By Jeff Stallings
Today we marked a milestone with our 21 month-old mongrel Otis, though one we hope to not repeat any time soon.
On our weekly hike at one of the more challenging off-leash trails in Marin County, the Lucas Valley Open Space Preserve, Otis reappeared after a quick detour up the incredibly steep hill, covered in a smell most foul. For the first time ever, Otis had rolled in some sort of crap, the origins of which were unclear. Coyote shit? Mountain lion scat? God forbid, that of the human variety? Regardless, when she reappeared happy as a pig in shit, to us she had suddenly reverted from awesomely well-trained canine companion to icky-smelling beast most foul.
After washing her off in a muddy puddle as best we could (the lesser of two evils at the time), I recounted to Jim how my very first dog Trixie had had a habit of digging up putrid fish heads and entrails from the backyard of the old fisherman who lived behind us. My mother had finally relented and got Trixie for me after a (child’s) lifetime of nagging, and everyone in the family had fallen in love with her. But … after a roll in rancid, rotting fish parts, I was always duly reminded that Trixie was my dog, and so we trotted off to the bathtub, my nose held shut, hers down in anticipation of a bath that could never, ever come close to measuring up to the joys of wallowing in death and decay.
So why do dogs do this? One theory is that dogs (and their genetic near-twins, wolves) roll in the rotting remains of dead animals to get the attention of their pack so that they can all return to feast thereon. Another is that dogs are not so much trying to pick up the rank scent as to deposit their own in the pile of whatever-it-is.
But the explanation that makes the most evolutionary and adaptive sense is that this ritual is an attempt at disguising the dog’s own scent, a leftover behavior from when our domestic dogs were still wild and hunted for a living. If, for instance, an antelope smelled the scent of a wild dog, jackal or wolf, it would likely bolt and run for safety. But prey animals are quite used to the smell of their own droppings, so canines learned to roll in antelope dung or carrion to mask their scent and thereby increase the likelihood of a successful hunt.
Of course knowing that did not make the odiferous drive home more enjoyable. But it kept me from getting upset at Otis for doing something that could not be more deeply rooted in the genes driving her behavior. It is always counter-productive to show anger towards your dog, so if yours rolls in something ripe and smelly, calmly take her home and give her a bath, then vow to watch her more closely next time to avoid a rancid repeat performance.