By Victoria Schade
Your dog comes running up to you covered in mud. Then you take a closer look—and smell—and realize that mud would be preferable to what’s all over your dog. Yes, your furry best friend has rolled in poop, and it’s everywhere—even trapped in the folds of her collar. It’s not just time for a bath, it’s time for a decontamination.
So why do dogs like to roll in smelly things like animal carcasses and waste? While there’s no concrete evidence that points to a single reason, there are a number of theories as to why dogs anoint themselves with bad odors. It’s suggested that dogs might do it to mask their own scent in a throwback to their hunting ancestry, or as a way to bring the scent home to the rest of the pack to allow others to track back to it. But the most likely reason is that they like the stench. Remember, dogs are fascinated by things that we consider disgusting, like urine on the mailbox post and the nether-regions of other dogs. Much like humans wear scents that we enjoy, like rose or sandalwood, it’s possible that dogs like being associated with the smell of fox poop.
Preventing Poop Rolling Behavior in Dogs
It’s not easy to prevent poop rolling, particularly if you have a large yard or you allow your dog to hike off-leash. Wild animal waste can be well camouflaged, especially rabbit and deer droppings, which tend to be pellet sized and spread out. That said, most dogs have a few obvious “tells” that they exhibit right before they get ready to roll. The first step to preventing poop rolling is recognizing what happens right before it begins, and then short-circuiting the behavior.
Most dogs hone in on the odor before they dive on, so if you notice your dog focusing on a patch of ground with greater than usual intensity, it’s possible that a roll is imminent. Some dogs will even do a pre-roll pose, meaning, they rotate their face to the side and gradually descend down to the pile, almost in slow motion. (Although animal poop can end up anywhere on a dog’s body, most dogs start their roll by putting the side of their face and neck in it, which results in a very messy collar.) Once you see the signs of a potential poop roll, you need to act quickly with a strong “leave it” cue.
“Leave it” means “move away from the item of interest,” and is helpful in a number of everyday situations. If your dog picks up street garbage like chicken bones during your walks, you can ask him to “leave it” before he has a chance to put it in his mouth. If your dog wants to “help” on laundry day by grabbing socks and taking off, you can tell him to “leave it” rather than chasing her down to retrieve the contraband. And when it comes to poop rolling, a well-timed “leave it” will prevent a very messy clean-up.
Teaching Your Dog to 'Leave It'
Before you can use “leave it” to prevent a poop dive, you need to train it in a variety of controlled situations. To begin the process, take a dry treat and present it to your dog at nose level in a closed fist so that he can smell it but can’t get to it. Your dog will likely nose and nibble your fist thinking it’ll make you open your hand, but ignore all interactions until your dog backs away from your hand. (It might take a few minutes the first time.) As soon as he moves away from your hand, say “yes!” or click with a clicker to mark the behavior, and give your dog an extra special treat like chicken or cheese from your other hand. The treat in your fist represents the contraband you want your dog to move away from, so never reward her with it.
When your dog is reliably backing away every time you present your closed fist, you can begin to name the behavior by saying “leave it” right as your dog moves away. It’ll take about 20 repetitions before the phrase is anchored to the behavior and your dog understands what it means. At that point, make it more challenging by placing the dry treat on the floor under your shoe. Your dog will probably go through the same nibble-lick-paw process initially, but the second she backs away, say “yes!” or click and reward your dog from your hand.
Repeat this process a dozen times, rewarding each success and work up to adding the phrase “leave it.” Once your dog is consistently moving away from the treat under your foot, try a few repetitions where you move your foot away from the treat so your dog can see it (but be ready to cover it back up again if your dog makes a dive for it). Reward your dog for the same movement away from the treat. You can also try a few surprise training sessions by dropping something your dog finds intriguing, like a crumpled up paper towel or sock, and asking her to “leave it.” These unexpected sessions help to generalize the behavior.
Finally, take your training outside. Set up a gauntlet of mildly interesting items a few feet apart like toys, used napkins, socks, and food wrappers. (If you’re concerned that your dog might grab the items before you have a chance to cue “leave it,” put her on a leash, and consider revisiting the initial training steps.) Stroll with your dog toward your planted items, and right as your dog starts to zone in on it, say “leave it.” At this point, the cue should have such a strong and positive association that your dog will quickly orient to you in order to get the reward. Don’t forget to praise your dog lavishly.
To finalize the training, envision what a preempted poop roll will look like in your yard or on the trail. More than likely, your dog will be at a distance from you, so practice this critical part of the process by cuing a “leave it” when your dog isn’t right next to you. Praise her when she looks up from the object of interest, then kneel down and encourage her to run to you for a goody. Because rolling in poop is so rewarding, preempting it is a big deal, so give your dog lots of love for a job well done, and try to find a poop-free zone to hang out to avoid further temptation.