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Rolling in Stink: A Dog’s Eau de Toilette

By Kim Everson, DVM

For the past two weeks, the local farmers have been “fertilizing” their fields around our home. What that actually means is they have been spreading an intensely malodorous layer of manure over every bare patch of earth on my block. Now, I’m not the type of person who moves to the country then complains about the things that happen in the country. Still I won’t miss the loud caravan of poopy trucks rumbling past the house when this task is completed. Nor will I miss the unrelenting stench or the hoards of flies.

Not everyone in the neighborhood considers the recent activity a nuisance, however. Some of my canine acquaintances, for example, find the manure quite a treat! My sister-in-law neighbor sent me a picture of her dog Ruger covered in brown stink and posed a frequently asked question: “Why do dogs roll in stink?”


I always chalked it up to an inexplicable species difference. We humans like to spritz on a little Old Spice or Chanel No. 5 before a night out. Our dogs enjoy sprucing up with a little dead skunk or cow feces. To each his own!

If you’ve ever watched your dog grind her shoulder into a particular spot in the grass, wriggling joyfully in aromatic unmentionables, you would think it is purely a strange preference for disgusting odors that prompts the behavior. There actually may be more to it than that. In this scenario, our dogs may be acting like their wolf ancestors!

Much of our understanding of dog behavior stems from the fact that dogs descended from wolves. While dogs and wolves are biologically very similar, dogs are not simply tame wolves. Dog behavior and wolf behavior is often drastically different.

That being said, sometimes dogs do appear to act from deeply ingrained wolfy instincts. Rolling in stink may be one such example. Biologist L. David Mech has documented a logical explanation for this apparently disgusting behavior. Mech witnessed a lone wolf eat part of a carcass then roll around in it, making herself as pungent and filthy as Ruger in the picture above. She then hiked back to her pack. Upon her return the other adult wolves sniffed her all over and easily followed the scent trail back to the meal.

Knowing that Ruger’s stinky fur may be evidence of his loyalty probably does not make up for the fact that he needs another bath. But it is an interesting explanation for a common problem. Dogs have done an amazing job of fitting into our homes and hearts, but sometimes we forget they are still animals with animal instincts. To us a decomposing rabbit is an icky mess in the backyard. To your scavenging dog, it is a suitable and–(lucky you) sharable–meal. Why dogs might consider cow poop a treasure worth eating or sharing, however, is a topic for another time!

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