You’ve probably run into this situation yourself: you’re out on a beautiful day, enjoying a nice peaceful walk with your dog, when all of a sudden– Fido makes a beeline for some obscure odorous object and starts rolling in it! You can’t help but wonder what in the world your dog is doing, and why he has such an odd impulse.
Why do dogs roll in smelly things? No one knows the answer for sure! There are many theories, however, as to why it happens. We’ll start off with a few of the least plausible theories, and move towards the most plausible. But as of now, no one has nailed down the secret of this phenomenon!
1. Collecting and Sending Information
One theory states that the odors that dogs accumulate from rolling in gross things is that it sends a message to their pack– a theory derived from observing wolves (Pat Goodman, researcher at Wolf Park, Indiana). The theory suggests that wolves roll in smelly things in order to “gather information” to take back to their pack. This way, the pack collects information without having to go to the source themselves. This would make it easier for wolves to collect information about their environment, or to track down dinner.
The problem with this theory is that if it were plausible, the wolves would immediately move to the site of the information to investigate. This has not been observed, deeming the theory not likely.
2. Depositing Scent
Another theory suggests that dogs try to cover the scent of things with their own scent, rather than picking up the scent. This is similar to how dogs will “mark their territory” on something like a tree, or like how dogs deposit their scent on humans by rubbing up against them.
3. Disguising One’s Own Odor
The most plausible theory is that rolling in smelly things is a means to disguise the dog’s own scent. This would cover the dog’s natural odor and keep them safe from dangerous predators, OR to disguise them while hunting prey. The dog’s prey would be frightened by the scent of the dog, but if disguised by a different smell, they would never suspect the predatorial dog sneaking up behind them. It’s easy to forget that dogs are natural predators, but their modern evolution lends them to not needing all of the ancestral traits that they carry.
4. Sensory Stimulation
There is one last theory, and it is the simplest: as vision is humanity’s primary sense, scent is dog’s. Just like people, dogs enjoy sensory stimulation, sometimes to an excessive amount. The need to seek out opportunities for rolling in smelly things is a need to satisfy some need for excessive stimulation.
This theory is wittily developed by Stanley Coren, writer for Psychology Today. This theory is his own, although he claims it has “no scientific merit whatsoever.” The conclusion to his theory, in his own words, is this: “I believe that the real reason that canines roll in obnoxious smelling organic manner is simply an expression of the same misbegotten sense of aesthetics that causes human beings to wear overly loud and colorful Hawaiian shirts.”