Dogs sometimes roll in the dirt, it’s a very natural behavior. But why do they feel this need to bathe themselves in filth?
There are several theories about why dogs roll in the dirt. The most common explanation is that dogs simply like the smell. Other theories are a leftover instinct from their ancestors, information sharing with their pack, marking the spot, and lastly simply liking the rolling sensation or scratching an itch.
However, if you find yourself bathing your dog on a weekly basis you might want to draw a line. Are there any risks to letting your dog have its fun? And how do you prevent your dog from acquiring a new interesting smell or muddy coat?
Even though there are a few theories on the why of the behavior, experts have not yet settled on a general opinion. The most likely explanation is that dogs love the smell. Humans and dogs are two very different species. So when we think about nice smells we picture soaps, flowers, and freshly baked cakes. Our canine companions on the other hand will gladly stick their nose down the trashcan or find the smelliest item in the laundry basket. When they encounter a smelly spot outside they want to smell like it and therefore roll in it. The grosser to us, the better to them.
Another much-heard theory is the assumption that dogs try to mask their smell for hunting. It is believed by some that the wolf our modern-day dogs have descended from, would cover their smell for hunting. The prey would not be able to smell the predator, thus bringing more success during the hunt. However, some disagree with this theory. Prey animals have very well-developed ears and eyes and are often visibly oriënted. If the camouflaging of their smell would make much difference can be argued about.
That dogs roll in dirt could also be explained as a way to bring information to their pack. If the dog has picked up an interesting smell it rolls in it. When returning to the group, the pack members are believed to be able to not only smell the origin of the particular smell but also identify the place where the information was gathered.
Yet some believe it to be the other way around. They think that the dog is marking the spot or the item by rubbing its smell off on the ground or the object. This theory doesn’t get much support though as all dogs mark by peeing.
Though it could be that the real answer is just as simple as the theory we started with: dogs just love the way it feels when rubbing their backs in the dirt. They might even just be trying to scratch an itch.
Are There Risks?
Everyone will have a different opinion about letting dogs roll around in dirt. Some may be completely against it because they do not want to deal with a dirty dog, some may allow it sporadically and others just love watching their dogs enjoy themselves. Yet there is a factor that will help everyone decide if they will allow their dog to rub their backs on the ground to their heart’s content: safety.
So are there risks to allowing this behavior to happen?
The short answer is yes. Ticks and fleas are often caught outside, where they hide in the environment. While the risk of catching fleas and ticks is always present, the risk is increased when your dog is on its back, rubbing its fur all over, for a long time. Fleas may jump on, but there is also the risk of simply getting flea eggs into the fur. That doesn’t mean that you immediately have to stop your dog if you are ok with it rolling in the dirt. There are plenty of tick and flea repellents for dogs. However, when choosing between these products be sure to check if they have indeed been proven to be safe.
Completely stopping a natural behavior from happening can be very tough, especially when it has already become a habit. If you want to take a humane approach to dog training then preventing the behavior is a good way to go. Training a reliable recall will help you with this. Pay attention to your environment and where your dog is going, and if you suspect it might go for it you recall your dog. However, in some cases, it’s better to just keep your dog on a leash and steer clear from potential rolling spots. When your dog’s recall isn’t optimal for example, or if for some reason you’re not able to bathe your dog afterward if it does accidentally happen.
At the end of the day rolling in dirt is a behavior that comes naturally to a lot of dogs. No matter if they just like the smell, fulfill their instincts, or love the feeling.
Though it is understandable that not every dog owner enjoys their pet’s habit. When having to bathe your dog often, it may be better to get a little control over the behavior either by training a great recall or keeping your dog on a leash.
And for the risks of this behavior? Make sure to give your pet a safe form of flea and tick prevention and you’re good to go. With the knowledge that your pet is safe, it’s much easier to enjoy the sight of a happy and content dog.
Hi! My name is Joan. I’m 25 years old, and I live in The Netherlands. I work in healthcare and study applied psychology. Besides this, I am helping my dog Chester recover from a bad start in life.