Rolling in it

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By Tracie Korol

As much as I advocate for dogs living a dog’s life, I can be as disgusted as a non-dog person when a Best Friend shows up anointed in liquid squirrel, or worse, if there is such a thing. My favorite exquisite boarder, the Spud, is notorious for the zeal he dedicates to finding the nastiest, most putrescent thing on this planet to grind around in every time he visits. He always reappears with a slightly arrogant look of “smell ME!”

In all my years of dog handling I have never been able to move fast enough or yell loud enough to get between a delicious stink and a determined dog. Even dogs on lead in the center of town can and will find a tiny morsel of death upon which to roll.  While I thought living in the wilds of Vermont provided limitless opportunity for gross out, clients tell me A Day at the Beach is much worse. For them. It’s a limitless dream come true for their dogs. Why do they do it? Don’t they understand that after we make the Universal Sound of Dismay (“aarrrnnghh!”), the only recourse is a bath?

One theory suggests that the dog is not trying to pick up odors from the stinking mess it rolls in, but is actually trying to cover that smell with their own scent. It is certainly true that dogs will often roll around on something, like a new toy or a new bed, as if trying to deposit their scent. Some behaviorists suggest that dogs will rub against people to leave a trace of their scent and to mark the individual as a member of the pack, much the way a cat would.

Another theory is that rolling in glom is a sort of calling card. If you watch when they’re rolling in it, they will try to get the smell on their backs, especially between their shoulders or on their necks, but not on their legs or belly. Now watch as another dog approaches. They will come close in a little circle from the front. After some facial and ear movements have occurred and they both acknowledge an approach is safe, the new dog will sniff from the front to the rear end. The applied smell your guy wears overtop his standard “den” aroma identifies him and indicates a certain “rank.” No pun intended.

If you take an inventory of what your dog rolls in you’ll discover they are choosing only to anoint themselves with something organic, such as dung or vintage carrion. Since the wild ancestors of dogs were not only hunters but also scavengers, much of the stuff they rolled in could still possibly be edible. One notion is that once the wild dog rolled in ex-elk and returned to the pack, other members of his group could pick up this scent and know that there was something nearby that could pass for food. One would expect, based on that theory, that pack members would immediately start backtracking toward the site where their pack mate came from. Sounds plausible.

From this behaviorists’ viewpoint, I believe that when dogs were still wild and had to hunt for a living, rolling in a “cloaking” odor was an attempt at disguise. If an antelope smelled the scent of a wild dog nearby, it would likely bolt and run for safety. For this reason wild dogs learned to roll in antelope dung or carrion. Logically, antelopes accustomed to the smell of their own droppings and carrion common on open plains, would be less likely to be frightened or suspicious of a hairy thing coated with that smell rather than the same visitor smelling like a wolf looking for lunch. The wild hunting dog could get much closer to its prey.  In non-hunting, couch-dwelling housedog time, cloaking in something ripe and organic is vastly superior to a dog’s nose than having to carry a smell of artificial bubblegum-scented shampoo.

I have another theory, however, which may hold no scientific merit, whatsoever. Vision is the dominant sense for humans while for dogs it is their sense of smell. Dogs, like people, enjoy sensory stimulation and seek such stimulation, too. Therefore, I believe that the real reason that dogs roll in obnoxious smelling organic manner is an expression of the same misbegotten sense of aesthetics that causes human beings to wear big jewelry and loud Hawaiian shirts.

Note: Given that so far Spuddy has had two baths within 12 hours due his attention to the mystery carcass in the remains of a controlled burn area next door (just imagine..), I ran out of shampoo. Luckily, I found Cedarwood soap (by Bay Front Treasures) at the Pickpocket Plantation farmers market (Saturdays 9-4). Reading the label I discovered it has zero chemicals, gentle saponified oils — the sudsy parts — AND is anti-putrescent. Sold!