Dogs rub themselves in animal poo, a behavior seen by many dog owners who ever walked their pets in the park—but a behavior nobody could really understand. After all, why would domesticated dogs, who are equipped with a better sense of smell than humans, ever want to coat themselves in something as pungent as animal poo from other species?
Simon Gadbois, and expert in canid behavior and scent processing from the Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said that this behavior is nearly unbelievable, yet it is one of those puzzling things that humans can barely even begin to understand.
Scroll down for the video
Gadbois previously studied wolves, coyotes, and foxes in Canada and has used domesticated dogs to help track the wild animals. One of his prized dogs was a border collie named Zyla, who, like many others, tend to rub herself in beaver poop while working in the field. Gadbois admitted that the real reason why dogs rub themselves in animal poo has always puzzled him; however, he noted that the”habit” does not affect Zyla’s ability to track and smell other animals.
Dogs were first domesticated about 15,000 years ago, and humans lived with them ever since. While there are shelves upon shelves of research on dog behavior, surprisingly little is known regarding their affinity toward other animals’ excrement, and it seems that they roll in anything, from fox and badger poo to geese droppings and even dead fish. There is no clear explanation as to why dogs rub themselves in animal poo, but a common theory is that it is an “evolutionary hangover” from their days in the wild, possibly connected to wolves, which hide their scent from prey by rolling in animal poo.
While it’s true that wolves will roll in the animal poo as well as in the carcasses of dead animals, one of the studies regarding the unusual behavior showed some interesting results.
Why Dogs Rub Themselves in Animal Poo
Biologists studied scent-rubbing in captive wolves in Canada by providing them with different odors. It came as a surprise that the wolves were least interested in rubbing themselves in animal poo of herbivores like sheep and horses, while they favored the scents of artificial odors such as perfume and motor oil.
These animals, which are seeking to disguise their scent from their prey, are somewhat interesting in the sense that they would rather smell of something alien to their natural environment. However, despite their proclivity to them, researchers also found that the wolves like the scent of carnivore feces like that of cougars and black bears.
Pat Goodmann, a senior animal curator at the Wolf Park in Indiana, noted that she doubted the scent of rolling in feces could help a lot in hunting. However, considering that the wolves are willing to roll in the scent of alien canids and domestic cats, she said that there is a strong possibility that the wolves may also roll in predator scent, although it won’t be very helpful as a form of hunting disguise. As Goodmann noted, while wolves occasionally hunt by ambush, they usually chase their prey down, which rarely requires them to be stealthy.
Dogs smothering themselves with strong scents could have a different purpose. Rather than hiding from their prey, it could be to camouflage smaller canines from other predators. This theory, stipulated by Samantha Harrison, was also supported by a research by Max Allen that was published in September 2016. Allen, an ecologist from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, captured unusual behavior of grey foxes on remote cameras that he set up around the Santa Cruz area in California. Here, he found that the normally reclusive species usually visit sites that male mountain lions use for scent marking and rub themselves on the ground marked by strong-smelling mountain lion urine.
This led him to believe that the foxes were using the odor left by these predators as a form of camouflage, as a way to hide themselves from other large predators such as the coyotes.
Coyotes are a lot bigger in size than grey foxes; however, they still want to eliminate the smaller species to protect competition for resources. Foxes, in their part, cannot fight back, so they use puma scents to get some form of protection, as a way to help them escape.
While the idea is interesting, it still does not explain why larger dogs rub themselves in animal poo or with the scent left by other predators. Stephen Harris of the University of Bristol in the UK believes that animals are actually trying to deposit their own scent instead of picking others up.
Foxes, in particular, use their saliva as scent, and they have glands in the region of their lips that are known as the circumoral glands. While scientists are still puzzled about their functions, foxes are often seen rubbing the sides of their mouths and necks on different objects, which they seem to do in response to strong odors. According to Harris, the unusual smells seem to stimulate them.
Other people believe that dogs try to cover scents of others with their own to let “invader” dogs understand that they are ready to protect their territory. Pet dogs, however, are rarely content with just rubbing their face and necks in smelly animal poo, so they tend to smear it right across their bodies.
Goodmann has an explanation for the behaviors: it may be a way for wolves to carry information for their pack regarding their whereabouts. Erich Klinghammer, Goodmann’s late colleague and founder of Wolf Park, proposed that scent rolling may be way to tell other wolves regarding the treats they found while they were out on their own.
Still, there are other theories regarding their desire to roll in pungent odors. Gadbois believes that wolves may be establishing their own group odors. “It could be that this is about establishing a group odor,” Gadbois said. “In the wolves I studied, if one started rubbing in something like a deer carcass, the whole pack would follow and rub in it. I’ve seen this in coyotes and foxes in the wild too. It seems to become the odor you share with all the others in the group.”
Sharing odors can also increase the sense of togetherness for African wild dogs. Females are seen rolling in the urine of males that they are looking to join. In the same way, dogs in a pack tend to regularly rub against each other to pick up each other’s scents.
Others also think that dogs may use pungent odors in the same way that humans use perfume. This theory by Robert Reppy and Krystal Parks is also put forward by animal behavior specialist Michael Fox in his book titled Dog Body, Dog Mind: Exploring Your Dog’s Consciousness and Total Well-Being. Here, he suggested that a squirt of perfume may discourage dogs from seeking other repellent odors.
Dog psychologist Stanley Coren, on the other hand, believes that it could be an attempt to obtain some sort of extreme sensation, comparing it to humans who wear loud and colorful Hawaiian shirts.
The simplest explanation: dogs simply get a kick out of rolling in animal poo, and anyone who has ever watched their dog’s gleeful expressions after doing so may come to the same conclusion.
Muriel Brasseur of the Oxfordshire Animal Behaviour Centre said, “I suspect they get a great big rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward and pleasure. If it is a behavior from their evolutionary past that was linked to survival, it could be reinforced by being extremely good fun.”
Thus, the dog’s desire to rub themselves in bad smells could be some sort of relic from their ancestors long ago. Gadbois said, “It may have had a very important function at some point a long time ago. Over time that function has vanished, but they still do it. It brings us back to the fact that we really have no idea. Odor is such an important part of their world and we really don’t understand it.”
While none of these theories on why dogs rub themselves in animal poo can put pet owners to rest, especially if their dogs rub themselves in animal poo and with dog shampoo doing little to remove the stench. However, there are some fixes, for instance using tomato ketchup in the offending area, then washing it off.
Otherwise, just let your pooches roll in animal poo, it’s like humans gave them the affinity to do so by giving them a similar name to the pungent little balls of wastes, after all.