Short answer: nobody knows why dogs roll in dead animals. Like the other mysteries of the canine world, plenty of theories abound, the most popular ones being:
- Scent-masking: a behavior from wolf ancestry, dating back to when wolves rolled in dead animals to hide their scent while hunting
- Scent-marking: a method of claiming tasty carrion for themselves and warning competitors away
- Scent-sharing: a way to share the location of something dead with fellow canines by carrying the smell with them
- Canine cologne: an expression of appreciation for something that just smells good
The role of scent
It’s almost a dance: your dog rushes to a dead squirrel and flips over, wiggling in the grass or dirt with carefree abandon. They kick their legs in the air, tail wagging as they squirm. And, more crucially, they make sure to coat their face and neck in the remnants of squirrel juice.
Even if the spot looks empty, you can rest assured that it definitely housed something. It may not be roadkill, but it’s almost certainly something gross. Dogs concentrate on gathering the smells on their faces and necks as a method of communicating with other dogs, who naturally sniff along the head and shoulders in greeting.
Dogs and wolves communicate in similar ways, leading to the theory that, like wolves, dogs roll in dead animals to disguise their scent as they stalk their prey. That their food primarily gets served in a bowl matters very little to their instincts! However, behaviorist Patricia McConnell is skeptical, mostly due to the acuity of prey species’ senses. If a prey animal can detect the scent of a predator approaching, it can certainly recognize it even with a less offensive odor layered on top.
Scent-marking is common behavior among most mammals. Both male and female dogs use urine, feces, and ground scratching to delineate property lines between each other. They also use scent-marking to relocate food or maintain possession. However, dogs don’t appear to roll in things to scent-mark, which rules this theory out.
Pat Goodman, the curator of Wolf Park in Indiana, studied scent rolling as a form of information sharing in wolf packs. Wolves gather the scent along their faces and necks–same as dogs–and, when returning to their pack, are greeted by their packmates, who investigate the new smell and follow it back to its origin.
The least scientific but perhaps most powerful theory behind your dog’s affinity for dead animals is that it’s just super fun, at least for them. Rolling around may trigger a rush of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure and reward signals. The behavior may have its roots in all sorts of evolutionary reasons, but it persists in our pets because it feels good.
Natural or not, certain smells belong outside, and definitely not smeared along your sheets. How should you discourage your dog from rolling in dead animals?
Unfortunately, it’s a tough habit to break. The key is management.
- Pro-active deterrence: learn to recognize when your dog is about to drop down and roll. One common indicator is intense sniffing in the same spot.
- Training: train a strong name recall and leave it cue to bring your dog back
- Distraction: keep your dog’s attention on you using treats, toys, noise, etc. while you move past the area
- Avoidance: steer clear of areas where dead animals are commonplace