Rolling In Unpleasant Substances
Rolling in substances that we think smell disgusting seems to make some dogs happy. Our evolution has developed us to enjoy the smell of flowers and fruits rather than carrion, so it is difficult for us to appreciate their desire to coat themselves in substances we find repulsive.
Why so stinky?
Not all dogs do it, and those that do don’t necessarily do it all of the time. Some dogs like to roll around in clean grass too, but when an unpleasant substance is involved, they like to roll their neck and shoulders in it, pressing it up under their ears. The rest of their body can come up from the roll surprisingly clean.
Substances most favoured include:
- dead and decaying animals
- rotting fish
- faeces and manure
- some chemicals with a strong odour
Besides knowing that dogs get enjoyment from rolling in such substances, no one really knows why they do it, although there are several theories.
Smells so good - one theory is that they enjoy the smell in a similar way to the way we like the smell of perfumes and aftershaves, and they are, in effect, coating their neck and shoulders in that ‘nice’ smell. This raises the question, why don’t ALL dogs roll in these substances? And for those dogs that roll sometimes, why don’t they do it every chance they get?
You can’t smell me - another theory is that dogs roll in strong odours in response to an ancient urge to camouflage their own scent when going out hunting so they smell of their environment and less like a predator. While this theory is plausible, evolution has brought dogs a long way from their wolf ancestors. In addition, prey animals also have very sensitive noses and it is unlikely that a scent applied to the neck and shoulders area of a predator, however strong, would cover up their overwhelming strong smell as they get closer. Also, wolves in the wild learn to stay downwind of their prey anyway, making odour camouflage unnecessary.
A new idea
My theory is that many dogs put on ‘scent’ by rolling when they feel insecure, uncertain, worried or anxious about something. For example, they may have a behaviour problem that makes the owners annoyed with them at times, or may be struggling to fit in with the other dogs in the family. They could be a rescue dog and be feeling insecure as they try to adjust to their new life, or a young dog uncertain of its situation within the family and a little insecure about life. Or they could be concerned about the attitude of a member of their family towards them.
Why coating themselves in a strong scent helps them feel more secure is unknown but we know that dogs are likely to scent mark when anxious, so why not use scent in another way to make themselves feel better? Perhaps, also, it is equivalent to us hiding behind dark glasses or wearing a hat or hood that hides most of our face when we want to keep our distance from others – a subtle ‘stay-away’ signal that dissuades others from social interaction. Although other dogs do not seem to keep their distance from those that have rolled, perhaps it changes their interactions in subtle ways, just as we subtly change the way we interact with people whose faces are covered in piercings or tattoos.
Mapping the incidents
Look carefully at when your dog decides to roll and see if there is anything that might be upsetting him around that time. Try to map his pattern of rolling to how unconfident he is feeling. For example, if you felt the need to scold him for a misdemeanour at home, does it make him more likely to roll when out on a walk? If he has recently had an upsetting experience with another dog on the walk, does it mean he is likely to roll before he gets home?
If he goes to stay with someone else for a while, is he more likely to roll? If he is feeling good about things and feels confident, do you have long periods of time when he won’t roll even though he is exposed to inviting substances present on walks. Keeping a diary over several months can help you identify what might be triggering this behaviour and allow you to help him overcome his concerns.
Just for fun
As well as insecurity, it is likely that some dogs roll in smelly substances just for fun, and because they enjoy it. No dog seems to find these smells as repulsive as we do, and perhaps getting down and dirty just feels great.
Alternatively, another possibility is that they are trying to lay their scent on top of the strong scent for a reason unknown to us. We know that dogs that come across a strong scent will often urinate on it or scratch at the ground around it to leave the scent of the glands between their toes. Perhaps rubbing their shoulders and backs on the scent also fulfils this function and getting the scent on themselves is just a by-product of the process.
Owners often complain that dogs will roll just after a visit to the groomers. Are they trying to cover up the smell of the shampoo with something more to their taste? Or is the whole experience of being taken to the groomers and being washed, clipped, and preened an unsettling experience - so they roll to make themselves feel better? Or do you just remember these occassions the most as your beautifully clean and professionally-groomed little darling coats himself in something revolting just too far out of reach for you to get to him in time?!
How to stop the roll
Here are some things to try:
- Lead him out - keep him on a lead or extending lead in places where he is highly like to do this, e.g. where foxes or cats toilet, where there may be dead animals or fish, or when manure has been spread on fields. Try to find walks where these things are less likely. Keep him on lead for a few days after a bath or when just home from kennels if he is likely to roll then.
- Saviour shirt - make or buy a t-shirt made of breathable, washable, waterproof material thatcovers him up his neck and along his shoulders. The t-shirt can then be laundered when you get home rather than having to bath your dog when you get home, which is much easier. The t-shirt will retain some smell, even when washed, and so your dog may feel that he does not need to roll at all while he wears this. Use this until you find a cure.
- Instant recall - practice, practice, practice until your dog responds as soon call even when he is doing something else. Once you have that kind of control, use the recall to call him back when he is sniffing and you suspect he may roll. You will, of course, need to keep an eye on him all the time and keep him in sight, to prevent him rolling when you cannot see him. (Go to 'Instant Recall')
- Confident and secure: try to think through why your dog may be feeling insecure. Check your diary entries and see if there is a pattern. If you find something that worries him, try to help him overcome his fears (Go to 'Fear and Anxiety'). If you find yourself scolding your dog for things you do not like him to do at home or even out on walks, try to solve the behaviour problem is a positive way instead using this website. If your dog is worried about other dogs, find a way to help him to be more comfortable around them. Go to 'Problems With Other Dogs'
Even when washed, a dog’s coat can retain the lingering unpleasant odour of decay for some time. To help release the smell from the coat, smother the dirty areas in tomato sauce for a few minutes before bathing. The mild acid from the tomatoes will help breakdown the smell from his fur. Then use an anti-bacterial wash suitable for dogs to clean the affected area before rinsing thoroughly.
If you need further help, please ask your veterinary surgeon to refer you to a behaviourist that he/she recommends, or contact the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors to find an experienced pet behaviourist in your area www.apbc.org.uk
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