
- What Should You Do If Your Dog Rolls on Dead Animals?
- Related Posts
Why Do Dogs Roll on Dead Animals?
We can’t be 100% certain why dogs roll on dead animals, although canine behaviourists have several theories.
Here are some of them…
Advertising Something Interesting to the Pack
Modern day wolf breeds all display a behaviour called “scent rolling”. If a wolf is travelling solo and comes across something “useful”, such as a dead animal, they roll in it to bring the scent back to the pack. The pack can then use the scent to identify the source, which may provide food.
Our modern-day domesticated dogs are related to an ancient variety of extinct wolves, and it’s not a huge leap to imagine these ancient ancestors would have carried out scent rolling too.
There is a theory that domesticated dogs roll on dead animals as they’ve inherited this trait. Perhaps our dogs roll on dead animals to bring the good news back to us that there’s something worth checking out!
In my experience though, I’ve not been excited to check out the source when my dog has rolled in something dead!
Masking Their Scent
A dog’s own scent also plays a potential role in why they roll on nasty stuff, and again this could come from its ancestry.
In the wild, it’s thought that wolves roll on smelly things like poop or carrion to mask their own smell. This masking might give it an edge when hunting prey that’s familiar with the smell of wolf… something that makes hunting more difficult.
Of course, domesticated dogs don’t have to hunt for their food nowadays, so compared to their ancestors the need to roll in smelly things to this end is really obsolete.
However, it may be that domesticated dogs roll on dead animals due to an ancestral drive to be more effective hunters… quite simply, perhaps they don’t know why they do it but they just feel the need!
Another theory as to why dogs roll on dead animals is that they’re marking the remains as their territory. It seems strange that a dog would want to do this, since dogs usually urinate or defecate to make a statement about their territory.
However, dogs also also have scent glands on their paws and behind their ears. This is one of the possible reasons why dogs scratch floors or rub their head and neck areas over things.
Whenever I’ve seen my dog rolling around on a dead animal there is a real focus on getting the head and neck right into it, so perhaps she really is marking it as “hers” with her scent glands.
However, I’ve rarely seen her urinate on dead animals she comes across, which is the behaviour I’d normally associate with territorial marking.
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Our dogs are smart and learn quickly… and they can certainly appreciate cause and effect.
For example, my dog understands that her food comes from the refrigerator (we feed her Wellness CORE Ocean Dog Food Dry Grain Free but top it up with meat we keep cold).
She’s learned to associate the refrigerator as the source of food. Hence, when she wants feeding, she scratches the refrigerator door. Our reaction to this is to stop this behaviour by feeding her so she doesn’t leave marks on the door.
She’s learned that by scratching the door, she gets fed!
In the same way, it’s entirely possible for a dog to learn that rolling on a dead animal gets its owner’s attention.
I can say for certain that if I catch my dog rolling on something dead, I focus my attention on her and make a bit of a hoo-ha! In times when this happens she may well identify cause and effect and decide to roll on something to get my attention.
If it happens nowadays I try not to react… but the thought of dealing with dead muck makes it hard to restrain myslelf
Enjoyment / Fun
While it may seem horrendous to us, it may be that dogs simply love to roll in things that have a strong smell. It’s possible that dogs actually get some enjoyment from rolling in something that stinks!
How to Prevent Your Dog From Rolling on Dead Animals
If you want to stop your dog rolling on terminals the very first thing you’ll need to do is to be aware when you’re outside and your dog is off lead.
If your dog is a regular roller this behaviour likely only happens when your dog is following a smell and is free to home in on it.
Of course you could just keep your dog on the lead at all times, but that’s not really practical. The first thing to do then is to remain vigilant and look for the signs your dog has picked up something it likes the smell of.
Keep An Eye on Behaviours
As a rule now, assuming my dog doesn’t just come across a dead animal by accident, she usually displays signs she’s picked up a smell she’s excited about. Her whole body language changes and she appears to be suddenly more alert.
She also starts walking more quickly and methodically with her nose close to the ground, as if she’s creating a scent map in her mind.
When she’s close to the source, she then stops, sniffs at the dead animal and positions herself to start rolling… and then she literally throws herself onto it!
My reaction to this occurs right at the point I notice she’s on the scent of something. For me, the only thing that can distract her when she’s in instinctive mode is a bag of treats.
The surefire way to break her dead animal homing mode is to reach for the bag and make her aware there’s a treat available. When she comes she gets a treat and the lead goes back on to prevent her heading right back to the smell… then I keep her on the lead until we’re out of range!
This recall method seems to trump her instinct… but I have to bring out the treats at the right time: once she’s too far gone, she won’t come when I call.
Keep Your Dog Occupied
Another way to reduce the likelihood your dog will roll on a dead animal is to occupy it with a distraction when you’re out walking.
I often take a “Chuck It“”” on our dog walks to keep Misty occupied with something she can chase. This works well for me though as Misty is a Whippet (all Sighthound breeds love chasing things).
Of course some breeds are more apt to chase things than others… and even my Whippet loses interest after she’s had enough. However, this can be one way to remove focus from the potential for sniffing out dead animals even if only for a short while.
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What Should You Do If Your Dog Rolls On Dead Animals?
Prevention is always better than cure but sometimes your dog just won’t be able to contain itself if it comes across a something smelly. So if your dog does roll on a dead animal you’ll have to roll up your sleeves…
It goes without saying really but you’ll have to give your dog a good wash to get rid of the smell and any organic muck. When my dog has rolled in something nasty, it takes a thorough wash to properly clean her up.
The aim of course is not just to cover up the smell with a fragrant dog shampoo but to actually wash out the source of the smell entirely.
Of course, how long it will take you to properly clean your dog will depend on the type of coat it has and how much muck it has coated itself in.
Nevertheless, most dogs will likely require not only shampooing but also a good brush to loosen up any residue caught up in the fur. Obviously, longer coated dogs will need a brush that’s suitable for their fur and they may require more washing.
You may need to rinse and repeat again depending on how much stink your dog has rolled in and how ingrained it is. However, it’s likely you’ll need to wash and rinse thoroughly regardless.
N.B Hopefully you already use a shampoo that’s suitable for your dog’s skin, but if not you should check with your veterinarian… especially if your dog has sensitive skin.
Summary: Why Do Dogs Roll On Dead Animals?
We don’t know for sure why dogs roll on dead animals, but the following reasons seem likely:
- It’s an ancestral behaviour for communicating information about a dead animal to the pack.
- Dogs roll on dead animals to mark it as their “territory”.
- Dead animal smells mask a dog’s scent, historically making it a more effective hunter.
- A dog that rolls on dead animals might be seeking your attention – you reacted to it once so perhaps your dog understands you might react again.
- Dogs might simply enjoy the smell of dead animals!
By learning how to recognise your dog’s behaviour when a dead animal smell is calling it, you may be able to prevent it from rolling.
That’s got to be better than driving your dog back home after a walk with the stench of dead animals filling up your car!
Whatever the reason, the end result is that you’ll want to wash your dog when you get back home… unless you like the smell of dead animals too!
Does your dog roll on dead animals? Or is there a question about this behaviour you’d like to ask? Please drop your comments or questions in the section at the bottom of this page.
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