Creature Feature: Stink is in the nose of the beholder

29 Jun

Published May 5, 2010, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

My daughter has a beautiful, huge black Labrador-Golden retriever mix. We have kept Ricky several times for her. When we keep Ricky, he likes to play in our large backyard. The trouble is that he quickly gets out of the fenced-in area, goes immediately to the yard next door and rolls in the worst-smelling something you have ever smelled! He goes to the same spot every time. Why would a smart dog get into something that smells worse than anything?

What smells stinky to you may be a scent from heaven to a dog because he’s a creature of smell. Dogs — who have 220 million scent receptors in their noses compared to humans’ mere 5 million — live to sniff and snuffle.

They also love to roll in the objects of their olfactory delight. But why? I asked animal behavior consultant Arden Moore, the author of 19 books on dogs and cats and the founder of, for her thoughts.

“No one really knows why dogs roll in smelly stuff, but there are several theories,” Moore says. “One is that this is an instinctive behavior harkening back to pre-domesticated days when hunting dogs would bring back information about available food to the rest of the packs. The thought was, if they found decaying fish, perhaps fresher fish would be found nearby. Some modern-day dogs may have retained this behavior even though it has lost is once-necessary function.”

Another theory, she says, is that dogs roll in stink to provide a disguise that will improve their hunting opportunities.

“What better way to catch a rabbit, say, than to smell like one, even a dead one, rather than like a dog? This canine camouflage technique also may be employed to hide their doggy scents from other predators.”

While a pet dog doesn’t need to hide from predators or hunt for his dinner, he still retains the instinct and desire to roll in smelly things. Sometimes, fortunately, the object of his stop, drop and wallow behavior isn’t discernible to the human nose. Other times, as you’re well aware, the smell is so bad it’s as if you can see it — a dense, angry miasma of stink.

Unfortunately, no matter what you do, a dog will roll if he feels the need. But you can try to eliminate or make an prime rolling spot unattractive to the dog or restrict his access to it.

If Ricky is getting out of your yard while he’s unsupervised, you may need to consider letting him outside only when you can stay with him. You may also try to create a more effective barrier to the neighbor’s yard.

Another possibility is to enlist your neighbor’s cooperation. You could ask if he will allow you to treat Ricky’s rolling spot with an unappealing scent that will lessen the dog’s attraction to the spot.

“There are some scents that dogs don’t like very well. Among these are citrus smells, such as lemon, lime, and orange, and spicy smells like red pepper,” Stanley Coren says in his book How Dogs Think (Free Press, 2004). “They particularly dislike the smell of citronella, which is why it’s used in sprays to keep dogs away from certain areas.”

Dogs are so put off by the scent of citronella that it’s used in anti-bark collars; each time the dog barks, the collar releases a spritz of citronella. Coren says this deterrent does work, but only briefly. When the dog becomes acclimated to the scent, it’s no longer effective.

But since Ricky won’t be around the citronella scent often enough to get used to it, it could be effective in your situation.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Family section.


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