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Why Do Dogs Roll?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz September, 29 2021

Anyone who has spent time around dogs can tell you that they love to roll. Whether it is for belly rubs or because they found something stinky in the grass, rolling is part of many dogs’ daily routines. As dog parents it may be difficult to understand why dogs seek out stinky things to roll in, and we may wish to prevent this behavior. This article will explore what drives dogs to roll, whether rolling can be a sign of a health problem, and how to alter this behavior if you choose.

Why Do Dogs Roll?

There are a number of reasons why your dog might roll. The reasons can be attributed to the following categories:

  • Communication

Dogs may roll over to communicate with other dogs or people. Rolling over and exposing their bellies may indicate submission, that they want to play, or that they trust you.

  • Pleasure

Rolling around on the ground likely feels good to our dogs. It can help relieve a sore back or help scratch hard to reach areas.

  • To pick up or leave scent

Dogs may find interesting scents in their environment and may wish to cover themselves in those scents for a number of reasons. Dogs may also roll or rub themselves on the ground or objects to leave their scent behind.

Why Do Dogs Roll Around In Grass?

If you are outside playing with your dog and they stop to roll around in grass, then it could be due to excitement. Another reason that dogs may roll in the grass is simply because it feels good! Rolling is a great way for dogs to scratch those hard-to-reach areas along their back. Dogs may also roll in the grass to leave their scent behind. Many carnivores will scent mark throughout their territory to communicate. They do so by rubbing glandular regions of their cheek, shoulder, and side against objects or the ground (Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio, and Macdonald, 1998).

A source of frustration for many dog parents is that their dog will jump at the opportunity to roll around in grass right after a bath. This could be due to the scent of the shampoo used. Many shampoos contain scents that smell wonderful to us, but unappealing to our dogs. After a bath, dogs may roll around outside to try to get rid of the smell, or to replace it with a smell that they find more attractive.

What Are Some Other Reasons That Cause Dogs To Roll?

When dogs are happy and comfortable, they may roll around on the ground to help burn off some of their built-up energy. Some dogs may even roll on top of their toys. When dogs are playing with one another, it has been shown that rolling over may be a beneficial defensive and offensive move. First, rolling over during play fighting may help dogs avoid bites to their sensitive necks. Second, rolling during play may help the dog launch a play attack on their playmate (Norman et al., 2015). In other cases, dogs may use rolling over to facilitate play with their friends, similar to how dogs will play bow when they want to play with someone (Bekoff, 1974). Dogs may also communicate submission or appeasement by rolling over and exposing their bellies (Packard, 2003). This shows others that they are non-threatening and mean no harm. Submissive rolling over may be accompanied by other postures such as flattening their ears, averting their gaze, and tucking their tail (Schnekel, 1967).

Why Do Dogs Roll In Smelly Things?

Dogs may also roll around in grass because they found a spot with an interesting smell. A lot of times these smells come from other animals’ feces or dead animals. Dogs evolved from wolves, and it is believed that these carnivores might roll in vegetation to mask their smell, making them less detectable to their prey when they are hunting. This may also help protect them from being detected by other predators. Other experts believe that wolves, and likely dogs too, roll in scents they find to bring back information to the rest of the pack, such as information on a fresh kill or the scent of prey animals that are present in the area. While humans rely on mostly visual and auditory cues to communicate (e.g., cell phones and television), dogs rely heavily on scent for their communication. Since dogs and their ancestors are scavengers, they are evolutionarily drawn to smells like rotting carcasses. Stinky poop likely falls within this scent range that dogs are attracted to. Some believe that by rolling in cow or horse manure, canines may make themselves smell more like a grazing animal, making them less threatening to prey (Jenkins, 2007). Another theory is that groups of dogs are motivated to smell similar to one another and will roll in the same scent to promote group cohesion. Researchers have divided scents that trigger scent rubbing/rolling in carnivores into five categories:

  1. Food (e.g., meat, carrion, vomit, etc.)
  2. Chemicals (e.g., benzine, cigarettes, insecticides, etc.)
  3. Cat mint (plant that contains the chemical nepetalactone that trigger strong reactions in felines)
  4. Urine and feces
  5. Scent markings from other individuals

Do Other Animals Roll In Poop?

You may find it comforting to know that dogs are not alone with this smelly habit. Scent rolling has been observed or studied in a wide array of carnivore species (Reiger, 1979). This incudes coyotes, jackals, wolves, African wild dogs, foxes, bears, coatis, wolverines, pine martens, mongooses, hyenas, leopards, lynx, pumas, and panthers. The frequency of scent rolling performed varies between species, as does which body areas they prefer to rub (Reiger, 1979). Some carnivores selectively scent rub using a few body areas, while others, similar to dogs when they roll, may scent rub using their whole bodies.

How To Prevent Dogs From Rolling In Poop

In some cases, we may wish to prevent our dogs from rolling, especially if they are drawn to extra stinky locations such as poop or dead animals. Rolling, especially if it is done in cat poop, may potentially expose humans to pathogens such as Toxoplasma when we come into contact with our dogs (Frenkel et al., 2003).

In most instances however, it is important to realize that rolling is a completely natural behavior that is driven by instinct. Therefore, we should never use punishment to stop this behavior. Instead, if we anticipate that our dog is about to roll in something stinky, we can redirect the behavior by using treats or an exciting toy to help them change their mind. Some lawns or gardens may be treated with fertilizers or pesticides that can be irritating to our dog’s skin so we may need to use distractions to prevent them from rolling in these areas. If your dog is left out in the yard, make sure the yard remains clear of poop or dead animals to help keep your dog smelling their best. Furthermore, if your dog rolls immediately after a bath, consider using unscented shampoo to see if it makes a difference.

Could Excessive Rolling Be A Sign Of A Health Or Behavioral Issue?

Most of the time, rolling is a harmless natural behavior that dogs perform. However, there are a few health issues that could cause rolling behavior in dogs.

  • Ticks

Ticks on your dog’s skin may cause irritation, triggering them to roll to try to remove the pests from their body. If you find ticks on your dog, make sure you carefully remove them and clean the bite area. Make sure your dog is on a preventative to prevent future bites (Ferrolho et al., 2017).

  • Fleas

When fleas bite our dogs, a small amount of their saliva is injected into their skin. This can cause an itchy response in some dogs (Scheidt, 1988). Dogs may roll to try to relieve the itchiness caused by fleas. If you suspect your dog has fleas, talk to your vet to determine a treatment plan, and make sure your dog is on a preventative.

  • Allergies

Both seasonal allergies and food sensitivities can cause dogs to experience atopic dermatitis (Chesney, 2002). This uncomfortable skin sensation can lead to increased licking, scratching, and rolling behaviors. Working with a vet can help your dog find relief from these symptoms.

  • Fungal infections

Fungal infections, such as a yeast infection, can also make your dog feel itchy and may cause them to rub or roll to try to find relief.

Just as with any other behavior, rolling that is performed abnormally frequent or at a high intensity may be classified as an obsessive behavior. Working with a certified behaviorist could help curb this abnormal behavior and may help provide your dog with healthier coping mechanisms.

Conclusion

Rolling is usually a harmless way dogs use to communicate and interact with their world. The behavior seems to be instinctual and passed down from their wolf ancestor. However, in some rare cases, rolling may be a warning sign of a health issue that requires treatment from your veterinarian.

Enjoying a fun rolling session

Works Cited

Bekoff, Marc. "Social play in coyotes, wolves, and dogs." Bioscience 24, no. 4 (1974): 225-230.

Chesney, C. J. "Food sensitivity in the dog: a quantitative study." Journal of Small Animal Practice 43, no. 5 (2002): 203-207.

Ferrolho, Joana, Gustavo S. Sanches, Joana Couto, Sandra Antunes, and Ana Domingos. "What Makes Your Dog Itch? Maybe It Is the Kennel Tick!." Frontiers for young minds (2017).

Frenkel, Jacob Karl, David S. Lindsay, Brent B. Parker, and Mike Dobesh. "Dogs as possible mechanical carriers of Toxoplasma, and their fur as a source of infection of young children." International Journal of Infectious Diseases 7, no. 4 (2003): 292-293.

Jenkins, Steve. Dogs and cats. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. 

Norman, Kerri, Sergio Pellis, Louise Barrett, and S. Peter Henzi. "Down but not out: Supine postures as facilitators of play in domestic dogs." Behavioural processes 110 (2015): 88-95.

Packard, Jane M. "2. Wolf Behavior: Reproductive, Social, and Intelligent." In Wolves, pp. 35-65. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Reiger, Ingo. "Scent rubbing in carnivores." Carnivore 2, no. 1 (1979): 17-25.

Scheidt, Vicki Jo. "Flea allergy dermatitis." Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 18, no. 5 (1988): 1023-1042.

Schenkel, Rudolf. "Submission: its features and function in the wolf and dog." American Zoologist 7, no. 2 (1967): 319-329.

Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio, and David W. Macdonald. "Scent-marking and territorial behaviour of Ethiopian wolves Canis simensis." Journal of Zoology 245, no. 3 (1998): 351-361.